What Does China Want?

What Does China Want? By John Burtkaiv.

Does China really want to dominate not only the Pacific, but the world?

One book published quietly in 2016 prior to the election sheds light on these pressing questions. Howard French’s masterful, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, digs deep into China’s history to understand their self-conception as a people and civilization. Former White House Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, told me that he considers it to be one of his top three China books …

The traditional Chinese worldview:

The Central Kingdom would not tolerate any peers in Asia or anywhere else in the world. How could they? China is the sun, and every other country a moon or satellite in their orbit. …

China would only tolerate vassal states as part of their tribute system. The price of admission was nothing less than “ritual submission before the Chinese emperor.” And there could only ever be one emperor under the heavens. …

One of the more colorful stories in French’s book describes an attempt by the British crown to open-up trade relations with China. King George III sent Lord Macartney to meet with Emperor Qianlong to discuss his proposal.

The Qianlong Emperor in ceremonial armour

Macartney arrived on a “sixty-four-gun man-of-war,” loading with gifts including “a room-size planetarium, giant lenses, a hot air balloon…and modern weaponry.” The British considered themselves to be a global empire at the peak of their powers. The Chinese were not impressed. To make matters worse, the British diplomat refused to “perform the ‘full’ kowtow while presenting himself before the Chinese throne…according to the standard ritualized submission demanded by Chinese protocol under tian xia.”

Such an affront to the Son of Heaven could not be tolerated. The Emperor sent a letter back with Lord Macartney regarding his decision about free trade. His message to the King was clear:

“…your Ambassador has now put forward new requests, which completely fail to recognize the Throne’s principle to…exercise a pacifying control over barbarian tribes, the world over…Nevertheless, I do not forget the lonely remoteness of your island, cut off from the world by intervening wastes of sea, nor do I overlook your excusable ignorance of the usages of our Celestial Empire.”

After carrying on with insults for a few more paragraphs, he concluded with a sober warning: “Should your vessels touch the shore, your merchants will assuredly never be permitted to land or to reside…but will be subject to instant expulsion…Tremblingly obey and show no negligence! A special mandate!”

This historic encounter is instructive as it reveals how the Middle Kingdom conducted diplomacy with the West. The principles of tian xia applied not only to tributary states in their own sphere of influence, but also to great powers on the other side of the world.

Access to Chinese markets came at a price and that price was submission. Those who were willing to bend a knee could gain access to one of the largest markets in the world. For everyone else, the financial benefit to the Middle Kingdom was not worth the humiliation of recognizing another country as a peer, especially when that country was a “lonely” island “cut off from the world…by wastes of sea.” …

And today?

There’s something that rings true today about de Tocqueville’s description of Americans even though his visit took place nearly two hundred years ago. More importantly, we should pay attention when a political leader invokes history and tradition as precedent for actions today.

When judged by that standard, Xi Jinping’s regime fits squarely within the tradition of tian xia outlined by French.

hat-tip Stephen Neil