The World Shakes China

The World Shakes China

Mini Teaser: China has yet to shake the world; its external influence has been comparatively inconsequential since the industrial revolution. Instead, it is the world that has shaken China.

by Author(s): Bruce Cumings

"One might trace the history of the limits, of those obscure actions,
necessarily forgotten as soon as they are performed, whereby a
civilization casts aside something it regards as alien. Throughout
its history, this moat which it digs around itself, this no man's
land by which it preserves its isolation, is just as characteristic
as its positive values."
--Michel Foucault

In the recent Italian film Il Postino, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda
teaches an uneducated mailman first the word and then the art of
metafor. The mailman is a quick study, and soon he is asking Neruda
an intriguing question: "Is the world perhaps a metaphor for
something else?" Neruda pauses and then says that he will have to
think about this question. But he never gives the postman his answer.

China has not been a nation for Americans, but a metaphor. To say
"China" is instantly to call up a string of metaphors giving us the
history of Sino-American relations, and fifty years of "China
watching" by our politicians, pundits, and academics: unchanging
China, cyclical China, the inscrutable Forbidden City, boxes within
boxes, the open door, sick man of Asia, the good earth, agrarian
reformers, China shakes the world, who lost China, containment or
liberation, brainwashing, Quemoy and Matsu, the little red book,
ping-pong diplomacy, the week that changed the world, the China card,
the gang of four, the four modernizations, China as insatiable
market, Tiananmen, butchers of Beijing, China shakes the world
(again), cycles of rise and decline (again), unchanging China (yet
again). Beyond all that, our pundits and experts remain captured by a
master metaphor: that of China's unfathomable-in-a-lifetime vastness,
its historical depth and profundity, and (therefore) its overriding
importance to the world we live in.

The accompaniment to this operatic "China" din is a cacophony of
expert opinion offering "scenarios" for where China is going, and
what we must (by all means) do about it. Pick up almost any journal
or magazine of expert opinion and you will read that China is
disintegrating, or that it is united and stable; that Sino-American
relations are frayed to the breaking point, or that they are just
over yet another nettlesome hump; that fearsome China must be
"contained", or that outward-opening China must be "engaged"; that
its military is growing ominously, or that it is underfunded and
fitted out with obsolescent weaponry; that its commerce is
drastically overheated and facing crisis, or that it is in great
shape; that China may attack Taiwan, or that Taiwan may soon be
China's biggest foreign investor; that China may take over the
Spratly Islands, or that it will not because it cannot; that China
will subjugate Hong Kong after it is no longer a British colony in
1997, or that Hong Kong has been colonizing China for years; that a
budding civil society was crushed at Tiananmen, or that the
protesters themselves did not know what they were doing, or wanted;
that post-Deng China will dissolve into chaos, or that a new
leadership will pluralize China's politics. Atavistic China seems to
be lying in wait for the next trough in history's recurring cycle--or
not, as the case may be.

Contrast all this with George F. Kennan's sober remark back in the
1940s, around the time that Mao mounted the Gate of Heavenly Peace
(i.e., Tiananmen) to found the People's Republic: "China doesn't
matter very much. It's not very important. It's never going to be
powerful." China had no integrated industrial base, which Kennan
thought basic to any serious capacity for warfare, merely an
industrial fringe stitched along its coasts by the imperial powers;
thus China should not be included in the containment strategy. Japan
did have such a base, and was therefore the key to postwar American
policy in East Asia.

Such clear-eyed thinking, informed by a shrewd realpolitik, is a
better place to start than with the chorus of alarms and diversions
always surrounding the China issue. If we can think realistically
about where China has been, maybe we can make better judgments about
where it is going. That begins with recognition that China has yet to
shake the world; its external influence has been comparatively
inconsequential since the industrial revolution. Instead, it is the
world that has shaken China.

