One need look no further than Britain’s impending departure from the European Union for an example of how once apparently dormant elements of a nation’s self-image can be reawakened. An abiding historical sense of aloofness and suspicion of Europe, which seemed to have been quelled by the forces of globalisation in recent decades, has emerged in the last year with renewed vigour. Evident also in the appeal of Trump to persistent American notions of exceptionalism, the flattening of specific cultural characteristics engendered by globalisation seems not to have greatly shifted the fundamentals of how these countries view both themselves and the outside world.
China’s relationship with the global community has, for much of recent history, been one in which it was forcibly made subordinate. Over the course of the so-called “century of humiliation”, the country was subject to invasion and exploitation by foreign forces. After the rise of the Communist party, and the subsequent decades of isolation and fierce nationalism, China remained on the margins, until the economic approach of Deng Xiaoping opened the door to international reintegration. In considering China’s current global approach and searching for lessons from the past, the significance of this period looms large, and suggests a reading of the country’s current bullish attitude and vaulting economic success as either a reaction against its earlier subjugation, or something of a surprise.
The best account we currently have of the cultural and historical influences on China’s 21st century aspirations.
In Everything Under the Heavens, however, journalist Howard French reminds us that China’s diminished global position in the 19th and 20th centuries was very much an historical anomaly:
For the better part of two millennia, the norm for China, from its own perspective, was a natural dominion over everything under the heaven, a concept known in the Chinese language as tian xia.
This world view, which dates to at least the Han dynasty, has China at the top of the global food chain, the “middle kingdom” to which tribute must be paid, and which in return guarantees financial and military support.
Combining historical research with investigative journalism, French traces the connections between this historical conception and the country’s current aspirations, particularly with regard to the South China Sea. Through his considered analysis and investigations, the scale of 21st-century Chinese ambition, and its determination not to be simply absorbed into the Western liberal order, become powerfully evident.
Since the ascendance of Xi Jinping to the presidency, it has become clear that China’s goal is not retribution or simple parity with Western powers. Through a combination of hard and soft power China is availing itself of what, due to economic and demographic pressures, is a limited window of opportunity in order to establish economic dominance of the Asia-Pacific region, and to develop a military force which allows it to act without hindrance from any other global power. French lucidly illuminates the specifics of these ambitions with detailed historical investigation, turning over some long-held truisms along the way. In particular, the naval ambitions of Zheng He, the Ming dynasty admiral whose fleet set out from China in a series of expeditions in the Indian Ocean, is characterized not as a representative of diplomacy and trade, as he is generally conceived by the Chinese, but instead as a hard power force sent to subjugate and intimidate. French deftly draws parallels between the dominance of the Western Pacific by the Chinese during the expansionist Ming era and Beijing’s current approach:
Everything about its diplomatic language says that [China] views the Western Pacific as it once did its ancient known world, its tian xia, and that it intends for this region to return to its status as a place where China’s paramount standing goes unchallenged.
This is not, however, a jeremiad; aiming rather to “deexceptionalize [China’s] attitudes towards strength and power”, French avoids the hyperbolic inflation of China’s threat to global stability that sometimes afflicts less sober-minded commentators. Partly, this is attributable to French’s sheer hard work, for this is not a speculative work, but one grounded in old-fashioned research—both in the library and on the ground.
Though the correlation between China’s imperial past and its current expansionist approach may not be causative, Everything Under the Heavens provides the best account we currently have of the cultural and historical influences on China’s 21st century aspirations.