“Is China an Empire?” by Toh Han Shih

While the brightness of China’s economic and geopolitical future is a subject of recurring debate, the prospects for the “China book” industry seem undiminished. Toh Han Shih’s recent Is China an Empire? is, the title notwithstanding, one of the more straightforward and restrained entrants. The book, based to a large extent on the former South China Morning Post journalist’s own reporting, is largely a region-by-region, country-by-country overview of China’s presence and activities around the world. The section on Africa even contains a newspaper-by-newspaper review of local attitudes toward China.

Is China an Empire?, Toh Han Shih (World Scientific, January 2017)
Is China an Empire?, Toh Han Shih (World Scientific, January 2017)

These sections are useful overviews and provide a good sense of trajectory. There is furthermore no small benefit in having them all in one place, rather than spread over multiple sources divided by region or topic. Toh further brings to the material a business journalist’s eye for data as well as for the well-placed anecdote and quote. The various sections are prefaced by somewhat less useful summary histories that contain much, one supposes or at least hopes, is already known by anyone interested and willing to make use of the detail that follows.


The framing specified in the title, however, somewhat trips up the analysis. Using the dictionary definition of empire, e.g. “a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority”, as opposed to so, say, political organization based around the nation state, then China arguably is one. Indeed, it is perhaps the only one still left of the pre-WW1 group that included the Ottoman, Russian (and later Soviet) and Austro-Hungarian empires.

This is not however what Toh means: he means to ask whether China is or will be an empire in the sense that the United States is, metaphorically rather than literally, an empire. Toh quotes Lenin on “imperialism”, but imperialism or imperialist behaviour is not or is at least no longer synonymous with empire per se. Inconsistency in the use of terminology leads to some problems. “China in the 21st century lacks some essential elements of an empire,” Toh writes.


Although millions of Chinese have settled in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia and North America, they … did not claim sovereignty in these regions, while European armies and settlers did.


The British Empire of the 19th and 20th centuries was not driven by settlement: very few British people emigrated permanently to the colonies. And of course, the United States, Toh’s archetypal modern empire, has never experienced much outward migration at all.

Setting nomenclature aside, Toh’s underlying and far better question asks the extent to which China will develop geopolitically along the American model of inter-related economic, military and political dominance: a “superpower”, in other words. In the sense of having a global merely than just regional footprint, China—as Toh painstakingly-collected evidence indicates—seems well on its way.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.