Illustration: Stephen Case
by Phil C. W. Chan
by Phil C. W. Chan

Is China coming full circle by repeating the Qing court’s self-defeating mistakes?

  • Xi’s China is implementing an ambitious vision through projects like the Belt and Road Initiative. Yet, when it comes to Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Beijing’s decision-making processes seem as obstinate as those in Qing China

Are we finally seeing Pax Sinica 2.0, or is China engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy that will lead to its doom (again)?

Back in 2013, I wrote in the Post that China proffered a valid voice that would help maintain and shape the international order in its current form. My 2015 book China, State Sovereignty and International Legal Order argued that China’s assertions and exercise of sovereignty should not be taken automatically as signs of aggression, or acts beyond the remit of international law, that would threaten world peace. In turn, international law would moderate and influence China’s state behaviour, both within its territory and in its relations with other states.
Since then, President Xi Jinping has further tightened his grip on power, with any term limit on his presidency removed. In his report to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, at the Great Hall of the People in 2017, Xi promised to propel China into “a new era”.
Instead of a harmonious rise during the 2000s, China is implementing an ambitious vision of itself and the world through the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with Chinese state investment on all surfaces of the globe. China’s influence, in extent and scope, resembles that of Pax Britannica and Pax Americana during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

China’s remarkable rise in an extraordinarily short period of time is something all Chinese people (including Hongkongers) should celebrate. Nevertheless, Beijing should be cautious and reflect on whether it might be making the same errors the Qing court did before it collapsed in 1912.

Despite its advocacy of the international rule of law through the United Nations Security Council (and a rule-of-law model within China under Xi Jinping Thought), China’s actions speak louder than its words.
In its expansive exercise of state sovereignty in achieving its vision of China as a superpower, Beijing’s assertiveness in pushing its claims and control over vast areas of the East China Sea and the South China Sea has reinvigorated the notion of a “China threat” to regional and international peace and security.

China rejects international dispute settlement mechanisms as inappropriate and inapplicable to its territorial and maritime claims. Amid the currents of these troubled waters, and with complications arising from Hong Kong’s ongoing crisis, the Taiwan question is more intractable than ever.

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Meanwhile, Beijing is mired in a prolonged trade war with the United States, and China’s economy has been contracting. Its signature foreign policy, the Belt and Road Initiative, has encountered roadblocks from partners and been accused of setting up “debt traps” for developing states.

Despite enhanced economic ties with Beijing, countries ranging from Japan and South Korea to Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, with at least a few of the Pacific islands to boot, regard it as a threat to their national security.

China’s rise has proved the adage that money can’t buy love.

In his 1984 book The Standard of “Civilization” in International Society, Gerrit Gong observed that during the Qing dynasty, “[t]he Middle Kingdom’s size, inertia, and adherence to its own standard of ‘civilization’ made China slow to implement the European standard”. The Qing court’s reluctance to modernise subjected China to more than a century of external assaults, internal strife and abject poverty.

Benjamin Schwartz has suggested that one of the reasons Marxism-Leninism had an appeal to young Chinese in pre-1949 China lay in its theory of nationalism, which “provided a plausible explanation for China’s failure to achieve its rightful place in the world of nations”.

To win over Hong Kong, Xi’s China must break a 2,000-year tradition

Paradoxically, China’s present-day economic success has blurred the necessity for it to reflect on and adjust its state behaviour. Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong’s crisis (and the city’s governance in general), its treatment of Uygur Muslims in Xinjiang in the name of fighting terrorism and its restriction of Taiwan’s international space all suggest that it regards national unity, in terms of both territory and ideology, as all-encompassing and non-negotiable.

Its decision-making processes are arguably as obstinate and obfuscating, self-isolated and self-defeating, as those in the dying years of imperial China.

A central tenet of Confucianism is that the ruler should always be advised by the ruled (albeit a select few) as to what is just, legitimate, proper and sound. As we saw with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor with the extradition bill and Empress Dowager Cixi with the Boxers, part of the problem in having eunuchs as advisers is that they do not advise but instead cloud one’s judgment, observations and reasoning.
Beijing suffers the same problem, as we see with the failure of its extensive intelligence missions in Hong Kong in gauging the reality on the ground, its ad hoc responses to Hong Kong’s crisis, its detention cum re-education camps in Xinjiang, and its reactive approach to foreign policy.

The excessive significance the Chinese attach to “face” merely exacerbates the problem. Labouring under a siege mentality, and calling each and every less-than-friendly comment or action by any foreign official or country “foreign interference” in China’s internal affairs, is something the Qing court did, with catastrophic and lasting outcomes.

Beijing and Washington embarked on a policy of rapprochement in the 1970s, opening and greatly benefiting China, in order to counter the Soviet Union, which collapsed by the end of the next decade. By this balance-of-power logic, China’s new (or old) “strategic partnership” with Russia sets the course for an increasingly likely military conflict with the United States (and emboldens Russia’s own ambitions in the Caucasus and Europe).

As we have learned from the rise and fall of great powers throughout world history, the US will hardly relinquish its dominant position in the international order without a fight.

Phil C.W. Chan is senior visiting scholar designate at the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins' Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies