The following article was written by Aleksa Andrejevic. Aleksa studies History and International Relations at the University of Liverpool Hope and is a guest writter for The Political.
‘I am Emperor, my descendants will be numerous. From the second generation to the ten thousand, my line will not end.’ These are the very words of Qin Shu Huang, the first Emperor of the unified Chinese civilisation. Now, although his wish did come to fruition, the idea of order and harmony under one key ruler has stood the test of time in China. From 221 BC to the twenty first century, China has managed to uphold a great civilisation with the Confucius values of stability, unity, continuity and benevolence. How could this way of life survive the post-Cold War liberal democracy manifestation, that had swooped the world with the fall of the Soviet Union? Furthermore, how could have we imagined that economic liberalism would have been able to trample over the key values and philosophy of the Chinese civilisation? This miscalculation of the importance of civilisations has shown us in the Western world that we are not as well connected to the history of China and that of many other civilisations.
Earlier this year, the UK government presented to the House of Commons, the ‘Integrated Review’ which was to change the course of British foreign policy from the post-Cold War international order. In a speech to the US press, Dominic Raab stated the following: ‘this decade, the combined GDP of autocratic regimes is expected to exceed the combined GDP of the world’s democracies’ (NBC News, 2021). With the Indo-Pacific region representing 40% of global GDP and a real GDP growth of 7.1%, the advanced economies of the world have only seen a real GDP growth of 5.1% and thus one can see the stagnation between the Western world and the Far East (IMF, 2021). This information is crucial as it makes one ask the question; why has the western world stagnated in the post-Cold War international order and why has liberal democracies declined in an age when free trade was once considered to be a key tool in making autocracies more liberal in their administration?
In the past years of empire, the Western world ruled over nearly three-fifths of the world’s territory and a global population of more than three-quarters. Indeed, 79% of global economic output was produced under their global reign by 1913 (Ferguson, 2012: 5). In 1945, the average income of an American was 21 times more than that of a Chinese citizen. How has this statistic shrunk to about 4 times by 1994 and now much less? In the first quarter of 2021, China’s GDP has seen a growth of 18.3% which is estimated to be the highest increase in GDP in recent years. This is taking in account their contraction in 2020 of 6.8% due to the pandemic but one should not underestimate China’s average GDP growth of 6.5% (Cheng, 2021). The People’s Republic is poised to become the largest economy in the world by the end of this decade and they have already taken the lead in a purchasing power parity basis in 2017. This July shall mark the fifty-year anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to China which attempted to bring Chairman Mao and Richard Nixon closer together diplomatically and which eventually saw China joining the UN in 1971(Ferguson, 2021). No one would have predicted that the fastest industrial revolution in modern times would have taken place in the People’s Republic and in less than 50 years. Since that meeting in 1971, the West had thought that this was the final stage before China would finally become a fully westernised nation by adopting a closer tie with the US and liberal economics. When China joined the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and then the World Trade Organisation in 2001, the global north had set up the recipe for an ideological clash between Western Civilisation and the Chinese Sinic Civilisation. By 2003, 70% of US businesses stated that China’s open market policy proved to be a great profit to their businesses and thus here we see the divergence between the West and the Far East (see Tan in Foreign Affairs, 2021: 91). Since then, the People’s Republic has become the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter as well as the fastest growing consumer market and thus with this power and influence we can see its foreign policy much more in the outer world. Since the global financial crash of 2008, China has taken an active role in aiding the development of many nations from all corners of the globe. In Africa, China is its largest trading partner and contributes over $100 billion in revenue. Mass projects in North Africa, Zambia, Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa have developed the continent greatly but it has also left the continent in a debt trap with China which would only aid in her national interests (French, 2010). China’s Belt Road initiative has spread into the Middle East with its recent agreement with Iran and with this, the ancient silk road from China to Iran has been reborn once more. With the decline of American influence on the global stage since the rise of President Trump, China has taken a more active role in the United Nations, the World Bank and the IMF. This is because high officials from China are slowly taking on more responsibility in these organisations with the absence of the US. In order to understand how China has reached this position in the world, we must learn from our mistakes and take the time to understand how different its civilisation is compared to ours. We must not reason out, when it comes to China, in a western perspective as this was the problem which brought us here in the first place.
