Piers Brendon: Will China seek revenge for its century of humiliation at the hands of the West?





[Piers Brendon is a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University. His most recent book is The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781–1997.]

Among the gifts brought by Lord Macartney, who came to Beijing in 1793 on a historic embassy intended to open China to British merchants, was a map of the world, which the Emperor Ch’ien-lung found unacceptable because the Middle Kingdom was represented on it as too small and not in the middle. As it happened, Macartney’s compatriots had already established their own cartographical supremacy. During the eighteenth century Greenwich was adopted as the prime meridian of longitude, a convention internationally ratified in 1884, and imperial maps using Mercator’s projection made Britain seem greater than it really was. Toward the end of the Second World War, American writers such as Nicholas John Spykman and Neil MacNeil urged that their country’s dominant geopolitical power should be recognized by redrawing maps of the world to put the United States at the center.

Today, the question arises with increasing urgency: Is China set to occupy pride of place in the global picture as it had famously done in the time of Marco Polo?

The waking of the Asian giant, which was dormant for so long but has just overtaken Japan as the second-largest economy on the planet, is one of the most astonishing developments of the modern age. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in 1958, an attempt to collectivize agriculture which resulted in a famine that killed some 25 million people, appeared to show what might be expected from a Marxist dictatorship. Yet twenty years later, then–leader of China Deng Xiaoping initiated a “second revolution” which realized the vast potential of what was, at the time, one of the poorest and most undeveloped countries in the world.

Deng moved carefully, “crossing the river by feeling for the stones.” In an extraordinary balancing act, which Mikhail Gorbachev was quite unable to emulate in Russia, he permitted capitalist free enterprise while keeping a Communist grip on political power. The result was annual growth rates of nearly 10 percent over the next three decades. China’s share of global exports rose from 1.8 percent in 1980 to about 9 percent in 2010, usurping Germany’s top position in this league. It is projected to reach 12 percent by 2014, making the most populous country on earth the new workshop of the world.

The figures boggle the mind: The Chinese make nearly three-fifths of the world’s clothing, two-thirds of its shoes and four-fifths of its toys. China produces more cars than any other country, 13.79 million in 2009, as compared with Japan’s 7.93 million and America’s 5.7 million. Using more steel and cement than anyone else, China also has more miles of high-speed railway line. It makes nearly 70 percent of the world’s photocopiers, DVD players and microwave ovens. And it has leapfrogged the United States as the largest exporter of information technology—computers, mobile phones, digital cameras and so on. Not only have the Chinese just become the greatest consumers of energy, but they are spending billions of dollars on the creation of green technology and renewable sources of power—between 2008 and 2009 they doubled their wind-turbine capacity.

This year, according to the International Monetary Fund, China’s GDP will reach $5.36 trillion, slightly more than that of Japan. Of course, this is well below the U.S. figure of $14.79 trillion, but China’s economy is expected to overtake that of America, its largest overseas market, before 2030. Worse still for the United States, its trade deficit with the People’s Republic reached a record $268 billion in 2008. By mid-2009, China owned nearly 27 percent of America’s staggering $3.5 trillion foreign-held public debt. Thus the two nations, so alien politically and culturally, are locked together in an unprecedented, and what seems to be an inextricable, economic embrace.

How will it all end? Is it to be a spider-like clinch followed by a poisonous bite? Or is it to be a fruitful union in which each party learns to love the other? Will China attempt to translate its economic strength into military might and challenge the dominance of the world’s sole superpower? Since we can’t foresee the future, what answers does the past suggest? Not straight answers, unfortunately, for Clio, the muse of history and the only guide we’ve got, is about as lucid as the Delphic oracle...


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