China, manifestly formidable, is still typically analyzed as a “rising power” or an “emerging power,” one challenging “established powers.” Connoted by these terms is a ridiculously unhistorical image: China-as- parvenu. A longer look back may better name—and explain—what the world now sees.
From the Portuguese in the sixteenth century to the Japanese in the twentieth century, Western and Westernized forces in Asia enjoyed an ever increasing advantage: firepower, first afloat and then also on land. Its invention of gunpowder and rocketry notwithstanding, China faced a firepower gap that had widened decisively by the 1830s. Yet China’s governments, native and assimilated, functioned competently enough as late as 1839, when the opium trade was being vigorously suppressed. Ironically, this very show of competence brought China into conflict with the drug-running British East India Company, whose own private forces, as supplemented by the Royal Navy, China could not match.
China’s losses in the two Opium Wars, 1839–42 and 1856–60, were ruinous, shredding sovereignty and conceding to industrialized powers extraordinary territorial, mercantile and jurisdictional privileges. Arising in parallel, and largely in response, was the worst of all modern rebellions, the Taiping, 1850–64, a societal injury defying full recovery. The next century, while different, was not much better and was followed by the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, a denunciation not only of the “Four Olds”—customs, culture, habits, ideas—but of modernity, too.
Opening in catastrophe and closing in catatonia, this 137-year stretch, from 1839 until 1976, was a dark age. The period since, from 1976 to the present day, has been a renaissance. Granted, this dark age was not without its brighter spots and this renaissance not without its darker ones, but the labels stick, and they instruct.
From 1976 on, with Mao Zedong gone and with Asian states, most disturbingly Japan, prospering around it, China, rich in poverty, herded its ultra-low-wage workforce down the capitalist road and earned its way to the front rank of nations. China aggressively pursued trade, most surprisingly and most critically east-west trade, and from the proceeds of this trade accumulated the wealth it needed to finance its own development.
Beginning some six centuries earlier, the houses, cities and principalities destined to become Europe’s renaissance powers likewise pursued trade—eventually east-west trade with Islamic centers—and, through those centers, with distant Asian peoples. From the proceeds of such trade, Europe’s renaissance powers accumulated the wealth that financed their own development and, most memorably, their patronage of creative genius. They also fought to steal this trade from one another, slaughtering many and suffering much. Portugal, for example, having pioneered a route around Africa, forcefully shifted Europe’s single most profitable import—spice—from a water-land-water route serving Venice to a water-only route serving Lisbon.
What Europe’s renaissance strengthened was a continent led by fractious ruling families. What China’s renaissance strengthened was a continent-sized country led by a disciplined ruling party adjusting to new management. Europe’s enterprises competed at home and fought abroad; China’s enterprises competed with each other to be allowed abroad. Europe’s purpose was not unitary; east-west trade and, eventually, global imperial exploitation advanced some regimes over others. China’s purpose was more nearly unitary; the transfer—or imitation—of technology and, in parallel, the mass overseas education of China’s own aspiring technologists, advanced one nation over many others.
China’s View of Itself and Others
Renaissance China was no parvenu, no newcomer. The powers that had plundered China had been the newly arrived, the upstarts, and their day was closing, at least regionally and probably globally. Even as China delivered itself reborn into a brilliant dawn, Maoist red suffused with imperial yellow. Self-assurance, once fragile, was growing firm; progress, once foreign, was also domestic; innovation, once always an import, was increasingly to be an export.
China’s products fill the world’s shelves, its graduates and graduate students occupy the world’s laboratories, its invested profits fill the world’s treasuries. Even its main language, Mandarin, has advanced, packing into Western classrooms tonally adventurous students convinced their future will be Sinocentric. These are not Potemkin-village achievements; China’s overachievements are real, too. Its renewable-energy production and consumption both lead the world, although much of its productive capacity must stand idle, a threat to overload its national electrical grid. Its Quantum Science Experiment Satellite, “Mozi,” designed to test data encryption through entangled-photon teleportation, is the first of its kind and has been orbiting the earth since August 2016. Taikonauts have yet to walk on the moon but are more likely than are astronauts, or cosmonauts, to recover Apollo’s golf balls. And, ranked by number of vessels, China’s navy, whatever its mission, is now second only to America’s navy.
The Soviet Union was, more than metaphorically, a puzzle, its parts glued together, whereas China is closer to being a true nation-state than any other large country has ever been, and it is far more populous than smaller nation-states, such as Japan or Iran. The Soviet Union came unglued during what might have become a renaissance—the Gorbachev period—and its chief successor, the Russian Federation, has managed no more than the sallow complexion of a crony-capitalist petro-state. Russia, however impressive its ability to spoil, steal and raze, has become a commodity producer, a price taker, one surprisingly susceptible to economic sanctions. It probes neighboring airspace with strategic bombers famous not for stealth but for noise. Its one aircraft carrier—old and small yet still sent for show to the Syrian coast—steamed through its own soot, projecting power only after finding a port allowing it to refuel. In sharpest contrast, China, wanting to project power far off-shore, methodically built bases by terraforming reefs into “occupied features,” converting navigational hazards from natural to political.