Modern China has always posed a perplexing question for the West. From the Western perspective, China is a closed society, whose greatest symbol is a wall designed to keep invaders out. However, rather than using its isolation to protect and nourish its people, the Chinese government has ruthlessly suppressed political freedom, and all but stamped out cultural expression. Why, one wonders, would China go through such lengths to defend itself, when on the other hand it seems to want to destroy the very thing worth preserving?
The debate about China in the West has been largely speculative and intensely ideological over the last half century. Speculation arose because of the West’s relative ignorance of Chinese civilization, its traditions and aims. However, because it was aligned with the Soviet Union during the cold war, the West believed that China was an expansionist empire that threatened to thwart democratic progress in Asia. So much so in fact that the United States fought proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam hoping to halt the spread of communism. A closer look at China in the post-cold war years reveals a much different picture: it reveals a country facing inward to develop the brains, heart and courage to make the most of the modern world.
While China’s inexorable economic advance over the past two decades has made it now a force to be reckoned with, doubts about its true strength have remained prevalent. Despite evidence to the contrary, Westerners assumed that China’s economy would not really thrive unless it began to adopt Western-style democracy, observe international human rights conventions, and develop the technological proficiency to begin producing specialized, non-commodity goods.
All of this has proven to be false. Not only has China built a world-leading economy on the back of steel, paper, textiles and lumber, it has been able to effectively manage an empire that contains almost a fifth of the entire world’s population. This feat has been largely underappreciated in the West; but its centralized government, draconian regulations on population growth, and state-managed economy were able to impose some degree of order and standardization in a relatively short period of time, on an absolutely astounding scale. It has now become clear that the Chinese communist party, despite its many weaknesses, is far from naïve. Its decision to crack down on cultural expression, religion and human rights was tactical rather than ideological.
To wit, the Chinese government has recently worked to revive certain Confucian traditions, such as ancestor reverence. Their reasoning is that these traditions are now important because they help to instill respect for authority within the population. This is an interesting turn of events, in that communist party initially encouraged flouting the authority of the Emperor and religious leadership and returning power to the people. However, now that the process of cementing central government authority under the current regime has been completed, China now seeks to reinforce its authority by imbuing it with cultural significance.
While China has needed to expand in search of markets and materials to fuel its voracious growth, it has done so under the banner of trade rather than ideology. Forced by circumstance (perhaps some recall the political backlash that forced China to drop its bid to acquire U.S. oil company Unocal in 2005), China has adopted a pragmatic approach that has afforded it opportunities in the developing world that the West has foregone. As the West tried to isolate Sudan and Zimbabwe through trade sanctions, hoping to force their regimes to stop human rights abuses, China engaged. In doing so, however, China was criticized in the West for being soft on human rights and enabling brutal dictators. Rather than try to cover for the regimes it traded with or attempting to justify their strategy, China humbly accepted the criticism and continued to trade.
By largely ignoring international political pressure, China has been able to stay focused on its most important aims. The result is that in a relatively short period of time it has cobbled together a massive trading empire. The fact that over eighty world leaders are present in Beijing for the Olympics, the most ever in attendance at any Olympics is a testament to China’s effectiveness at negotiating agreements without getting bogged down by ideological principles.
Whether China’s strategy continues to bear fruit remains to be seen. But by all indications, growth in China will continue to increase over the next several decades. By sticking to its principles, acting in the face of opposition, and making the necessary sacrifices, it looks like China will come out on top. And it did not take a wizard to pull it off.