Can China Rise Peacefully?

Can China Rise Peacefully?

If the China continues growing rapidly, the US will once again face a potential peer competitor, and great-power politics will return in full force.

One of the main causes of hypernationalism is intense security competition, which tends to cause people in the relevant nation-states to demonize each other. Sometimes leaders use hypernationalism as part of a threat-inflation strategy designed to make their publics aware of a danger they might otherwise not fully appreciate. In other cases, hypernationalism bubbles up from below, mainly because the basic nastiness that accompanies security competition often causes the average citizen in one nation-state to despise almost everything about the rival nation-state. A major crisis can readily add fuel to the fire.

Contemporary China is ripe for hypernationalism. In the years between Mao’s decisive victory over the Kuomintang in 1949 and his death in 1976, communism and nationalism were powerful forces that worked hand in hand to shape almost every aspect of daily life in China. However, after Mao’s passing, and certainly after the military crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989, communism lost much of its legitimacy with the Chinese public. In response, China’s leaders have come to rely much more heavily on nationalism to maintain public support for the regime.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that nationalism is merely propaganda purveyed by the leadership for the purpose of sustaining the public’s allegiance to the state. In fact, many Chinese citizens passionately embrace nationalist ideas of their own volition. “The 1990s,” as Peter Gries notes, “witnessed the emergence of a genuinely popular nationalism in China that should not be conflated with state or official nationalism.” What makes nationalism in contemporary China such a potent force is that it is both a top-down and a bottom-up phenomenon.

Not only has nationalism become a stronger force in China in recent years, its content has also changed in important ways. During Mao’s rule, it emphasized the strengths of the Chinese people in the face of great adversity. They were portrayed as heroic fighters who had stood up to and ultimately defeated imperial Japan. Gries explains, “This ‘heroic’ or ‘victor’ national narrative first served the requirements of Communist revolutionaries seeking to mobilize popular support in the 1930s and 1940s, and later served the nation-building goals of the People’s Republic in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. . . . New China needed heroes.”

That proud narrative, however, has largely been abandoned over the past twenty-five years, replaced by one that represents China as a victim of aggression by the world’s other great powers. In particular, great emphasis is placed on what the Chinese refer to as their “century of national humiliation,” which runs from the First Opium War (1839–42) until the end of World War II in 1945. China is depicted during that period as a weak but noble country that was preyed upon by rapacious great powers and suffered deeply as a consequence. Among the foreign devils are Japan and the United States, which are said to have taken advantage of China at almost every turn.

The theme of China as a helpless victim is not the only strand of Chinese nationalist thought. There are a number of positive stories as well. For example, Chinese of all persuasions take great pride in emphasizing the superiority of Confucian culture. Nevertheless, pride of place in Chinese present-day nationalist thought belongs to narratives that emphasize the “century of nationalist humiliation,” which, as Gries notes, “frame the ways that Chinese interact with the West today.” Indeed, “for China’s military, avenging humiliation remains a key goal.”

We have already seen evidence of how China’s lingering anger and resentment toward Japan and the United States can exacerbate a crisis and seriously damage relations between them. The accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo war was seen by most Chinese as just another example of a powerful country taking advantage of and humiliating China. It generated large protests and outrage against the United States in China. The Chinese reacted similarly in 2001, when an American spy plane collided with and downed a Chinese military aircraft over the South China Sea. And skirmishing between China and Japan over ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in 2012–13 ignited a firestorm of anti-Japanese protests across China, some of which were violent.

The intensified security competition that lies ahead will only increase China’s hostility toward Japan and the United States, and it is likely to turn into an acute case of hypernationalism. Of course, this development will, in turn, further intensify the security competition and heighten the possibility of war. In essence, ideology will matter in Asia in the future just as it mattered during the Cold War. But the content will be different, as hypernationalism in China, and possibly other Asian countries as well, will replace the dispute between communism and liberal capitalism. That said, the main driving force behind Sino-American relations in the decades ahead will be realist logic, not ideology.


There are various counterarguments to my claim that China cannot rise peacefully. Indeed, one frequently hears two optimistic stories about the future relationship between China and the United States. The first is based on a cultural theory. Proponents claim that China’s Confucian culture will allow a rapidly growing China to avoid an intense security competition with its neighbors as well as with the United States. The other argument is based on the familiar liberal theory of economic interdependence. Specifically, conflict is said to be unlikely because the major countries in Asia—as well as the United States—are economically intertwined, which means that if they fought with each other they would threaten the prosperity that is so important to all of them. On close inspection, however, neither of these theories provides a sound basis for avoiding trouble ahead in Asia.

Confucian Pacifism

An especially popular claim among Chinese is that their country can rise peacefully because it has a deeply Confucian culture. Confucianism, they argue, not only promotes moral virtue and harmony but also explicitly rules out acting aggressively toward neighboring countries. Instead, the emphasis is on self-defense. China, so the argument goes, has historically acted in accordance with the dictates of Confucianism and has not behaved like the European great powers, Japan, or the United States, which have launched offensive wars in pursuit of hegemony and generally acted according to the dictates of realism. China, in contrast, has behaved much more benignly toward other states: it has eschewed aggression and pursued “humane authority” instead of “hegemonic authority.”

This perspective is popular among academics as well as policymakers in China. Many Chinese scholars like it because they see it as an alternative to the principal international relations theories, which are said to be Eurocentric and therefore oblivious to China’s exceptional culture. Confucianism is obviously a China-centric theory. For example, Xin Li and Verner Worm write, “Chinese culture advocates moral strength instead of military power, worships kingly rule instead of hegemonic rule, and emphasizes persuasion by virtue.” Yan Xuetong, who is probably China’s best-known international relations theorist in the West, maintains, “The rise of China will make the world more civilized. . . . The core of Confucianism is ‘benevolence’. . . . This concept encourages Chinese rulers to adopt benevolent governance . . . rather than hegemonic governance. . . . The Chinese concept of ‘benevolence’ will influence international norms and make international society more civilized.”

Chinese policymakers offer similar arguments. For instance, the former premier Wen Jiabao told a Harvard audience in 2003, “Peace loving has been a time-honored quality of the Chinese nation.” And one year later, President Hu Jintao declared, “China since ancient times has had a fine tradition of sincerity, benevolence, kindness and trust towards its neighbors.” The clear implication of these comments is that China, unlike the other great powers in history, has acted like a model citizen on the world stage.

There are two problems with this theory of Confucianism. First, it does not reflect how Chinese elites have actually talked and thought about international politics over their long history. In other words, it is not an accurate description of China’s strategic culture over the centuries. More important, there is little historical evidence that China has acted in accordance with the dictates of Confucianism. On the contrary, China has behaved just like other great powers, which is to say it has a rich history of acting aggressively and brutally toward its neighbors.

There is doubtless a prominent Confucian strand in Chinese culture going back more than 2,000 years. But as Alastair Iain Johnston points out, a second and more powerful strand is at play in Chinese thinking about international politics. He calls it the “parabellum paradigm” and notes that it places “a high degree of value on the use of pure violence to resolve security conflicts.” This paradigm, he emphasizes, “does not make significantly different predictions about behavior from that of a simple structural realpolitik model.” That is why he uses the term “parabellum paradigm” interchangeably with “cultural realism,” which is the title of his book. Very important is Johnston’s contention that Confucianism and cultural realism “cannot claim separate but equal status in traditional Chinese strategic thought. Rather, the parabellum paradigm is, for the most part, dominant.”