In Xinhua’s September 3 coverage of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), Chinese President Xi Jinping sounded remarkably like a globalist. Self-conscious of China’s solidifying position as a major power, the Chinese premier ironically condemned “hegemony and power politics” while outlining transnational threats in his promotion of Beijing’s commitment to Africa and greater “humankind.”
Against a backdrop of American tariffs and Trumpian trade restructuring, the great power economics of Sino-American relations is entering a new era marked by a fundamental restructuring of America’s reaction to the long standing Chinese strategy. Rather than writing off Chinese strategy and its consequences, lawmakers of both parties would do well to learn from China’s example, and make Trump’s conscious linkage of the country’s political economy to American security a mainstay of our policy going forward.
Contrary to popular belief, Beijing’s increasing confidence on the world stage is not the result of post-Cold War globalization, nor is it the simple fruits of the reforms begun under the post-Mao reforms of Deng Xiaoping. Patriotic and conscious of the country’s relative weakness compared to foreign powers, China’s intellectual elite in the 19th century began advocating fuqiang, or “wealth and power,” as a means of undoing the deterioration caused by poverty and foreign conquest. From the First Opium Wars through most of the 19th century, China faced a conglomeration of challenges ranging from economic concessions to foreign powers, internal strife, drug addiction, and an increasingly ineffective Qing Dynasty. Aside from fundamental differences in the degree of turmoil and in governing structures, the parallels animating the origins of pre-Communist Chinese nationalism and America in the Trump-era are difficult to ignore.
While Britain’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 made the United Kingdom the dominant power in the Atlantic, it was the elimination of China’s great power status that ushered in British hegemony. According to most estimates, Qing-era China was home to the world’s largest economy; yet, increased pressure from the U.K. and increased opium addiction in China took their toll. In an effort to redress trade deficits with the Qing, the British promotion of opium use in China culminated in the first of a series of drug wars with a disastrous effect on the Chinese economy. Internal strife caused by the ensuing economic losses, and the increasing ethnic resentment between the Manchu Qing and China’s Han majority eventually peaked in the Chinese Revolution of 1911 and the establishment of the Republic of China.
Against this backdrop, Chinese thinkers formed the “self-strengthening” movement aimed at restoring the country’s economic and military power. The movement’s main focus was the examining of foreign powers’ capabilities in areas ranging from administration to technology, and military strategy to economic and business models.
If China’s self-strengtheners could examine America’s contemporary political economy, their critiques would be scathing but useful. One of modern China’s early political thinkers, Feng Guifen notes that late Qing China was moribund in areas of academia, job training, and development. The Left’s takeover of academia and promotion of increasingly pseudo-scientific disciplines in exchange for student loan debt jeopardizes the ability of young Americans’ to invest in homes, start-up businesses, and retirement. Contemporary America’s trite refrain that higher education leads to upward mobility similarly has ushered millions of the country’s young workers away from needed job training and skills vital to repairing infrastructure and manufacturing.
Feng likely would have agreed with Trump on the need to renegotiate trade deals and use state power to force trading partners to the table. Contrary to the claims of so-called free trade purists, American workers cannot simply “compete” their way to growth in the face of artificially cheap wages and the nonexistent environmental laws that lure American factories abroad. European economic efficiency alone did not secure trade concessions in 19th century China; rather, it was coercive diplomacy.
Comparing the United States at the time when Qing rule was waning, Liang Qichao noted that China suffered from a profound lack of national and civic responsibility. Qichao’s observation found the flip side of Feng Guifen’s assessment of poor Chinese political legitimacy compared to the West. Notably, Qichao lamented China’s lack of “civic” and “national consciousness” in the presence of stubborn parochial subnational interests. The Democrat Party’s increasingly tribal strategy of valuing citizens’ membership in the republic’s social contract along racial and class lines provide an eerie American parallel to the ills observed Qichao in Qing China.
China’s self-strengtheners would have readily understood the appeal of Donald Trump that so confounded pollsters and political scientists in 2016. Thinkers such as Feng Guifen would have recognized America’s increasing distrust of media elites. Republican China’s founder, Sun Yat-sen, would have seen reflections of his era in Americans’ simmering distrust of established political parties and traditional party platforms. If the activist-scholars of China’s past offered advice to contemporary American policymakers, they would look favorably upon Trump’s economic nationalism. Paradoxically, they likely would have been skeptical of Xi’s commitment to transnational threats while applauding Trump’s chutzpah in placing the interests of American workers in Pittsburgh ahead of the Paris climate accords.
If China overtakes the United States as the premier power of the 21st century, America would be the butt of an ironic joke. Contemporary China’s growth in economic and military power is not an unexpected phenomenon, but comes as the culmination of a national project begun in the early 19th century to reclaim the country’s international standing. Losing its status to European states of the time, China endeavored to learn from various aspects of the West’s economies, military technology, and society. Ironically, if America falls behind China in the 21st century, it will be against a China that grew in part because of emulating a previous and more robust version of the West. In seeking to keep the page of history from turning to a chapter beyond the American century, the United States would do well to take one from China’s past.
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