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China, hegemon pasnic?

autor: Yuan-kang Wang on the relationship between Chinese power, culture, and foreign policy behavior.

Several others have written about American exceptionalism. It won't surprise you to learn that China has its own brand. Most Chinese people -- be they the common man or the political, economic, and academic elite -- think of historical China as a shining civilization in the center of All-under-Heaven, radiating a splendid and peace-loving culture. Because Confucianism cherishes harmony and abhors war, this version portrays a China that has not behaved aggressively nor been an expansionist power throughout its 5,000 years of glorious history. Instead, a benevolent, humane Chinese world order is juxtaposed against the malevolent, ruthless power politics in the West.

The current government in Beijing has recruited Chinese exceptionalism into its notion of a "peaceful rise." One can find numerous examples of this line of thought in official white papers and statements by President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and other officials. The message is clear: China's unique history, peaceful culture, and defensive mindset ensure a power that will rise peacefully.

All nations tend to see their history as exceptional, and these beliefs usually continue a heavy dose of fiction. Here are the top three myths of contemporary Chinese exceptionalism.

Myth #1: China did not expand when it was strong.

Many Chinese firmly believe that China does not have a tradition of foreign expansion. The empirical record, however, shows otherwise. The history of the Song dynasty (960-1279) and the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) shows that Confucian China was far from being a pacifist state. On the contrary, Song and Ming leaders preferred to settle disputes by force when they felt the country was strong, and in general China was expansionist whenever it enjoyed a preponderance of power. As a regional hegemon, the early Ming China launched eight large-scale attacks on the Mongols, annexed Vietnam as a Chinese province, and established naval dominance in the region.

But Confucian China could also be accommodating and conciliatory when it lacked the power to defeat adversaries. The Song dynasty, for example, accepted its inferior status as a vassal of the stronger Jin empire in the twelfth century. Chinese leaders justified their decision by invoking the Confucian aversion to war, arguing that China should use the period of peace to build up strength and bide its time until it had developed the capabilities for attack. In short, leaders in Confucian China were acutely sensitive to balance-of-power considerations, just as realism depicts.

Myth 2: The Seven Voyages of Zheng He demonstrates the peaceful nature of Chinese power.

In the early fifteenth century, the Chinese dispatched seven spectacular voyages led by Zheng He to Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and East Africa. The Chinese like to point out that Zheng He's fleets did not conquer an inch of land, unlike the brutal, aggressive Westerners who colonized much of the world. Instead, they were simply ambassadors of peace exploring exotic places.

This simplistic view, however, overlooks the massive naval power of the fleet-27,000 soldiers on 250 ships-which allowed the Chinese to "shock and awe" foreigners into submission. The Chinese fleet engaged in widespread "power projection" activities, expanding the Confucian tribute system and disciplining unruly states. As a result, many foreigners came to the Ming court to pay tribute. Moreover, the supposedly peaceful Zheng He used military force at least three times; he even captured the king of modern-day Sri Lanka and delivered him to China for disobeying Ming authority. Perhaps we should let the admiral speak for himself:

"When we reached the foreign countries, we captured barbarian kings who were disrespectful and resisted Chinese civilization. We exterminated bandit soldiers who looted and plundered recklessly. Because of this, the sea lanes became clear and peaceful, and foreign peoples could pursue their occupations in safety."

Myth 3: The Great Wall of China symbolizes a nation preoccupied with defense.

You've probably heard this before: China adheres to a "purely defensive" grand strategy. The Chinese built the Great Wall not to attack but to defend.

Well, the first thing you need to remember about the Great Wall is that it has not always been there. The wall we see today was built by Ming China, and it was built only after a series of repeated Chinese attacks against the Mongols had failed. There was no wall-building in early Ming China, because at that time the country enjoyed a preponderance of power and had no need for additional defenses. At that point, the Chinese preferred to be on the offensive. Ming China built the Great Wall only after its relative power had declined.

In essence, Confucian China did not behave much differently from other great powers in history, despite having different culture and domestic institutions. As realism suggests, the anarchic structure of the system compelled it to compete for power, overriding domestic and individual factors.

