China's Foreign Policy: The Historical Legacy and the Current Challenge

China's traditional self-image as a universalistic civilization and a world cultural center long made it difficult to forge an identity in a world of nation-states. Since the late nineteenth century, Chinese intellectuals and political leaders debated the question of how China is to view itself: as a modernizing republic, a member of the socialist world, a third world developing country, a participant in the Western-oriented international trading society that encompasses Europe, the Americas, Japan and the rest of the Pacific Rim, or the creator of a new Chinese model of authoritarian development.

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's economy was based on agriculture and domestic trade, leaving the country vulnerable to pressure from more advanced countries. 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 struggled 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.

But Chinese economic and technological systems remained 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, but 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 and technologies. But at the end of Mao's life in 1976, China's economy was stagnant, 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 at first 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 became one of the world's major trading nations and joined the World Trade Organization, which sets the rules for the global trading economy.

The reform economy grew rapidly and fostered a large private sector, which came to include some of the world's biggest companies. But the Chinese government protected a dominant role for state-owned enterprises and kept state control of banking, transportation, and energy. This state-led model of growth lifted all but a small fraction of Chinese people out of poverty, developed a large middle class, propelled China to global leadership in many areas of technology, and provided China with the resources to launch an ambitious "Belt and Road Initiative" aimed at strengthening the links between the Chinese economy and those of dozens of other countries around the world. But the Chinese growth model also generated many problems such as environmental damage, large amounts of bad debt, overinvestment, and oversupply, which the government worked to manage.

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 countries.

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. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, China had to give up claims to to substantial pieces of territory which were ceded to Great Britain, Japan, Russia, France, and other states and to varying degrees of paramountcy over Burma, Vietnam, Korea, the Ryukyu Islands, outer Mongolia, and parts of Central Asia and Siberia. 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 loss 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, Uyghurs, and Kazaks. Many members of these minority groups are dissatisfied with Chinese rule. The Tibetans and Uyghurs in particular have resisted Chinese efforts to intensify control over their territories, and they enjoy some degree of international support. This makes internal control within the borders 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. 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 favored and those who opposed Westernization (often referred to respectively as "liberals" and "conservatives") remained the fundamental cleavage of Chinese politics. The clash between the two camps came to a crisis during the Tiananmen Incident of 1989, when pro-democracy demonstrators challenged the Chinese Communist Party's authoritarian rule. The conservatives carried out a military crackdown on the demonstrators. Since that time, the government has maintained tight control over political speech and political activity while continuing to allow considerable freedom in personal life. The government promotes national pride, and demands loyalty both to traditional cultural values like harmony and deference to authority, and to "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

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. They also learn about the brilliance of Chinese civilization and the revolutionary tradition of the Chinese Communist Party.

Chinese nationalism is thus powered by feelings of national humiliation and pride. In turn, it generates debates about why China was weak and how it can become even stronger; 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. Despite the rapid growth of the Chinese economy in the post-Mao period, 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 political science 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) and from Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China's Search for Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

Discussion Questions

  1. Assume the role of one of China's leaders and explain why economic development is important to China's national security.

  2. How did China traditionally view itself and its position in relation to other outlying peoples and cultures? How is this different from its position today in a world of nation states?

  3. List some of the factors and sentiments that contribute to Chinese nationalism today. Would you characterize these as "positive" or "negative," or both?

  4. Consider and discuss what Mao Zedong meant when he said in 1949 that "China has stood up."