Castle and Moat

Foucault's metaphor gives us culture as a feudal castle protected by
a moat of ingrained practices, habitual choices, and unconscious
rejections through which the heterodox and the alien are kept at bay
or subdued. It might be taken as a restatement of the reigning
metaphor for Chinese civilization: dignified, aloof, self-contained,
content with itself, always ready to reject the barbarian--or, if it
must succumb temporarily, to dissolve the foreigner in the absorbent
sea of Chinese custom and practice. For centuries this fate awaited
the Mongols, the Manchus, and according to many accounts, the

The Chinese "castle", however, was an empire encompassing for its
occupants the known universe, and its "moat" delimited civilization
itself. Two hundred years ago King George III of England sent a
mission to the Chinese court, asking for the opening of trade
relations. The Qianlong Emperor replied:

"Swaying the four seas, I have but one goal, which is to establish
perfect governance; strange jewels and precious objects do not
interest me . . . the virtue and prestige of the celestial dynasty
have spread far and wide, the kings of the myriad nations come by
land and sea with all sorts of precious things. Consequently there is
nothing we lack..."

Alas, there was all too much that China "lacked." Modern history
began for China when the British banged on its door and when, in C.P.
Fitzgerald's perfect metaphor, "to the amazement of all, within and
without, the great structure . . . suddenly collapsed, leaving the
surprised Europeans still holding the door handle."

A structure that could hold together the entirety of China was not
put together again until the country had experienced a century and a
half of debilitation, rebellion, central collapse, and
disintegration, followed by false starts, blind alleys, civil and
international wars, and an immense social revolution. When Mao
announced atop Tiananmen in 1949 that "China has stood up", he
stirred the hearts of Chinese everywhere, for at least China was
again unitary, the humiliation had stopped, and the foreigner had
been expelled. But, that done, China again pulled up the ramparts and
closed itself off against the Western challenge, only to fall behind
once more. It adopted the modern world's only significant alternative
to industrial capitalism, namely communism, and imagined that in so
doing it was leaping ahead of the decadent West--only to fall behind.
In the 1960s it closed itself off from both the Soviets and the West
in the name of "self-reliance", and fell even further behind. The
only untried strategy was to join up with the West, as Japan had done
after 1868; which meant falling in well behind Japan, a former

In the 1980s Chinese intellectuals were able for the first time in
decades to travel to the West and to appreciate the wealth, power,
and civic order of societies long caricatured as capitalist
nightmares; meanwhile the very leaders who had penned the caricatures
were now looking to the West for a way out of China's developmental
impasse. Thus even the one remaining achievement of the Chinese
revolution, the re-establishment of national dignity and pride,
seemed a mere illusion. "No foreigner can understand the depth of our
pain", a respected intellectual told a visiting American.

In all these encounters, spanning two centuries, we can appreciate
the alpha and the omega of China's relationship to the modern world.
Standing at the center of the only world it knew, supremely
self-confident of the inherent superiority of its own civilization,
China has still not overcome the humiliation of encountering a West
that prevailed against all Chinese stratagems. It was not for want of

Three Strategies

The 1950s produced some classic metaphors for Sino-American relations
but no contact, other than the bloody Korean War, which made mutual
accommodation impossible for a generation. Before that war, Harry
Truman's secretary of state, Dean Acheson, attempted to construct a
different policy, one that Richard Nixon--Acheson's antagonist in the
1950s--was to fulfill only in the 1970s.

That policy was to recognize communist China, as a means of weaning
it away from Moscow and bringing it into the world economy, thus
rendering it dependent on the West. Acheson, like George Kennan,
thought that Moscow could not really do much to rehabilitate and
industrialize China; sooner or later it would have to turn to the
West for help. An Anglophile and an internationalist, Acheson wanted
to work with Britain to keep China open, in the hope that this would
divide Beijing and Moscow, and ultimately scatter China's insurgent
impulses in the solvent of free trade. The way to do that was to try
to stay on the good side of Chinese anti-imperial nationalism, and
hope to enmesh China in the world economy. The direct confrontation
of the United States and China in the Korean War killed that hope for
two decades. It also committed the United States to maintaining the
separation of Taiwan from the mainland, a separation that continues
to this day.

Essay Types: Essay