China’s Impossible Dream of Order; Haunted by past humiliations, the nation’s leaders seek to restore what they see as its rightful place in the world.
by Paul Alexander
Since November 2021, Lithuania has been China’s enemy Number One. How did a country with 2 million inhabitants manage to provoke Chinese leaders to the point of ending diplomatic and commercial relations? The Lithuanian government dared to allow Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius, the capital, using the name Taiwan, instead of Taipei, the term that China prefers. Taipei is a city whose existence the Chinese regime cannot deny; Taiwan is a dissident republic that isn’t supposed to exist. The Lithuanians, fiercely anti-Communist after enduring Soviet Union occupation, acted deliberately. Perhaps they underestimated Beijing’s aggressive reaction—but then the West sometimes has difficulty grasping what appears to be Chinese paranoia.
In trying to understand China, Henry Kissinger observed—and he practiced this advice—one should put oneself in its place. Chinese leaders, haunted by a desire for international recognition, perceive the slightest breach in diplomatic protocol as a resurrection of imperialism. China was once the world’s greatest power, but it was late to recognize the West’s rise, as well as the importance of science and industry in fueling that rise. This blindness led to China’s effective colonization in the nineteenth century—by Europeans, Americans, and, in a supreme humiliation, the Japanese. Over the course of the nineteenth century, Chinese emperors had to sign treaties of surrender in bunches and to surrender territory, before the Empire collapsed totally in 1911.
Then followed a half-century of violent struggle between warlords, until the victory of the Communist army, led by Mao Zedong and supported by the Soviets, which put the Communist Party in power. The real reason Mao and his successors found acceptance among the various peoples of China was not due to the new leaders’ Marxism; it was because they ended the civil wars. They replaced the wars with the eradication of the middle class, totalitarian constraints on private life, the destruction of ancient customs, and the crushing of religions—but for the Chinese, anything was better than the horror of ceaseless civil strife. Too often in the West, we believe that the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy is based on economic growth, but this didn’t take off until 1979. More fundamental than growth is order. The Beijing regime is, in a way, akin to Franco’s Spain, more fascist than Communist, though any classification should be historically contextualized.
China under the CCP wants to maintain order, then, but it also wants to erase the stain of the colonial period. The official historiography blames the colonizers for all the woes that brought down the Empire. Chinese historians thus greatly exaggerate the importance of the Opium Wars (fought between 1839 and 1860), which were merely local conflicts, intensified by commercial rivalries between Chinese and British businesses. In reality, the Empire was a victim above all of its incapacity to modernize—a task that Japan, during the same period, accomplished.
If we consider this mind-set today, we’ll be less surprised that a rising China is indignant that international institutions, international laws, and human rights are imposed on it, while it had no part in their elaboration. If we were Chinese, we would not easily accept the presence of the American fleet patrolling our coastlines. As a Chinese ambassador to France asked: How would the Americans react if they saw, every day, the Chinese war fleet along the California coasts?