Thus, Chinese history suggests that its foreign policy behavior is highly sensitive to its relative power. If its power continues to increase, China will try to expand its sphere of influence in East Asia. This policy will inevitably bring it into a security competition with the United States in the region and beyond. Washington is getting out of the distractions of Iraq and Afghanistan and "pivoting" toward Asia. As the Chinese saying goes, "One mountain cannot accommodate two tigers." Brace yourself. The game is on.

Yuan-kang Wang is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Western Michigan University.


Via Flickr:
Kurban Tulum holds the distinction of being the only person to share a monument with Chairman Mao Zedong in all of China.

As the story behind this statue goes, Kurban Tulum, whom the Chinese call Uncle Kurban or Uncle Kuerban (库尔班大叔 kù ěr bān dà shū), was a Uyghur electrician, born in 1883 in the Keriya oasis in what is now Keriya / Yutian County in southern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China. (There is also a monumental statue of this meeting in the town of Keriya / Yutian.)

When the People's Liberation Army marched into Xinjiang, a few years after the 1949 revolution, Tulum was so hopeful, after the deep difficulties under the corrupt Republican officials and the warlords that had held sway in Xinjiang, that he rode more than 1,500 km around the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang to the provincial capital of Urumqi on his donkey (or donkey cart) to bring grapes/raisins (or a melon) -- symbolic of the agricultural wealth of this large desert river oasis -- as a symbol of appreciation for Chairman Mao.

Seeing a public relations bonanza in the making, the Party officials in Urumqi arranged for him to be flown more than 3,000 km to from Urumqi to Beijing to meet with Mao Zedong.

The Chinese government likes to hold up 'Uncle Kurban' as an ideal for Uyghurs, who they believe should welcome the government's policies in Xinjiang. Many Uyghurs resent him for the same reason, perhaps like Native American Indians would view the Lone Ranger's partner Tonto or African Americans would view Uncle Tom.

All Chinese children learn the story of Uncle Kurban in school, along with the ditty "Very Happy Uncle Kuerban."
One of China's best-known revolutionary songs carries his name - "Where are you going, Uncle Kuerban?" (库尔班大叔你上哪 Kuerban Dashu Nin Shang Na Er), which you can listen to here at The Old Record (Lao Chang Pian).

In 2002, yet another movie was made of the story, "Uncle Kuerban visits Beijing" (库尔班大叔上北京 Kuerban Dashu Shang Beijing), whose story has morphed into the myth of a simple-minded country bumpkin with beatific faith in Mao and the salvation of Communist liberation. See a roughly translated review of this movie. (The Chinese characters used to transliterate the foreign name Kurban are the same as the characters for, and are thus automatically translated as, cabinet and those for his last name Tulum as vomit.)

See a photo of the actual meeting, which took place on June 28, 1958, at The Opposite End of China blog.

Kurban Tulum was an ethnic Uyghur (also spelled Uighur, Uygur, Uigur and, in Chinese, 维吾尔 Weiwuer). The Uyghurs, who speak a Turkic language and have a Turkic culture closely related to that of the people of neighboring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, made up more than 90% of the population of Xinjiang at the time of the 1949 revolution, but now make up only about half of the population, due to an intensive government program of migration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang.

This monumental statue is in Unity Square in the center of Hotan, an ancient city on the southern rim of the Taklamakan Desert, famed through the centuries for jade, carpets and silk. See 150+ images of Hotan -- including sights, tours, silk workshop, carpet workshop, ancient ruins, hotels, restaurants, and more -- here at Flickr at this collection: Collection: Hotan, Xinjiang, China

For much more detailed travel information about Hotan, see Central Asia Traveler on Hotan, with more than 30 pages on sightseeing, transport, hotels, restaurants, history and culture.

See a wider perspective photo of this statue in Hotan -- the figures are about 7 meters tall -- at

Read more about Keriya / Yutian, Kurban Tulum's home region -- with maps, sightseeing, transport, lodging, and dining details -- at my Central Asia Traveler on Keriya / Yutian page.

A building in Ga Tuoluo Zi village, 15 km from the town of Keriya / Yutian, houses a small museum dedicated to Kurban Tulum. (His Uyghur first name, transliterated into Chinese characters, 库尔班, is often rendered by automatically translators as cabinet and last name (turumu or tulumu) as vomit.) See here a few more pictures of the Memorial Building and inside the museum.

