CHINA: RISE OF THE HEGEMON

      The relentless rise of China since the second half of the twentieth century has been both, unprecedented in its speed as well as its impact on the world order. China has thrown up a very unique set of challenges to practically all the nations of the world, big or small, rich or poor, whether contiguous to its borders or far away or otherwise falling into its spheres of influence; which the nations of the world are struggling to grapple with. It is so because China is unlike any other power which has risen to preeminence in the world order in the past. So, what is it that differentiates China from the rest of the great powers, past or present (including the Soviet Union)?  And how does the world community deal with China? If we remember the song in the beginning of the legendary movie “The Sound of Music” where the nuns in the abbey, perplexed about how to deal with Maria, burst into the song “how do we solve a problem called Maria? how do we catch a cloud and pin it down?”, we can get a fair idea of what the world community is presently going through while dealing with China. But China is a phenomenon which is nowhere as benign and adorable as Maria Von Trap, but unfortunately casts an ominous and malevolent shadow over almost the entire world today. Every country which has had to deal with China, whether it liked it or not, has been trying to craft its own response in its own way to deal with it. However, the Covid 19 pandemic that was unleashed on the world by the virus that originated in the Chinese City of Wuhan, throwing the whole world and its economy into an unprecedented crisis, has just compelled the world to direct its focus on the enormity of those unique challenges that China poses to the world. Incidentally, this is also just the period when India, another Asian Giant and also an Eastern Civilizational Nation, is poised to embark upon its own quantum leap forward, emerging from its centuries old slumber, to stake a claim to great power status in the world order. Even though both India and China are Eastern   Powers and are essentially from outside the sphere of Western nations who have hitherto absolutely dominated the world order, both have responded and are responding in different ways to the outside world. But India shares a huge boundary of about 3400 Kms. with China, most of which is unsettled inasmuch as, China lays claim to large areas of territory which India legitimately claims as its own and vice versa. Both the countries have fought a disastrous war in 1962 in which China was the acknowledged aggressor and in whichnit succeeded in inflicting an ignominious defeat on India. However, circumstances have undergone a radical change ever since, for both the countries which we will deal with at its appropriate place/s hereafter. Suffice it to state that with its meteoric rise on the world scene in the latter half of the twentieth century China has become increasingly belligerent towards India. But it has adopted this calculated and deliberate policy of hostility and belligerence not only viz-a-viz India but against almost all the states of the South China Sea and the Pacific powers such as Japan, Australia and the United States, wherever it considers and perceives its strategic interests being threatened. If India wants to and is serious about its aspirations to be a world power, she has her task cut out before her. How India deals with and if necessary, contains China, will determine its future trajectory on the international scene. Let us therefore examine what exactly we are dealing with when we confront China, or more appropriately China confronts us.

                                       A CIVILIZATIONAL STATE

The term “Civilizational State” was first used by certain authors in the 1990s to essentially describe China as opposed to a “Nation State” in the European Model. It was Gideon Rachman, a British Journalist and Foreign Affairs Correspondent of The Financial Times, in his Article in the 4th March 2019 edition of The Financial Times, who described a Civilizational State as “..a country that represents not just a historical territory, ethnolinguistic group or body of governance but a unique civilization in its own right.” [en.wikipedia.org./wiki/civilization_state, accessed on 7th June 2020]. The concept of a civilizational state as understood, encompasses a country’s historical continuity and cultural unity across a large geographical region. However, in the course of time the term came to be applied to other states such as Russia and India which eminently fulfill the criteria of a Civilizational State. But it was Matrin Jacues a British Journalist and long-time Marxist and a long time editor of “Marxism Today” a mouthpiece of the British Communist Party, till it closed down in 1991; in his now famous book When China Rules the World [Penguin Books, New York 2014] who popularized the term specifically with reference to China. But in order to understand in what sense China is a Civilizational State, from the Chinese perspective, we have to understand the Chinese psyche as it has been molded over the millennia. Though China today is a member of the world community and is also one of the P5 (Permanent member) of the United Nations’ Security Council, it has never accepted the rules of the essentially European Westphalian System on which the United Nations is based. Let us therefore understand what is the Westphalian System, before we proceed further.

