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The “China Century” revisited: a brief survey of recent Chinese history and its opening to the West

In this and the two subsequent sections we offer a very brief and highly selective survey of modern and contemporary Chinese history—from the national humiliations at the hands of foreign powers in the 19th century to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the beginning of the reform era roughly 30 years later, the Tiananmen Square massacre in

1989, and the post-COVID-19 world we now live in. We make no claim to writing a complete or authoritative history.[1] However, a fundamental premise of this book is that understanding history is particularly important to understanding China’s present—more important, we contend, than it is to understanding contemporary Europe or the relatively fledgling United States. What follows is a primer for those unfamiliar with the arc of modern and contemporary Chinese history in the reform era. Readers with deep grounding in this history may wish to skip ahead to Sections 1.5 and 1.6 where we discuss the persistence of classical Chinese culture in, respectively, contemporary Chinese society and Chinese business.

Many have predicted the 21st century would be the “China Century,” suggesting that China will economically, politically, and perhaps even militarily dominate the world. How can one assess such claims in the third decade of the century? Close examination demonstrates that some fears and predictions have come true while others need mid-course revision.

Before there was a China Century, there were Chinese Millennia. Over its long imperial history, China looked around and perceived that it was the largest, most populous, richest, most powerful, and most culturally sophisticated civilization on Earth. For thousands of years, it was simply a given that all surrounding cultures and civilizations were “barbarian.” The infamous “Memorial on the Bone of Buddha” (written 1,200 years ago) illustrates how long-standing this attitude of cultural superiority has been. The author, Han Yu, was a Confucian scholar and imperial official who served four Tang Dynasty emperors. In the “Memorial” he criticized Buddhism as “a cult of the barbarian peoples” and argued against any show of official support for Buddhism in China. Han took it for granted that the Emperor would be receptive to this anti-foreign perspective, but he miscalculated. Emperor Xianzong instead ordered Han’s execution, which was eventually commuted to exile (Wu-Chi, 1990, pp. 126-127). Han’s presumption, from an ancient but surviving Chinese perspective, was that non-Chinese are barbarians in the fullest, most un-politically-correct meaning of the term. This historical episode is also an excellent illustration of how China is not, and has not been, monolithic: the Emperor, the

Son of Heaven (Jai'rfj'), was more sympathetic to Buddhism, a foreign religion than to his Confucian official.[2]

Today, China finds itself in a similar posture. Instead of Buddhism, the barbarian ideas at its gates include globalization, free market economics, and human rights. At every level of society and politics there is an unsettling struggle over what it means to be Chinese. The past century has witnessed convulsive change unprecedented in the nation’s history. It is sobering to reflect that the reform era in China (approximately 1979 to the present) has been longer by over a decade than the period when the Communist Party ruled over an exclusively state-owned economy (1949 to approximately 1979). Communism, it should be emphasized, was itself a barbarian idea emanating mostly from the former Soviet Union which, until recent decades, maintained a sizable physical presence within China to match its political influence. The foreign origin of communism is precisely why so many Chinese leaders and scholars continue to emphasize the “Chinese characteristics” of its implementation in China (Xi, 2014), just as today its adoption of capitalism and free markets is also punctuated with the phase “with Chinese characteristics.” In the early stages of the reform era, the transformative Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declared that “to get rich is glorious,” kickstarting an extraordinary period of economic growth that has made China into the world’s second-largest economy with a GDP of over $13 trillion, trailing only the United States (albeit with a far larger population). China has embraced its own state-dominated form of free market economics, enjoying an impressive rate of annual economic growth over five decades—in some years exceeding 10 percent. As a result, hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty, although it bears emphasizing that hundreds of millions more remain below the World Bank’s definition of the poverty line.

On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong stood at the Gate of Heavenly Peace overlooking Tiananmen Square, the spot where for centuries emperors had addressed their subjects, and declared that “the Chinese people have stood up.” The founding of the People’s Republic of China marked the end of a century of humiliation when this proud and ancient nation was occupied by foreigners, first by Europeans in the 19th century and finally by Japan during the Second World War. A huge part of the explanation for why anti-foreign attitudes persist in modern China is how poorly China fared at the hands of foreign powers in the 19th and 20th centuries. After—and it bears repeating—thousands of years of sovereignty and apparent dominance of the world around it, China suffered embarrassing military, economic and legal defeats as well as social instability (which is anathema to Chinese notions of good government) at the hands of the foreigners during the 19th-century Opium Wars with the British as well as the Boxer Protocol, and the Sino-Japanese wars of the 1890s and 1930s-40s. The latter included the Japanese occupation of much of eastern and north-eastern China. This is in addition to internal rebellions whose origins included influences from outside China, such as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), a pseudo-Christian religious movement that controlled much of southern China for nearly 14 years and resulted in the destruction of six hundred cities and the deaths of twenty million. In 1997, China reacquired Hong Kong from the United Kingdom, ending another humiliating chapter in its history. When the Olympic cauldron rose into the night sky above Beijing’s National Stadium on 8 August 2008, China completed another momentous step in recapturing its former glory and emergence as a global power.