Changed equation?

As it should, realist IR theory—just like any IR theory—is based on an examination of a long historical record. Certainly and especially encompassing the whole of the last century or two.

But it seems to me that this can miss big changes: It's one thing, for example, to look at the history of the last couple of centuries and conclude that nasty competition is always going to exist and push is very often going to come to shove between great powers over "competing interests."

But what happens when those "competing interests" don't arise due to territorial disputes/aggressions/aggrandizements?

Those, after all, were what were seen as the great evil before and leading to WWII, and what the int'l community then particularly condemned. And that lesson was so deeply imbibed that it was this that George H.W. Bush said particularly impelled him to kick Iraq out of Kuwait.

So aside from Taiwan, which itself is an unusual situation in many respects, do we really expect China to become territorially aggressive?

If not, and it is not, then I wonder just how much and how serious the friction is going to be between China and her neighbors and the U.S. Especially since we seem to have already swallowed China's absorption of Tibet. (And sit back and somewhat enjoy the troubles Tibet gives to China for doing so, as well as the troubles China has with its Moslem province(s).)

Take territorial disputes out of the realist equation and I suspect you get a very different picture of things. Indeed, do so for example in the Mideast with Israel and the occupied territories dispute and I at least could see all the remaining issues resolving themselves far more readily than they have, with much cooler passions at work.

Don't forget about the Han and the Tang

Maybe the writer decided to not mention the Tang as they were Buddhist and the Han as they were so ancient. But the Tang era was very open, ideologically and ethnically, and expansionist. Lots of outside cultural influences at that time, influences that remained even when China went xenophobic later on.

Also the Han was expansionist. The territorial conquests of both dynasties are part of China's claim to ownership of Xinjiang and their conquests and foreign policies underlie the old claim to cultural and political paramountcy in East Asia.

People tend to argue over principles, but fight over land.

RE: "All nations tend to see their history as exceptional...

"...and these beliefs usually continue a heavy dose of fiction." ~ Yuan-kang Wang

"....To make the case that they are exceptional, nations invariably have to invent heroic stories about themselves. As Stephen Van Evera notes, “Chauvinist mythmaking is a hallmark of nationalism, practiced by nearly all nationalist movements to some degree.” Those myths, he argues, “come in three principal varieties: self-glorifying, self-whitewashing, and other-maligning.” Of course, those myths are directly linked to the nation’s understanding of its history, which is why Renan said that “historical error is an essential feature in the creation of a nation.”...
SOURCE - "Kissing Cousins: Nationalism and Realism", by John J. Mearsheimer, University of Chicago, May 5, 2011

A comment from China

Chinese are just humans beings (forgive my plain English), and just like all the other human beings, we were, and still are and ought to be in the future, entitled to erring. I admitted that what we did to Vietnam was not right, at least not in a way that we are prompting now. However, China has never said that our seeking a peaceful rising was grounded in the truth that we had never did anything bad to our neighbors -- no we never said so. I hope everyone here to just judge using your own mind that, whether you really think it is fair to classify China as a "expansionist". If so, then what you would call Great Britain, Russia, and United States in 1800s? (Just don't want to mention The Third Reich and Imperial Japan). The harm China did to its neighbours is far less than others did to China.

I do not have an IR background, but instead, engineering. I am interested in IR as a hobby. Me mentioning the other countries above DOES NOT mean that I think they are BAD, but to the contrary, I have good feelings to most of them. I have a couple of good friends from United States, South Korea and Europe, thanks to the time when I was doing my graduate study in the US. We are still in touch and I even have the photos of my foreign friends' children they sent to me when they became parents for the first times in their lives -- and I was so happy to see their great achievements and enjoyed the title of "uncle".

All in all, my view is that promoting harmony and seeing/saying good of others are far better than mulling over a disputed issue like a warmonger.

This good and funny

China has had a foreign policy of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other nations for the past half century. This has been a very consistent policy and many nations in the world trust them for this reason.

