A statue of Zheng He at the Sam Poo Kong temple in Semarang, Central Java, Indonesia. Photo: Shutterstock
Peter T. C. Chang
Peter T. C. Chang

Time for China’s elite to embrace the Zheng He spirit and open up to a wary world

  • As China’s economic and digital web continues to expand, the Chinese political establishment must adopt a more open posture towards the outside world
  • China’s political elite should overcome their reclusive impulses, open up further and make themselves better understood by an attentive yet wary world
By most accounts, the Communist Party had a momentous first century as it transformed a war-torn, impoverished homeland into a secure, prosperous nation. In the next century, the party’s storyline is likely to take on an international trajectory as China’s destiny becomes increasingly intertwined with the wider world.
This fact is not lost on President Xi Jinping, who has extolled his vision of a “community with a shared future for mankind”. To realise this, the party must guide a historically insular China to engage more openly with, and win over the trust of, a wary world.
The story of modern China began, like most, with the abandonment of the monarchy. But the People’s Republic of China then charted its own course, sidestepping liberal democracy to install a one-party state. The party and the government forged themselves into a formidable one-party-state machinery that, among other things, lifted hundreds of millions out of abject poverty. But the Communist Party’s ideology of “ socialism with Chinese characteristics” is seen as illiberal and a threat to world order.
According to the “ Thucydides trap” hypotheses, China’s rise could lead to conflict with the United States, the incumbent superpower. Tension accompanies all geopolitical realignments, and a rising China is no exception. But if the past can serve as a guide, China could be a different kind of world power.
One possible historical precedent is Zheng He’s maritime expeditions. To be sure, the Ming dynasty’s fleet was not pacifist. Its formidable naval might was deployed to reinforce Imperial China’s suzerainty. The sultanate of Malacca, for example, became a vassal state in exchange for trade and protection.

Still, Imperial China’s tributary hegemony was unlike European imperialism. A few decades after Zheng’s visit, Malacca fell to the Portuguese, marking the beginning of centuries of European colonisation.

Another contrast was the widespread Christianisation that shadowed the European conquest. The Ming armada attempted no equivalent civilising mission. In fact, Zheng was a Hui Muslim, underscoring Imperial China’s polytheistic ethos. Today, this same pluralistic world view underpins Beijing’s pledge that China will not impose its values on others.

Imperial China nonetheless had a downside in its inherent indifference towards the outside world. Confucianism, for instance, remains a Han-centric, regional tradition. By contrast, Christianity today is multiracial, global religion. As the Middle Kingdom, the Chinese dynasties harboured dim views of the states on its periphery and rarely ventured beyond its immediate borders.


Guardians of ancient Loulan kingdom in western China must fight loneliness as well as tomb raiders

Guardians of ancient Loulan kingdom in western China must fight loneliness as well as tomb raiders
Zheng’s epoch-making expedition turned out to be an anomaly. After the passing of the admiral, the Ming fleet was decommissioned and the imperial court once again turned inward, ruling the empire from behind the relative safety of the Great Wall.
This brings us to the extraordinary place modern China finds itself in the 21st century. Not since the 15th century Ming voyages – and in fact never in China’s millennia-long history – have the Chinese state’s footprints been so widely dispersed across the globe, as shown in the Belt and Road Initiative. Globalisation has finally caught up with China.
This historic expansion is taking place on the back of centuries of disregard for the outside world. China’s lack of experience in cross-cultural exchange is showing as China struggles to make itself understood by the world. Xi’s recent call to better tell China’s story underscores that frustration. The sentiment is mutual as, for much of the world, China remains an enigma.
One recurring criticism is China’s lack of openness, in particular its insular political culture. This is in part a by-product of Beijing’s long-standing non-interference policy: if China has no intention to impose its values on others, outsiders should do likewise.

Hui Muslims trigger storm by wearing traditional dress to ethnic unity event

But in an ever more interconnected world, the non-interference principle is harder to sustain. In e-commerce, for example, as China’s tech giants penetrate the international online market, data collected in other countries could fall under Chinese jurisdiction. How Beijing legislates to protect personal information could have transnational implications.
As China’s economic and digital web continues to expand globally, the Chinese political establishment must adopt a more open posture towards the international community. Not all external criticisms of China’s domestic affairs are aimed at subverting Communist Party rule. Beijing must exercise nuance and demonstrate good faith towards those with bona fide concerns.
The secret to China’s longevity lies in its ability to recover after each dynastic fall. With the Communist Party’s 100th birthday celebration, Chinese civilisation once again demonstrated its capacity for self-rejuvenation following a period of war and disorder. This enduring power is partly sustained by China’s relative self-isolation, allowing it to govern its own destiny. But the country today has become globalised, and the power to determine China’s future may no longer rest entirely in its own hands.

If the Communist Party’s first century was about transforming the homeland, the next century will test its dexterity in guiding China’s integration into the global community with a shared future for mankind. To meet this unprecedented challenge, China’s political elite must overcome their reclusive impulses, open up further and make themselves better understood by an attentive yet wary world.

Peter T.C. Chang is deputy director of the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia