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  • Dec 24, 2014
  • Updated: 5:45pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

China's unprecedented quest for a peaceful rise

Jean-Pierre Lehmann says with no precedent to follow, China's quest for a peaceful rise to global power status is understandably challenging, for itself as well as other 'responsible stakeholders'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 July, 2014, 6:20pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 July, 2014, 3:28am

China is the first new great global power to emerge in over a century. It is receiving a great deal of unsolicited advice in the process, notably then US deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick's 2005 admonition to Beijing that it should be a "responsible stakeholder". (Note: that was two years after the invasion of Iraq!) It was logical, therefore, that the Chinese should ask how the preceding emerging great powers got there. One result of the inquiries was a brilliant 2006 CCTV series, The Rise of the Great Powers.

The series begins with Portugal in the 15th century, the first great global seaborne power with an empire stretching from Brazil, across the Atlantic, to both West and East Africa, through to the Indian Ocean with an outpost in Goa and thence to the Western Pacific in Macau. Following Portugal, the series describes the rise of the next eight great powers: Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan and the United States.

One major conclusion is that not a single one of the nine could have been described as a "responsible stakeholder" during their rise to global power: in every case, conquest, destruction, enslavement, executions, looting and the like were the order of the day.

The rise of Zoellick's own country, the US, entailed slavery, the genocide of native American Indians, wars and territorial acquisitions (notably from Mexico), the control of neighbouring countries in the Caribbean through the expulsion of other powers, the imposition of the Monroe Doctrine declaring Latin America a US sphere of influence, culminating in the Spanish-American war whereby Washington acquired Puerto Rico (as well as Guam and the Philippines) and Spain was expelled from Cuba.

In his compelling book, Asia's Cauldron: the South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, Robert Kaplan draws an intriguing parallel between US perspectives on the Caribbean in relation to its national security and China's on the South China Sea.

Arguably, the most relevant chapter of the CCTV series is that on the UK. It was Britain that woke China from its slumber and forced it, screaming and kicking, into the modern age. Imperial China, which just before the outbreak of the first opium war corresponded to over 30 per cent of global gross domestic product, was almost certainly unsustainable. The system was obsolete and violent peasant risings had been raging for decades. But it is the manner in which Britain behaved that remains for China and Britain - and for the rest of the planet - a deep moral quandary.

As the totally illicit opium trade caused economic and social ravages, the Chinese pleaded with Britain to be a "responsible stakeholder". In an impassioned letter addressed to Queen Victoria just prior to the outbreak of hostilities, commissioner Lin Zexu appealed to Her Majesty's better moral self to intervene so that the heinous trade be brought to an end. Commissioner Lin pointed to the flagrant double standards (a recurrent theme among risen Western great powers) in noting: "I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries - how much less to China!"

Queen Victoria never replied to the letter, except in the form of gunships in the first opium war, followed by a second offensive from 1856 to 1860, in which the French joined the British, culminating with the looting of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing - somewhat comparable to the Chinese looting the British Museum and the Louvre.

If the Portuguese seaborne empire is the first chapter in the rise of the great powers, the opium war is the first chapter in China's century of humiliation. By the year of liberation (1949), its share of GDP had plummeted to 4 per cent, while in the process there were incessant foreign military invasions, as well as the moral injury of the treaty ports, the coolie trade and other forms of humiliation. Though China, unlike India, was not colonised by a single imperial power, in the words of Sun Yat-sen, it was a "poly-colony" with multiple countries helping themselves to bits and pieces of Chinese territory in what were called "spheres of influence".

In looking back over the past 500 years, it is clear that the narrative of the peaceful rise of a great power has never been written. Every single rising power from Portugal to the US has been bellicose, brutal and at times barbaric. It was after they had caused disorder that they sought to impose order - their order. If China wants a model of "responsible stakeholder", the fact is that it does not exist.

The term "China's peaceful rise to great power status" was coined by Chinese thought leader Zheng Bijian in 2005. The future of humanity very much depends on whether, as it rises to become a great global power, China will behave with the same ruthless cynicism and cause as much misery and mayhem as its nine predecessors, or whether it will break the pattern and tear asunder the great-power-rising paradigm by rising peacefully.

It's a tough challenge; especially, I repeat, as there is no precedent, no guidebook one can take off the shelf, no historical mentor one can turn to. Whether China ultimately succeeds or fails will of course greatly depend on China, but it will also depend on the attitudes and acts of the existing and erstwhile great powers. Western sermons are not helpful. To construct a better and more peaceful world, a collective constructive approach is quintessential. As is a degree of humility on the part of the Western powers (and Japan). They should recognise that they did not rise peacefully and indeed, as they rose, China was abused. This might go some way in avoiding a Chinese syndrome of revenge.

