The direction of the current global path forward China finds itself on is greatly influenced by its storied past. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949 as a revolutionary socialist regime that attempted to radically transform China’s society and economy under Mao Zedong’s rule. Mao’s series of disruptive changes reached their climax during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 but were reversed after his death when Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978. PRC policies then shifted to growing China’s export economy and improving the domestic standard of living of its people without any accompanying political liberalization. During the 21st century, China’s economy grew at an explosive rate and displaced Japan as the world’s second-largest economy after the United States.
These policy shifts were reflected in the PRC’s changing interpretation of Chinese history. Mao excoriated China’s historical legacy but his successors increasingly embraced it as a template for the country’s future international role. In a revival of nationalistic pride, the PRC has celebrated China’s two-millennial-long record as East Asia’s leading power. President Xi Jinping’s vision is even grander and includes replacing the United States as the world’s dominant power. How the PRC perceives such a world power role is implicitly derived from Chinese history. Despite its revolutionary origins, the PRC’s relationships with other nations remains wedded to an imperial Chinese structure in which it was not merely a dominant power but a singular one.
Why China has no friends—and is unlikely to make any
Beginning with its unification by the Qin dynasty in 221 BC, all of China’s imperial governments have been autocratic, highly centralized and resistant to any devolution of political power to the regional or local level. Their densely populated Han Chinese heartland provided a self-sufficient economic base inhabited by culturally similar people. Non-Chinese peoples on their frontiers were categorized as barbarians. China and its empire of “All under Heaven” could have no peer. As Han dynasty scholar official Jia Yi explained about the 2nd century BC, “To command the barbarian is a power vested in the Emperor at the top, and to present tribute to the Son of Heaven is a ritual to be performed by vassals at the bottom.” China therefore divided the world into foreign states that acknowledged its superiority by presenting tribute to it, and enemies that did not. Exotic tribute items from distant states were particularly valued as evidence of China’s far-reaching power. Chinese officials, however, often grumbled that tributaries lacked sincerity and were motivated instead by greed for the lavish gifts they received when visiting China and the opportunity to engage in profitable private trading. Still, while tributaries might be insincere and financing the system costly, its symbolic value for demonstrating China’s superior status was priceless.
Such a diplomatic system had no place for peer polities that could become friends or allies and so China never developed a tradition of having either. This was in sharp contrast to the post-Roman Western tradition of international relations, where the acceptance of peer polities was the norm and international politics revolved around shifting alliances among them. Even though late-19th-century China recognized the existence of an international political order composed of equal sovereign states, that system was imposed upon it. Territorial and trade concessions extracted from China by Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan only reinforced the notion that that powerful peer polities could only be enemies. Jia Yi condemned a similar turn of affairs 2,200 years earlier when the Xiongnu steppe nomads were extorting revenue from China and demanded its rectification: “Now the feet are put on the top and the head at the bottom. Hanging upside down like this is something beyond comprehension.” While the PRC may reject the notion that it is following in the footsteps of past Chinese dynasties, the belief that China’s rightful place was as East Asia’s hegemonic power is deeply rooted; just as deeply rooted as the belief that success would be measured by how little China needed to rely on others to achieve it.
This helps explain the PRC’s unwillingness to seek or sustain strategic partnerships with peer polities. The most striking example was the breakdown of its relations with the Soviet Union. Initially there was considerable good will between the two immensely large socialist nations. Stalin facilitated Mao’s Red Army occupation of both Manchuria and Xinjiang, which would have been impossible to recover without his acquiescence. In 1950 the two nations signed a 30-year “Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance” and the Soviets then began supplying substantial economic and military aid to China. But Soviet limitations on that military aid and Mao’s conviction that he and China were the more legitimate leaders of the Socialist bloc after Stalin’s death in 1954 soured that relationship. By 1964 Mao was publicly attacking the Soviet leadership as “a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, a dictatorship of big capitalists, a Hitler-type Fascist dictatorship, they are all hooligans, they are worse than [France’s] de Gaulle.” In 1969 a long simmering border dispute turned hot when Chinese troops killed Soviet soldiers and came close to provoking a nuclear war. After Mao’s death the PRC avoided further conflict with the Soviet Union but did not seek formal alliances with other states. China’s long-term strategic plans for economic and military growth did not so much reject such an option as never consider it. As a result, today it is hard to think of any nation that China considers a peer friend or vice versa. Non-peer weaker states were expected, like tributaries of old, to acknowledge China’s superiority and avoid giving it offense when seeking Chinese aid.
