Is China a "rogue" country aggressively seeking hegemony in Asia, or a weakened one-party state desperately trying to control rapid social change? We may not know until it is too lateby Jonathan Spence / August 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
China is so huge, and carries an aura of such longevity, that one is always tempted to exaggerate everything about it. Problems that might be commonplace in other cultures assume an appearance of awesome intractability; and immense significance is ascribed to average achievements.
It is now almost seven centuries since the first copies of Marco Polo’s manuscript-describing China’s trade practices and social life under the Mongols-were first circulated, sparking western commercial, military and religious interest. Since that time, western concern to understand China has been a constant in travel literature, fiction and analytic forays. Most of these works take the position first expressed by the Dominican friar Gaspar da Cruz in 1557: that however overblown some of these accounts of China might seem, “China is much more than it sounds,” as opposed to the other countries of the world where “things often sound greater than they really are.” But over the centuries there have always been critics seeking to curb these excesses, and to present China as weak, static or downright contemptible. They include Daniel Defoe, Herder and Hegel, along with disillusioned missionaries, mercenary soldiers, frustrated diplomats and exhausted Comintern advisers.
Westerners have also fluctuated in their views as to whether China should more suitably be seen as supine victim or as potent threat. Their judgements have not always been based on reality. The pinnacle of Yellow Peril fears was probably between 1890 and 1915, when China was falling apart politically and militarily. The deepest sense of China as global threat to western values was surely-in the US at least-during the coldest war years of 1955 to 1970, when China was enduring maximum dislocation, famine and economic weakness. Now, as our century lurches towards its end, China is again re-emerging in analysts’ minds as a potent source of danger.
In The Coming Conflict with China, Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro explain at considerable length why we should be nervous about China, and-with much greater brevity-what we should try to do about it. The authors see some kind of conflict between the US and China as almost inevitable, given China’s “historic legacy” and its determination “to dominate Asia.” They see China as labouring under a “deep-seated psychological need” for greatness, a need frustrated over the last few centuries, which has induced in China a mood of “thwarted grandeur.” These are vast, vague statements, of a kind that put the authors…