A first concrete step in that direction might be for Queen Elizabeth, before she leaves the throne, to apologise to China on behalf of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, for her rudeness in never having properly replied to Lin Zexu's letter. A small act of this nature could have a huge impact.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD, Switzerland, founder of The Evian Group, and visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong and NIIT University in Neemrana, Rajasthan


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With a minor unclear term of "Chinese syndrome" that wouldn't be limited to Chinese nor symptomatic of China other than perhaps jus ad bellum should she be crippled in the manner she was, Professor Lehmann, on the strength of this article you are a gentleman and a scholar, and I believe you will soon hear from a rather grateful nation of 1.3 Billion.
I thought this was written by a Swiss citizen until I read your bio.
I think this is one of the best insights I have seen in a long time about China from a "western (American) perspective" here at SCMP.
Great job and I can not agree more with your analysis and suggestions, especially for Queen Elizabeth.
I hope Abe and Obama are also reading this.
China’s peaceful rise? People in the West, especially their political leaders, will refuse to believe there is such a thing. Rightly so when all they know is their own history. Such introspective opinions by well meaning Western academics are seldom found in SCMP Op-eds.
I Gandhi
China's peaceful rise is threatened by the war-mongering US and Japan. However peace might actually prevail if China is able to build a military of sufficient strength to deter the war-mongers who although loves wars and conflicts hate to fight anyone capable of sending them to hell like Russia.
Queen Victoria ignored more than Commissioner Lin Zexu. In London, a 30 year old William Gladstone, later a 4 time Liberal Prime Minister, called the 1st Opium War "unjust & iniquitous.'' He was not alone.
But .. it's not clear that the war would ever have occurred had the Chinese government been less isolationist and irritating: John Quincy Adams called opium "a mere incident to the dispute... the cause of the war is the kowtow—the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of the relations between lord and vassal."
This leads back to what Professor Lehmann overlooks.
First, we are looking at a "revival" of China rather than a "rise." When the Dutch arrived in the Spice islands, they soon realized that the Chinese had already been there for a very long time. Regarding land, the rulers of China have been adding territory, often using brutal methods, ever since since Qin Shi Huang merged the warring states in 221 BC.
Do "revivals" justify 2nd helpings? Would the prof consider the actions since 1949 in Tibet and Xinjiang as being part of a "peaceful rise?" How about gobbling up the South China Sea?
Certainly the UK government can regret exporting opium in to China, but I suspect that China's current rulers would take a formal apology as a more of a kowtow -- only encouraging more aggressive behavior.
You fit the profile in one of my recent SCMP postings:
"Many SCMP readers have an attitude about China. Whatever their motive, they come with preformed malicious opinions about China and Chinese. So they need not just loose, but irrelevant innuendos from the media to satisfy their confirmation bias. Daily, they repeat hate-China mantra ad nauseam.

Once an ossified ideologue is fixated in a belief, everything he sees and hears is railroaded into a one-track mind. He can no longer learn anything. Instead, he has an obsessed need to badmouth China or Chinese any chance he gets."
For your rabid accusations of China's aggressions, please read my multiple postings at:
No, thanks. And your blanket characterization of anyone based on about 100 words in a comment forum suggests that you should never say anything in public outside of a comment forum.
Bloviate on, my brother.
This "peaceful rise" is nothing but global public relations nonsense. Look at the rapidly increasing military budget (not to mention the black budget--the CCP has learned well from its role models in the US military establishment), the blatant aggression towards Asian neighbors, the rabid anti-Japanese propaganda, the frankly paranoid anti-western spiels (you have to demonize the "enemy," make them less than human).
This is all just depressing business as usual in the realm of global power politics. Not to worry, *****. China is indeed playing the game in the conventional way.
What a brilliant analysis. With your higher intellect, could you perhaps indulge us with your comments on how China can survive (within your parameters) given her cruel & brutal history of invasion/colonization by foreign powers - where even the puny Japanese can carve a slice off Chinese territory & slaughter nearly a million of her inhabitants with impunity? Would you suggest she should reduce her military spending when the reigning Hegemon is building a ring of hostile forces around her periphery? Be subservient even when assertive neighbours are provocative on properties which are only in dispute? Acquiesce to demands so that a replay of the opium trade can be fostered on it? I think it would be to China’s benefit if she would listen & follow your advice.
What a naive and unrealistic view of history. History happened the way it did - period. There was no morality guiding invasions, wars, genocides, etc., in the past.
Why do these intellectual clowns always start with the Western powers as the "bad guys"?
Why not discuss the role of the Mongols, the Vandals, Visigoth, Arabs, the Huns, Vikings, the Angles, Zulus, the Saxons, etc., throughout history.
China was no "saint." China invaded, conquered, and ruled. If China tries to play Miss Innocent, she will end up raped and conquered.
China should accept the fact that she had better play the game the way it's been played throughout history - prepare for war during times of peace.



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