                               It was at the end of the disastrous Thirty Years War in Europe [1618 to 1648] that the European Nations, badly battered and bruised by the war and almost on the verge of complete bankruptcy, entered into the Treaty of Westphalia (or more appropriately treaties of Westphalia). The nations of war-torn Europe met in the two cities of Osnabruck and Munster in the former Northwestern Province of Westphalia and arrived at a set of treaties which are known as the treaties of Westphalia. By these treaties, the nations of Europe recognized the principles of peaceful co-existence between sovereign nations and non-interference in the internal affairs of nations by other nations. Each Nation was recognized to be sovereign within its own territories. One more fallout of the treaties of Westphalia was the establishment of the doctrine of “Balance of Power”, whereby no country was allowed to rise in a manner so that it could absolutely dominate the other relatively weaker nations. The moment any nation exhibited such tendencies, the other nations would enter into appropriate alliances amongst themselves, mostly with the help of another strong country or countries and check the unbridled ambition of the nation exhibiting hegemonic tendencies. Thus, the status quo ante and the balance of power was restored and the counter balancing nation or group of nations acted as an effective deterrent against open conflict and the rise of the hegemon. It will therefore now be apparent to anyone that it is these very Westphalian principles that are enshrined in the UN Charter. All the members of the world community and member nations of the UN subscribe to these principles, and it was true even of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Even India, though an eastern nation and therefore coming from a different tradition than that of the West, and which traces its civilizational traditions, much like China, to over thousands of years, and in that sense claims to be unique; nevertheless, has had no difficulty in subscribing to these principles. In fact, India, has articulated its own set of principles, derived from its own unique traditions, thereby recognizing the principles of peaceful co-existence of sovereign nations from within its own perspective and which do not fundamentally conflict with the Westphalian System, which is of much more recent origins. The Principles of Panch Sheel as articulated by India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and which, ironically were codified for the first time in the Treaty Between India and China signed in 1954 encapsulate these principles which are as follows:

The Five Principles, as stated in this treaty, are listed as:

  1. mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty,
  2. mutual non-aggression,
  3. mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs,
  4. equality and mutual benefit, and
  5. peaceful co-existence.

Even a cursory glance at the above principles shows that they perfectly gel with the principles underlying the functioning of the United Nations and are essentially Westphalian. Significantly, even though China entered into a treaty with India, as early as in 1954, it later acted in brazen violation of each of the said principles. The reason is, China doesn’t consider itself bound by the Westphalian Principles as it considers that it was not a party to their formulation. The Chinese policy is therefore to pay lip sympathy to these principles, until such time as it finds itself in a position to assert its writ and authority in the whole world and then to impose and dictate its own version and set of principles replacing these universally accepted principles. The pointed question is why does China finds it difficult and unable to functions as any other sovereign nation of the world community? And why is it that China cannot accept the principle of peaceful co-existence of sovereign nations and the principle of non-interference by nations in each other’s internal affairs? The answer to these questions lies in China’s history and its self-perception as the only cultured and civilized state in the world.

                                     It was during the Zou Dynasty (1046 BC to about 221 BC, about 790 years), which was the longest ruling dynasty in Chinese history, that the Chinese psyche was shaped and molded. It was under this dynasty that China came to firmly believe that it was the “Middle Kingdom” (a concept originally used with reference to Egypt and later with reference to the dynasties that ruled India after the fall of the Mauryan Empire). However, in the Chinese scheme of things it was the Kingdom which was at the center of the world, surrounded by barbarians on all sides. It was the Zhou dynasty which formulated the most enduring and lasting of their political doctrine, which has shaped the Chinese mindset that continues to the present day, irrespective of the ideologies of the regimes that have ruled China during the course of its long history. That doctrine is “Mandate of Heaven”, the mandate of heaven, was presented by the Zou Rulers as a kind of a religious contract between the Zou and their God (Sky God), whereby the “Heavens” conferred legitimate power only on one person i.e. the Zou Ruler and that in return the Zou Ruler/s was/were in duty bound to uphold heaven’s principles of harmony  and honour. Even though initially this “Mandate of Heaven” was asserted by the Zou Rulers in moral justification of their overthrow of their preceding Shang Dynasty, in the course of time it conveniently morphed into a doctrine which asserted that China had been granted a mandate by heaven to rule the rest of the world in order to uphold the heaven’s principles of harmony  and honour throughout the world. In this mindset China was considered as the only civilized and cultured country in the world which was placed by the heavens at the center of the world. China was surrounded by barbarians and it was heaven’s command that had conferred the power over China and China only to bring refined culture and civilization to the outside world inhabited by barbarians and establish harmony and honour throughout the world. It was this deep-rooted conviction which prevented and still prevents the Chinese from even conceptually acknowledge or accept any other country in the world as China’s “equal”. It was this mindset and unshakeable conviction that made the Chinese establish the infamous “tributary system” for centuries in East Asia, which has always been their sphere of influence. Under this system, all the other states of East Asia were treated as China’s Vassal States which it was the duty of China to bring into the fold of “true culture” and “civilization” (read Chinese culture and civilization). The Rulers of these East Asian States had to pay obeisance to the Chinese Emperor by sending their representatives to the Emperor’s Court every year bearing numerous gifts and also prostrate themselves before the Emperor in an elaborate ritual showing submission and supplication. Even Japan did not escape being part of this tributary system albeit with showing occasional defiance and independence without overtly challenging the system. Japan could do so as it was on the fringes of China’s East Asian Empire and also partly because it was a proud race itself with a highly developed culture and civilization of its own. At least on one occasion it did challenge the Empire militarily in the year 1590 but we will talk about it a little later when we deal with China’s military strategic profile. Be that as it may, the point therefore is the Chinese mindset is conceptually incapable of and thus refuses to concede any independent space to any other culture and civilization, as in its world view none exists, save and except itself.

