China's traditional self-image as a universalistic civilization and
a world cultural center has made it difficult to forge an identity in
a world of nation-states. Against this background, Chinese intellectuals
and political leaders have debated the question of how China is to view
itself: as a member of the socialist world, the third world, or the Western-oriented
international trading society that encompasses Europe, the Americas,
Japan and the rest of the Pacific Rim. This is not an either/or choice
necessarily, but there has been discussion and disagreement within China
over what its strategic stance should be as it forges a new identity
as a nation-state in an increasingly interdependent world.
History has bequeathed to China’s rulers three major tasks in
the area of foreign relations.
Task Number One: Economic Development
In the nineteenth century China was invaded by the Western powers, forced
to grant extraterritorial privileges, sign unequal treaties, pay reparations,
and turn to the outside world for famine relief, development aid, weapons,
and manufacturing skills. To gain its independence the country had to
remake its technology, educational institutions, ideology, laws, and
military and political systems on Western models. Chinese thinkers believed
that nothing less than national survival was at stake.
Chinese economic and technological systems were backward compared to
those of the West. This sense of vulnerability created the dominating
issue of modern Chinese politics, the search for wealth and power. Left
unsolved by previous governments, the problem remained to be addressed
by the People's Republic when it came to power.
To develop without relying on foreign powers, Mao Zedong and his colleagues
devised a system modeled on Stalinism but with a number of unique features.
They collectivized the land and organized the peasants into communes.
The party-state extracted capital from agriculture, used it to build
state-owned industry, and returned the profits to more industrial investment.
This led to rapid industrial growth in the 1950s, although growth slowed
later under the impact of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
In three decades China made itself self-sufficient in nearly all resources
However, by the end of Mao’s life in 1976 China’s economy
was stagnant, and technology lagged twenty to thirty years behind world
standards and most Chinese lived in cramped quarters with poor food and
clothing, few comforts, and no freedoms. Much of Asia and the world had
raced beyond China toward technical and social modernity.
China’s post-Mao rulers, led by Deng Xiaoping, adopted a different
economic development strategy called "reform and opening." Reform
meant changes in the domestic economic and administrative systems, especially
freeing the peasants from the communes so they could farm as families
or engage in local industry, and freeing industrial enterprises to compete
in a market environment. Opening meant joining the global economy, allowing
foreign trade and investment to flourish. China has now become one of
the world’s major trading nations and is poised to join the World
Trade Organization which sets the rules for the global trading economy.
Task Number Two: Assuring Territorial Integrity
Traditional China saw itself not as a nation-state, or even as an empire
with clearly identified subject peoples, but as the center of the only
known world civilization. In Chinese eyes, other kingdoms and tribes
were more or less civilized depending on how close they were to China
culturally and politically. Within the sphere of what would later be
delineated as Chinese territorial borders, China's cultural and political
influence stretched from the core provinces, through more remote southern
and western provinces, to garrisons in territories populated chiefly
by ethnically non-Chinese peoples.
Beyond these borders, China thought of its relations with most other
states as consisting of a tribute system, under which distant kings and
chiefs were seen as more or less civilized and loyal subordinates of
the Chinese Emperor. In Chinese eyes, these distant peoples defined their
places in the world in terms of their relations with the Imperial court
in Beijing, relations which they maintained by sending occasional tribute
missions to show their deference to the Emperor. Under the guise of such
missions China maintained trade and diplomatic relations with many other
When expanding Western powers reached the perimeter of the Chinese empire,
they forced China to define its physical borders, starting with the Treaty
of Nerchinsk in 1689. As China became a "semi-colony" in the
nineteenth century, it had to give up claims to varying degrees of paramountcy
over Burma, Vietnam, Korea, the Ryukyu Islands, outer Mongolia, parts
of Central Asia and Siberia, and to substantial pieces of territory which
were ceded to India, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Burma, and other states.
The bulk of these territorial losses were accepted by the People’s
Republic of China, but the PRC did fight border wars over contested territory
with India, the USSR, and Vietnam, and still has unsettled claims with
Japan and a number of other countries.
The separation of Hong Kong and Macao also had their origins in the
nineteenth century. These colonies were returned to Chinese control peacefully
in 1997 and 1999.
The most difficult legacy of territorial consolidation was Taiwan. Taken
as a colony by Japan in 1895, it was returned to Chinese control under
the Nationalist regime in 1945. But after 1949 Nationalist-ruled Taiwan
neither reunified with mainland China nor declared independence from
it, posing one of the major continuing problems for PRC diplomacy.
Within China's borders as well, there are some issues of territorial
control. China defines itself as one people consisting of the majority
Han (ethnic Chinese) plus 55 "national minorities" such as
the Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, and Kazaks. Several of these minority
groups are dissatisfied with Chinese rule and harbor significant independence
movements. The independence movements have some degree of international
support, thus making internal control within the borders into an issue
with resonance in China’s foreign relations.
Task Number Three: Establishing National Identity
The Westernizing May Fourth Movement that began in 1919 was sparked
by outrage at Western betrayal of China's interests at the peace negotiations
ending World War I at Versailles. While European ideologies had their
roots in European culture, China's ferment was reactive in both motive
and content. Chinese tried to decide whether they should totally Westernize
their culture, or whether there was something in it that was worth saving.
In 1949 Mao Zedong declared, "China has stood up." With his "Sinification
of Marxism," Mao claimed to have combined a national identity with
a cosmopolitan one, and to have forged a world-class model of thought
and society that was distinctively Chinese.
But Mao's death initiated a new period of debate over China’s
place in the world. In the era of reform and opening, the disagreement
between those who favor and those who oppose Westernization (often referred
to respectively as "liberals" and "conservatives")
remained the fundamental cleavage of Chinese politics.
The problem of cultural identity infuses every aspect of China's foreign
relations. Schoolchildren learn about nineteenth century Western imperialism:
Treaty Ports and concessions (foreign-governed areas in Chinese cities),
foreign leaseholds and spheres of interest, extraterritoriality (by which
foreigners in China charged with crimes were judged under foreign laws
by foreign judges), "most-favored-nation" clauses which required
China to extend low-tariff treatment to all its trading partners regardless
of whether they did the same in return.
Chinese nationalism is thus powered by feelings of national humiliation
and pride. In turn, it generates debates about why China is weak and
how it can be strong; about lost territory; and about reclaiming a leading
position in the world. With the fading of the Communist Party's utopian
ideals, nationalism remains its most reliable claim to the people's loyalty.
The only important value still shared by the regime and its critics,
it unites Chinese of all walks of life no matter how uninterested they
are in other aspects of politics. Many Chinese see themselves as a nation
beleaguered, unstable at home because insecure abroad, and vulnerable
abroad because weak at home.
The consultant for this unit is Andrew J. Nathan, professor of Chinese
politics at Columbia University. The unit draws from Andrew J. Nathan
and Robert S. Ross, The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China’s
Search for Security (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997).