Must we understand the past, to get to grips with China's future

June 23, 2024 22:09

I had the pleasure of sharing a panel with several old friends and esteemed colleagues on a panel that revolved around understanding China’s present and future through examining its past. The discussion was anchored by a robust and sagacious contribution from the keynote speaker, who shed light on four key pillars of the country’s past that remain germane to its contemporary politics: Marxist-Leninism, performance legitimacy, the calamities and hardships it endured during the late 19th and 20th centuries, as well as ancient Chinese philosophical doctrines and ideals – e.g. Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.

The discussion was exceptionally fruitful and wide-ranging. Yet a topic that I should have more directly brought up – in retrospect – concerned China’s economic diplomacy. The Silk Road – both Land and Maritime – provided China with the primary conduits and means of accessing countries and economies in regions as distant as the Horn of Africa and Eastern Europe. Through the complex, sprawling, almost byzantine network of trade routes and people-to-people ties, the Silk Road played a crucial role in delivering vital resources and copious volumes of wealth to China, whilst exporting Chinese goods, ideology, and cultural symbolism to its many neighbours.

With the exception of occasional skirmishes against bandits and unruly insurgents, China’s Silk Road project had largely been maintained through peaceful means – largely without the active deployment of an army, and, even where military conflicts erupted, certainly without the same intensity of violent, brutish, and callous violence that had characterised vast swathes of Europe and the Middle East throughout the 2nd millennium. Indeed, during the Tang Dynasty, at the apex of the ‘tributary system’ – what certain economic historians would dub hierarchical systems of economic extraction, predicated upon a normative logic centred around the ‘Middle Kingdom’ – China would effectively serve as a de facto custodian and mediating force in relation to inter-tribal and inter-territorial disputes in the proverbial “Xiyu”. Hierarchies aside, such tributes were paid, willingly and pliantly, without the overt threat of external invasion or regime toppling.

This observation does not, of course, justify the premature conclusion that there is something distinctively ‘moral’ or ‘righteous’ about Chinese political culture and its civilisational DNA; nor does it support hasty generalisations about China as a contemporary power – for one, the assertion that we have not initiated or fought a war over the past century for we are “innately peaceful people”, would be bitterly contested by Vietnamese citizens.

Yet the broader point holds: since the West Han dynasty, the many dynasties that have ruled over China have by and large resorted to commerce, exchanges of goods (less so services), as well as the ensuing dissemination of ideologies, languages, and cultural norms, to establish their presence and influence over Central and West Asia. Such an approach yielded two distinct upsides: first, through avoiding bloodshed and active warfare, as well as optimising the flow of capital and goods, these dynasties managed to hold onto their coffers, spending significantly more on domestic infrastructural construction and de facto “fiscal” stimulus (e.g. hand-outs) than their militaries and defenses; second, trade was an especially effective method through which Chinese rulers could highlight the ‘win-win’ nature of engaging with them – even if such ‘win-win’, as it turned out, would be somewhat skewed in favour of the powerful in possession of greater bargaining capital.

As a mentor of mine once commented, trade flows from ancient China were akin to the flow from a tap. The emperor would keep the tap fully open and running – until or unless he felt threatened or challenged by one of its many ‘tributary states’. Then, the tap would be closed off, at times selectively, at times comprehensively, both as a means of punishing deviants, as well as signalling the resolve and muscle of the ruling dynasty. This ‘tap’ analogy goes a long way in delineating the economic statecraft of imperial China – by no means benign and fundamentally self-serving, though also in a way that stifled prospective escalation into large-scale hot wars and invasions.

The relationship was not always asymmetrically skewed in favour of those in ancient China – especially during times with several competing power centres, or when the central leadership was structurally weak. Consider, for instance, the collapse of the Song dynasty under a combination of internal corruption, inept political leadership, and, of course, the unstoppable Mongolian invasion. Or the period of intense fragmentation and balkanisation subsequent to the botched conclusion of the Tang Dynasty, which saw a slew of powers contest one another in embittered, entrenched combat, leveraging and drawing upon backing from neighbouring tribes and peoples outside the narrowly defined ‘Zhongyuan’, with the hopes of securing overarching control over the terrain. During these periods, the tap ended up dysfunctional – there was no single gatekeeper, and the powers to the west and north of China took due advantage of the situation.

Understanding the historical patterns here is vital in enabling us to grapple with China’s present state. There are at least three hypotheses here. First, the “trade, not invade” strategy had proven to be efficacious over vast swathes of the territory’s history; contemporary leaders draw reference from this, and hence refrain from military exertion and exploits that could well prove to be stability-undermining.

Second, historical tropes such as the one delineated above are oft-coopted by present leaders to rhetorically and discursively justify, or frame, economic interest-driven decisions. The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ makes economic sense as a means for China to make use of its vast dollar reserves and seek to escape the Mid-Income Trap, via proactively offshoring manufacturing operations to ‘friendly’ nations; the history of the Silk Road hence provides a normatively resonant and compelling narrative for the incumbent leadership to pursue this cause in full.

Third, only when we understand the terms of reference of the people of a country, could we understand their psyche. History is, of course, rarely neutral and objective. The appropriation, reconstruction, and transmission of history by state authorities and non-state actors have played an outsized role in shaping the hearts, minds, and views of the Chinese people. Through understanding the history – or, more precisely, the collectively fostered (or negotiated) conception of history – of the Chinese state, we thus move a few steps closer to the important, though elusive, task of grasping the idiosyncrasies, heterogeneities, and complexities of the Chinese public today.

Assistant Professor, HKU