          Dynasties came and went, even outsiders such as the Mongols conquered China and established its sway over it and went on to establish its own dynasties, but instead of these outsiders influencing and changing the Chinese mindset the conquerors themselves were assimilated within and became part of the indigenous Chinese ethos. Let’s take the example of the Mongols, it was under Chengiz Khan that the Mongols invaded China in the thirteenth century and over a period of six decades established complete control over China. But by the time Chengiz Khan’s son the great Kubla Khan (or Kublai Khan) came to power he established the Yuan dynasty and thus the Mongols got progressively assimilated in the Chinese cultural matrix and completely merged and fused in the great Chinese continuum. We are familiar with these process in our own history where the invading Scythians (Shakas), Parthians (Pallavas), the Huns and the Kushanas were assimilated in the Hindu religious fold so completely that they became unrecognizable from the indigenous people. It was during the reign of Kubla Khan that the Italian traveler Marco Polo from Venice, visited China and spent almost seventeen years as a part of the imperial Court of Kubla Khan. He describes the elaborate ritual where visiting dignitaries as well as officials and subjects were made to pay obeisance to the Great Khan exactly in the traditions established since the time of the Zhou dynasty. Let’s have it in Marco Polo’s own words “When all have been disposed in places appointed for them, a person of high dignity, or as we should express it, a great prelate, rises and says with a loud voice: ‘Bow down and do reverence;’ when instantly all bend their bodies until their foreheads touch the floor. Again, the prelate cries: ‘God bless our lord, and long preserve him in the enjoyment of felicity.’ To which the people answer: ‘God grant it.’ Once more the prelate says: ‘May God increase the grandeur and prosperity of his empire, may he preserve all those who are his subjects in the blessings of peace and contentment; and in all their lands may abundance prevail.’ The people again reply: ‘God grant it.’ Then they make their prostrations four times.” (emphasis added) [The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian—with an introduction by John Masefield—Third AES Reprint, New Delhi, Chennai, 2009, page 191]. This system is ingrained in the Chinese mindset in which they are the only preeminent power in the world, “The Middle Kingdom”, to whom the other barbarian states of the world are bound to show reverence and pay obeisance with utmost humility and none of which can even aspire to be China’s equal, barbarians as they are, they can only aspire to acquire the attributes of refined culture by respectfully emulating the most evolved and refined culture of China and being part of a great family of states of which China is the great patriarch. This is China’s burden, to civilize the barbarian world, which it is destined to bear and carry out under “heaven’s command”. Eventually, the philosophical thought and traditions that arose in China, the most influential of which was Confucianism or Ruism as it is also called also reflected this world view. In fact, the great Chinese Philosopher Confucius (551 to 479 BC), considered himself as the re-codifier and re-transmitter of the theology and values inherited from the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. Confucianism, is perceived as a tradition, a philosophy, a religion, a way of governing or simply as a way of life. Confucianism draws its analogy from the cosmic order. It basically speaks about a superior-inferior relationship, where parents are superior to children, men to women, rulers to subjects, where each person has a specific role to play in a society which is highly structured and in which each person is expected to conform to a fixed set of social expectations. This is not unlike the fixed structured world of the four varnas as prevailing in India. In the light of the tumultuous changes brought on by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the system increasingly failed to take into account the fundamental nature of the changes coming about throughout the world. The rest of the world too was struggling to cope with technological and scientific advances and the advent of modernism and China needed a fundamentally new and unconventional approach to try and cope up with these changes. Confucianism held sway over Chinese mind and the Chinese culture for the longest period and even today we find remnants of it surviving in the present uniquely Chinese Communist ideological edifice. During the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC) rule Confucianism was suppressed but managed to survive. It was revived first during the Han Dynasty and later during the Tang Dynasty when it was called neo-Confucianism. One of the legacies of Confucianism was “The Examination System”. It was basically a system for selection of candidates, on merit, for being trained as bureaucrats. It created the longest standing Civil Service in China which at one level helped social mobility as candidates were selected on merit and not inherited entitlement, at another level it helped maintain continuity in Governance and also maintain the unity of the vast territory that the empire encompassed. But it eventually proved to be an impediment in the path of innovation and economic development thereby ossifying Chinese society. We will deal with this aspect of the matter when we consider China’s economic trajectory over the period of its history. The abolition of the Examination System in 1905 marks the end of official Confucianism in China.  