China has had its share of setbacks and challenges that threaten to undermine its progress. When things go wrong in China, a country where hundreds of millions of people still live on the edge of subsistence, they can go very wrong. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward promised that, by sheer will, China could speedily transform itself from a feudal rural economy to an industrialized nation. Farm workers were diverted to a series of mostly unsuccessful industrial work projects. The result was disastrous; an estimated 30 million people died of famine when agricultural production fell short of overly optimistic economic forecasts generated by the need to cater to Mao’s political whim. Millions more suffered extreme degradation, humiliation, forced labor, and physical abuse during Mao’s so-called Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

After its economic opening to the West in the early 1980s, the Chinese government cleverly played overeager foreign investors against each other. “China is a big piece of cake,” trade negotiator Wu Yi declared then, “and those who come first will get the biggest slice.” American and European firms attempted to elbow each other aside to get into the Chinese market early and gain access to its manufacturing base and its billion-plus consumers. These companies met with varying levels of success. The tech sector well illustrates the full panoply of results achieved by foreign suitors. Some, like Apple, established manufacturing relationships (most notably through Foxconn) that helped to drive explosive global growth and make it the most valuable company and brand in the world. However, others like Google and Facebook remain mired in an endlessly frustrating processes of attempting to adapt their business models and values for the Chinese environment. Mark Zuckerberg’s failure to successfully introduce Facebook into China was punctuated by his humiliating request for President Xi Jinping to offer a Chinese name for his soon-to-be-born first child. As the New York Times wryly observed, this was a “privilege reserved for older relatives, or sometimes a fortune teller.” Mr. Xi quickly rejected the request (Mozur, Scott, & Isaac, 2017). Even Apple, it should be said, has had limited success in penetrating the Chinese smartphone market, with only a 5 percent share, with the domestic market leader Huawei controlling close to half.

One well-worn trope about the China Century needing revision concerns China’s technological backwardness. Dating back decades to the reform efforts of Deng Xiaoping, when science and technological development formed key pillars of his “four modernizations,” China has deliberately followed a program of technology transfer from the West. Sometimes this has been accomplished by trading access to the Chinese markets as a quid pro quo for sharing technological knowhow. In the case of the networking giant Cisco, this devil’s bargain resulted in empowerment of what has become its most formidable global rival, Huawei. Often the technology “transfer” took the form of the outright theft of foreign trade secrets and other intellectual property. This kind of activity shows little signs of abating. In 2020, the chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department along with two Chinese nationals were arrested and charged by the US Department of Justice with aiding the Chinese government by stealing intellectual property related to nanotechnology that was created in federally funded labs (Department of Justice: Office of Public Affairs, 2020).

China is no longer the technological neophyte it was at the beginning of the reform era. The technology transfer game is not simply one-sided anymore. China’s Tencent has surpassed Facebook in market valuation. Part of the reason is that Tencent’s WeChat is a more robust and user-friendly millennial communication tool than Facebook’s Messenger (Aston, 2010, Ames & Rosemont, 1998). Many leading global companies are today investing in China to take advantage of a highly educated young workforce and burgeoning technological innovation hubs (Knight, 2018, Rogin, 2019). One sign that China’s technological workers rival the very best of Silicon Valley is that Google, which left China’s search business in 2010 over censorship concerns, is now reentering China. Why? Because China has nearly 800 million internet users? The real answer would probably surprise most Westerners. Google is returning to China because of its cutting-edge Al scientific knowledge and research (The Washington Post, 2018). At a recent annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, 23 percent of the presenters were Chinese—up from 10 percent in 2012. Thirty-four percent were from the United States, down from 41 percent. Fei-Fei Li, chief scientist of Google’s Cloud, Al, and Machine Learning unit, proclaimed that “science has no borders ... we want to work with the best Al talent, wherever that talent is.” The borderless technology company envisioned by Fei-Fei Li has gotten a further boost in the wake of COVID-19 when technology companies like Facebook and Twitter announced that they would allow their employees to work remotely—in Twitter’s case, permanently.

Yet another outdated trope about the China Century in need of revision is that China’s economic ambitions are focused exclusively on low-wage manufacturing for export. Its ambitions are now global and its own investments are looking increasingly outward, most conspicuously through the “belt and road” initiative. In the United States, the Obama administration, aware of this emerging geopolitical threat, attempted to counteract China’s soft power rise by proposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation free trade pact with Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. However, in a shortsighted move, the TPP was leveled by then-President Trump three days after he took office. With characteristic blunderbuss, Trump called the TPP a “rape of our country,” but in truth he was making a major geopolitical miscalculation by reversing Obama’s thoughtfully executed “pivot to Asia.”

In all its complexity, with all its contradictions and challenges, the China Century presents the West with the potential for collaborative progress. For Westerners to fully seize the opportunity, however, they must learn to communicate more effectively with their Chinese counterparts, and to accomplish this they need to understand the deep layers of Chinese civilization, history, and thought that we describe and illustrate in this book.

  • [1] Those who seek a deeper dive into modern Chinese history would be hard pressed to find a better place to start than Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China (2012).
  • [2] A note on language and script: in the rest of the book, we will use the Hanyu Pinyin (or just “pinyin”) system to represent the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese. We will also typically give Chinese characters—especially when a key term is first introduced. We will use traditional (more complex) characters even though simplified characters are the norm in the PRC. This is in part because of our emphasis on classic texts, but also because it is easier to infer simplified characters from traditional characters than vice-versa. For widely-known names of people and places, we will write them without tones, in the forms most commonly seen in the West (Xi Jinping, Shanghai, etc.).
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