This essay is funny. It claims the policy is based on a myth because the Song dynasty (in about the year 1000, when Europe was in the depths of the dark ages) and the Ming dynasty (in about 1450 a half century before Europe discovered the Americas) were aggressive expansionist empires. So therefore we should be suspicious of China. Going back 500 to 1000 years back to breed suspicion is totally nuts. That is like saying we should make war on the Canaanites because of their despicable behavior 2500 years back (oops, some nations still do). Nevertheless, those histories are not how modern nations should judge each other.

I lived in China for a year and found it one very fascinating place. Lack of personal privacy made it very oppressive for me but I left with tremendous respect for their history and culture. Based on behavior over the last century, I do believe China is a much more trustworthy nation in its dealings with other nations than are the US, Europe or Russia. I think that is one reason China is gaining so much acceptance in Africa and South America. Interesting, don't you think, that China has gained more oil contracts in Iraq in the last decade than any American based oil company.

Historical Discrepancies

I find it amusing in 'myth 2' he cites Chinese... when in fact the voyages he speaks of where instigated by the Yuan dynasty', who were the Mongolian invaders who ruled China during China's most prosperous time in history.

By the time the ships had returned a year or so later the Yuan dynasty had been overthrown, and then China went back to its own 'closed door' mentality, and poverty I might add.

The Chinese are always historical revisionists. This example is no exception. Just because they lived in the mainland, it doesn't automatically make them Chinese (as much as most Chinese would like it to).

China was conquered by the Mongolians, pure and simple. Get over it. And just because inner Mongolia is now part of mainland China, is not equal to 'they' were at that time Chinese.

The worst people in the world to talk about Chinese history are the Chinese themselves due to this obtusification of facts.

Chinese exceptionalism

I have a few counterpoints for YK Wang. 1. In the past, the tribes around China do not have Confucian culture. They believe in military power and force only in settling any dispute. So in any border dispute, military confrontation is unavoidable. The Chinese excursion into the territory of Mongol and Vietnam to settle the border dispute are the examples when the then China is strong enough and doesn't confirm that China is an expansionist or land grabber. The recent China-India and the Vietnam border wars are another examples that China is not an expansionist like Western powers. China withdrew completely and returned all prisioners of war and offer to negotiate. USA wikk station thousands of troops in Iraq, Afghan even though USA declare withdrawal from those countries. China settled the dispute with Vietnam peacefully while India refused. The present Chinese government entered Tibet peacefully by negotiaitons. China use the period of peace to build up strength and bide its time until it had developed the capabilities to demand the revocation of any unfair treaties and restrictions. Don't forget that China had been invaded and occpied too. 2. Antagonistic confrontatons between strangers are unavoidabble. But Zheng He does demonstrate the peaceful nature of Chinese power compared to that of the West during those eras. 3. The Great Wall is a defensive structure, no matter how you look at it. China use offense for defensive purpose and not for offensive purpose as in the West. In the West peace means invasion and occupation, human rights means torture. "One mountain cannot accommodate two tigers." but humans are not tigers. We have Confucian and Christian beliefs, freedom democracy and human rights!

Myths are the products of

Myths are the products of rhetorical statements perpetrated on the gullible and uneducated.

Much of today's southern China is the product of Han military expansion, reactive toward aggression from the South or proactive in deliberate conquest.

One could say that Han expansionism was not particularly brutal. Once a subject submitted, it became the charge of the central government against external (third party) aggression.

Acculturation and assimilation within the same race has been a recurring social phenomenon in human history. The world accepts such as a normal and acceptable, objectively or subjectively per member states’ own domestic reality. This is why most Chinese in the South are Hans.

Tibet and Taiwan are already parts of China so the same tested and proven Chinese tradition of assimilation and integration will eventually prevail, and has to be allowed to prevail per international recognition.

China may well have approached diplomacy as a civilization state and other countries may have reciprocated in considering Chinese claims, but such claims have been recognized and are therefore no longer just claims but concrete diplomatic reality.

"The US acknowledges the Chinese claim that Taiwan is a part of China". Acknowledge: to recognize the claim or authority of; Webster def 3.

A type of Chinese exceptionalism is valid

China really is different from the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia in one very important respect. It is that for the most part China has not expanded into area where the people were racially quite different from the Hans.