                                     The difficulty is that the Chinese have never been able to come out of this mould, even to the present times. In the modern world as China’s splendid isolation was rudely shaken and the outside world, technologically more advanced and materially more prosperous and therefore militarily far more powerful than China came knocking at its doors China initially spurned all contacts with this outside world (read western world) and refused to engage with it, treating it in utter disdain and a contempt. However, as the western world increasingly and forcefully intruded in the Chinese society, the Chinese had to make concessions to the outer world. The Chinese nevertheless were never impressed by the material advancement, industrial and technological prowess of the west and considered it as “practical skills” without any real depth of knowledge, essentially materialistic and therefore shallow. But at the same time the Chinese realized the usefulness of these practical skills which could, or more appropriately, needed to be borrowed temporarily from the west. The overall assessment of the west, or for that matter any outside powers that China encountered increasingly as its isolation broke down by the onslaught from the outside world, remained essentially the same namely, that all such powers were essentially barbarians who were devoid of culture and eventually it was China’s heavenly command to civilize these societies by bringing harmony and honour to them by coopting them into the family of which China was the undisputed patriarch.

             This attitude and mental make-up of China has survived to this day. It was around 1000 BC, during the Zhou dynasty’s rule that China came to be referred to as “Zhongguo”, literally meaning Middle Kingdom or Middle Country. Interestingly enough, the present-day Peoples Republic of China, in Mandarin, is called as “Zhonghua renmin gongheguo” meaning “Middle Glorious Peoples Republican Country” thereby emphasizing China’s unique position and character as the Middle Kingdom. This is also reflected in how China perceived and interacted with the outside world and especially modern western nations, when its isolation was broken down and interrupted, much against its wishes, by western expansion and domination. Even as recently as in 1863 after suffering two military defeats at the hands of “barbarian” powers and having survived a massive domestic uprising  namely, the Taiping Rebellion against the rule of the Qin dynasty by one Hong Xiuquan, a self-proclaimed “brother” of Jesus Christ, who led the rebellious forces in a religious war against the Qin dynasty, which went on from 1850 till 1864 and which could be quelled only with the help of foreign mercenary troops, mainly British; the Emperor sent the following letter to the then US President Abraham Lincoln assuring the US of China’s favour, which read: “Having, with reverence received the commission from Heaven to rule the universe, we regard both the middle empire (China) and the outside countries, as constituting one family, without any distinction.” (emphasis and italics added) [Papers Relating to Foreign Affairs Accompanying the Annual Message of The President to the First Session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office 1864), Document No. 33; as cited in Henry Kissinger, “WORLD ORDER”,  Penguin Books, Great Britain 2015, p. 219] So, take note of the phrase “the commission from Heaven to rule the universe” and that there is no distinction between the Middle Kingdom (China) and the outside countries “as constituting one family”, no prize for guessing who is the Patriarch here.