Tang vs. Song: China’s dueling templates
China’s long history provides a variety of competing models for international relations to choose among. The least acceptable to Chinese nationalists were those created by the frontier minority rulers of China such as the Mongol Yuan (1271-1368) and Manchu Qing dynasties (1644-1912) who they viewed as too foreign. The most attractive were the longest-lived empires run by native Chinese dynasties, the Han (202 BC–220 AD) and Tang (618-907). Both had their centers in north China, were militarily aggressive, and established political hegemony over East Asia. Because it was not hegemonic, Han Chinese nationalists generally ignored an alternative model used by the similarly long-lived Song dynasty (960–1279) that was centered in south China and had adapted itself to a multi-polar world after north China was occupied by powerful non-Chinese dynasties. Deploying its military for defensive purposes, the Song dynasty focused on economic development and trade to produce one of the richest and most technologically innovative of all Chinese empires. The two models were distinctly different and the PRC may find them pitted against one another as models for the future—both equally Chinese but with very different consequences for China’s future relations with the rest of the world.
Deng Xiaoping’s strategy for building China’s power implicitly relied on the Song southern model that avoided alienating other world powers that might slow China’s rise if they deemed it a possible military danger. South China became the crucible in which the PRC’s new relationship to the global economy was forged and that region remains China’s most dynamic. This strategy changed after Xi Jinping assumed the presidency in 2013 with the goal of restoring China’s previous hegemony by seeking to position itself as a successor Great Power to the United States on the world stage. The PRC became more assertive and even aggressive in its foreign relations, emulating a Tang template in which China would again have tributaries and enemies but no peers. This included building up China’s military forces and making extravagant, if legally dubious, claims over disputed neighboring territories and sea lanes. But the Tang template may be as obsolete as the empire that produced it. It allowed China to become hegemonic when East Asia was a closed system. During that time China faced no significant rivals other than nomadic empires in Mongolia, which were happy to make symbolic tributary visits as long as they profited from them. The Tang model was never designed to function in an open system with peer polities whose economies and armed forces matched or exceeded China’s own. Even assuming that a militaristic Tang model might restore China’s status as the hegemonic power in East Asia, it would ultimately fail if China’s ambitions were global rather than regional. Its most likely outcome would be the emergence of a more bi-polar economic world that would slow China’s economic growth rate at a time when its per capita income is still between thirty or forty percent lower than that in the US, EU or Japan.
By contrast, the Song southern China model that measured it success in economic rather than military terms is well designed to accommodate China’s emergence as a major player on the world stage. It had always supported linking China’s economy with the non-Chinese world that went in both directions. (China’s large overseas population today, an estimated 40 million in Southeast Asia alone, had their origins in migrations from its southern provinces that began during the Song dynasty.) Deng Xiaoping’s reforms put the south in a dominant economic position domestically as the 21st century progressed but China’s political center of power remained in Beijing, its quintessentially northern capital since the time of the Mongols. Over the course of 800 years, the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties all financed their imperial ambitions and subsidized the poorer north by exploiting southern resources that included the construction of major infrastructure projects like the Grand Canal that supplied Beijing. Xi’s ambitious policies designed to make China great again appeared to follow that old northern pattern. This threatens to disrupt what had been the south’s remarkably successful integration into the world economy at ever higher levels of sophisticated production. If disruptions in international economic relationships are the price of an aggressive Chinese foreign policy, these would hit the south harder than the north, where China’s aging heavy industry rustbelt remains dependent on loss-making state-owned enterprises.
The choice between the two models is likely to divide the PRC Communist Party elite. Over the past thirty years, it has amassed both great private wealth and established multi-generational political dynasties that would be harmed by the emergence of international hostility toward China and the economic disruptions that engendered. It would put their extensive foreign investments and ability to travel in jeopardy, a concern that leaders of the Soviet Union (for example) could ignore because they had no private wealth and restricted foreign travel. For these people a softer Song power model that permits China to prosper and play a larger cooperative role in world affairs has significant attractions over a harder Tang power model. Within China the Song model is the one with dynamism. Since the 1960s when the north and south contributed about equally to China’s economy, the regions have diverged sharply ever since with the south now contributing 65% to China’s GDP. (Just two of its provinces, Guangdong and Jiangsu, accounted for more that 20% of China’s GDP in 2020.) Moreover, the south is the center of the innovative technological economy that China sees as its future. In a world where economic power has become more significant than military power in determining a country’s relative influence, it may be only a matter of time before proponents of a southern template that prioritizes economic growth and global outreach seek to replace Xi’s northern template that is bad for business and alienates the rest of the world. Germany and Japan both grew wealthier and more influential after getting out of the dominate-your-neighbor business. In addition, Great Power political games pay far fewer dividends today than they once did. These dynamics are far less applicable to a world where trans-national private corporations with assets of a trillion dollars have more clout than most nation states. China’s own history provides a roadmap for how to succeed in the 21st century without alienating the rest of the world, if it chooses to take it.
THOMAS BARFIELD is Professor Anthropology at Boston University and author of The Central Asian Arabs of Afghanistan (1981), The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China (1989) and Afghanistan: An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture (1991). Supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, he published Afghanistan: A cultural and political history (2010) that received an outstanding title award for American Library Association. His forthcoming book, Shadow Empires, explores how distinctly different types of empires arose and sustained themselves as the dominant polities of Eurasia and North Africa for 2,500 years before disappearing in the 20th century.