I think social progress in these rootless ideal-driven states has the side effect of causing oblivion to history, or denial.

The USA has struggled far longer and more strenuously on racial differences, namely physiognomy, than any ethnicity; even the Slavic whites, Catholics, and Italians eventually became a part of the white melting pot long before any Civil Right movements for blacks and other racial minorities.

Natalie Wood, born Nikolaevna Zakharenko, was Russian. For a long time, many non-Anglo-Saxon whites just changed their name to become Anglo-Saxon. Just as a Wood can be Russian in America, a Chen can be Tibetan in China.

Also, there really is little racism (rigorous put) in China. The Chinese public likes their ethnic minorities, who perform with conviction and talent. The theme generally is “diverse but united”, with a lot of ethnic superficialities. I think one is wrong to scoff at such, as they are effective.

If black and other racial minorities in the USA could become white by dressing or speaking in a certainly way, there will be no Civil Rights or Black English in the USA. Minorities eventually will be thrilled to be a part of the majority, irrespective of what their parents once thought. If there is “cultural genocide”, then cultural suicide will be the greatest social thrill for many minorities, eventually all. Ask Obama Senior or OJ Simpson or Marcus Allen if they preferred cultural preservation or "cultural genocide". The latter I think.

Complexity creates an abstruse mien

With 293 languages & even more ethnicities, implausible is accuracy of any generalization about China. Analysis of the past to arrive at answers for the present properly concerns not the history of China, but the histories of its diverse peoples, which together form the mosaic from which appropriate conclusions can be derived. The past itself remains unsettled; a good way for those of us posting here to spend retirement, actually, would be to get together with an archeologist I know & spend a few years related to one of many, many manuscripts describing specific events in specific times. The government would welcome such endeavors, & the likelihood of significant findings is quite high.

This caveat notwithstanding, the statements by the author accord with my reading. Mention should be made of the dual nature of the Great Wall (constructed over four dynasties). Yes, it protected, but its construction was immensely costly in terms of money & lives. Have seen a fabulous photographic exhibit by one who only photographed the great wall! Here's the UNESCO website:

Nature of exceptionalism
Some readers missed the points of the article.

Chinese, like Americans, Israeli, Latvians etc. view their traditions, values etc. as unique. And that can be translated as exceptional.

And there is a considerable discrepancy with such INTERNALLY standard view on the nation with actual history and with the foreign perceptions.

Neither Chinese history not Chinese ideology is very simple, but Confucianism somehow was the most stable ideological system. I think Communism is closer to more statist/authoritarian Legism then to Confucianism, but Legism is also associated with Bad Rulers. The concept of Bad Rulers is very important in Confusianism, and perhaps the current rulers try to show that they are not Bad.

As Good Rulers, the current leaders should value harmony over expansion. This can create positive contrast with Western Barbarians like Americans.

It is of course convenient that the most expansionist dynasty, that is responsible for the current boundaries of China, was non-Chinese and thus not obliged to be Good Rulers. But, as we learn from Betalover, Qing conquered Tibet in a uniquely benevolent manner. Actually, more then once, but each time, very benevolently. The English were actually very impressed with Chinese institutions and copied some, including benevolent conquest. For example, queen Victoria approved the petition of Fiji islanders to be admitted to the British Empire.

The conquest of Xinjiang is not described in detail by Betalovers. If I recall, Dzungar Mongols who controlled it were exterminated. Now they do not complain (some survived and live near the mouth of Volga river), so nobody dwells on the topic.

I think that the principle of non-expansionism will feature in West-Chinese confrontations. We view ourselves as uniquely benevolent and from time to time we find to our utter amazement that this is not appreciated by China. Most recently, where we see humanitarian crisis in Syria and as we try to formulate ways to help the suffering population (Sen. McCain proposed air strikes) China sees an attempt of expansions that should be resolutely resisted.

I read proposals that we should simply explain our case properly to Chinese government and then surely it will see the light and, say, join crippling sanctions on Iran (and earlier, on North Korea). Do they want to be evil? But, in actuality, Chinese government has no problem convincing its population that this is the West that is evil in this instance.

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