          However, eventually things came to a head, as they were bound to, in the beginning of the twentieth century when China had its tryst with destiny in the form of the 4th of May 1919 student uprising. China entered World War I on the side of the allies. Upto that point of time, Germany held certain territories in Shandong in China. When the War was over and the allies signed the Treaty of Versailles, China as member of the alliance demanded that the territories hitherto held by the Germans may now be transferred to China as they were admittedly Chinese territories. However, the Victors of the War were more interested in penalizing Germany and dealing with it, consequently China’s demands were ignored and the territories which were hitherto held by the Germans were allowed to be retained by Japan. As this news spread throughout China, some 3000 to 4000 students from Beida (Beijing University) and other Beijing Institutions occupied the famous Tiananmen Square, which was the gateway to the Palace, this led to severe clashes between the students and the police, a student strike, demonstration across the country and in the end the “broadest demonstrations of national feelings that China had ever seen” [John Fairbanks “China: The Peoples Middle Kingdom and the USA”, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967) pages 267-268, as cited by Peter Watson, “A Terrible Beauty: A History of the People & Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind”, Weidonfeld and Nicolson, London 2000, page 178]. This movement, which became known as the May 4 movement drew within its fold both mature intellectuals as well as students. Leaders of the new cultural movement, which had started somewhere in 1910, had already thrown the Chinese cultural scene into a flux, these leaders believed that traditional Confucian values were responsible for the political weakness of the nation. Thus, modern Chinese Nationalists called for a rejection of traditional values and adoption of Western ideals of “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy” in place of “Mr. Confucius” to strengthen the nation. [Jonathan D. Spence, ‘The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and their Revolution’, 1895 to 1980, (New York, Viking Press, 1981, pages 117 to 123), as cited in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_Fourth-Movement, accessed on June 9 2020] Now the May 4 Movement drew from these trends and sought to modernize Chinese society by repudiating ideas and thoughts that they felt had become outdated and had become a serious impediment in the further development and progress of China. Though the Movement was fired by the Western Ideals of Freedom of Expression and Democracy, the eventual outcome of the movement was quite the opposite. The Movement split into opposing factions and the chasm between the more academic wing of the Movement and its Political wing widened. The Political wing, following the success of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the rise of Leninism, became the cradle of the Chines Communist Party which was formed on 23rd July 1921 and with it died the nascent pro-democracy movement which was the starting point of the May 4 Movement. One young intellectual who participated in the May 4 Movement whole heartedly initially supporting reform but subsequently turning to violent revolution was a son of a Hunan Grain Merchant, his name was Mao Ze Dong. Under Mao China became a totalitarian Communist State. It was Mao who in the course of time unleashed the disastrous Cultural Revolution on China. Thus, the transition of China, under the Communists from a traditional and hide bound society to a modern hide bound society was complete. To put it in the words of that legendary US diplomat and Noble Laureate Henry Kissinger “In the end this upheaval was designed to produce a kind of traditional Chinese outcome: a form of Communism intrinsic to China, setting itself apart by a distinctive form of conduct that swayed by its achievements, with China’s unique and now revolutionary moral authority again swaying ‘All Under Heaven’.” (bold italics and emphasis mine). [Henry Kissinger, op. cit., p. 222]. So, the China had come full circle, the Communist Party of China had now inherited “the Commission from Heaven to the Rule the Universe”. This only proves the age-old wisdom that in a nation, regimes may change, ideologies may change, but a nation’s geo-strategic interests and its self-perception of its own role in the world seldom changes. Given the restricted confines of this short monograph, we can just about get a historical perspective on China who, it appears increasingly certain, will constitute our main adversary in the region as well as in the world in the foreseeable future. In order to deal with the multiple challenges that China poses to us as well as to the rest of the world and craft an appropriate response to it, it is necessary to understand our adversary and more particularly as to what motivates it to act in the manner in which does. It is necessary to understand its psyche, its mindset as its history and geography has moulded it. Having done that briefly, we can now proceed to examine the other three major aspects of the China phenomenon namely, (1) China’s Economic Rise; (2) China’s Strategic Profile and (3) China’s Cultural Influence and possible dominance on the world scene, which should give us a basic grounding for a more detailed and comprehensive study and understanding of modern China and the challenges it poses to the world.

- Adv. Kishor Jawle