In order to understand the role of Xi Jinping and the Chinese communist party, the West needs to understand the history of the Chinese civilisation. China is considered to be one of the oldest civilisations on earth. From 2000BC till 770BC, the Xia, Shang and Zhao dynasties formed the first basis of governance in the Chinese region which grew throughout the rise and fall of each dynasty. In the Spring and Autumn period of 770BC to 476BC, the philosophy of Confucianism was coined by Master Kong (known as Confucius in the West) and it was to be the philosophy which would live on in Chinese history for many centuries onwards (Fukuyama, 2012: 98). Confucianism was an ideology based on regaining order and stability in a Chinese region which was previously in great conflict between its states after the steady decline of the Eastern Zhao provinces. Confucius had spoken of the importance of morality and virtues in how a society should be built. This aided the Chinese people in understanding the importance of the family structure and the obedience that man should have towards their elders. Sons should honour their fathers, wives their husbands, younger brothers their elder brothers and subjects their rulers (Keay, 2009: 70). The ruler of a society needs to be the connector of Heaven (Tian) and rites (li), with the morals and virtues that he expects his subjects to uphold. Thus, the Emperor needs to uphold order and harmony in order to keep peace and continuity for the families of his society (Grayling, 2020: 536). He must represent all the values that the common man must uphold in his society, as he alone can lead his people into a new age of intellectualism and benevolence (Keay, 2009: 69). There were many other theories that arose during the ancient period of China, but Confucianism has been the most prominent theory to make its return after the death of Charmian Mao in the 1970s. In today’s China, Confucian schools have returned in their teaching of Confucianism as it has been used to strengthen the family structure in China, in a time when the order, stability, faith, harmony and benevolence of the people must be at its most powerful.
The Western world sometimes seems to not understand the importance of obedience in the Chinese Sinic Civilisation. The ability of Xi Jinping to rally his entire nation under one common goal, is a very distinct feature of Sinic autocracies. Chairman Xi also understands how easily China could experience anarchy once again based upon its history. In the Qin Dynasty, Emperor Qin Shi Huang was able to become the first emperor of a unified Imperial China by defeating all the waring states of the 300s BC and bringing order and harmony into a region which had fought with one another for centuries. The Great Wall of China was first commissioned under his rule and he rallied over 300,000 solders to build the wall which took only nine years to be completed (Keay, 2009: 70). In the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese Sinic Civilisation had reached its zenith point in history before the Western world began its ascendancy. The Ming Dynasty is best remembered for its advancement of technology at a time when the West was stuck in the grips of the Papacy in the fourteenth century. Some advancements include: the physically movable printing press which led to the production of many books in the fifteenth century and the development in trade and finance which was very much a revolutionary achievement as the market of the Ming Dynasty upheld their trade with the market of the Islamic world. The Ming had also begun her own exploration program under the administration of Cheng Ho in 1405 but due to the Confucian code, the dynasty ended its colonial expeditions which could have seen her travel all around the African continent (Kennedy, 2017: 5-10). Anarchy is a distinctive feature in Chinese history; the White Lotus Rebellion of the eighteenth century, the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century, the Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s and the 1911 revolutions are some of the most devastating events to hit modern China. The White Lotus Rebellion was a rebellion to bring back Buddhism into the Qing Dynasty which led to the deaths of 100,000 people (Rowe, 2012: 182). The Opium Wars led to roughly 20,000 Chinese deaths with the British gaining control of Hong Kong in the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. This defeat would damn China into a period of mass exploitation by the British which would lead to the unfair trading agreements of the nineteenth century. The Taiping Rebellion has to be the most devastating of these events as over 30,000,000 people lost their lives due to the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom under Hong Xiuquan (Rowe, 2012: 185). The 1911 revolution led to 50,000 deaths and to decades of disorder and chaos with the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Under Chairman Mao, China adopted a much stricter policy of maintaining order and stability, due to their past history of anarchy and disorder in the nineteenth century (Lowe, 2013: 420). The partition of China by the West in 1899 played its role in shaping the strict autocratic rule that Chinese leaders uphold because of the nation’s humiliation by the Great Powers. In China, harmony is more important than individual liberty.
The history of civilisations is very much an important topic in our political world as it stretches far beyond merely the Sinic Civilisation. In the Islamic Civilisation, the Prophet Muhammed is seen as the last of God’s messengers, the other two before him were considered to be Moses and Christ. This meant that he alone was the most advanced teacher of God’s faith and beliefs. Unlike Christ, Muhammed was not only a religious figure, but he was also a political figure which thus shows us how religion and politics in the Islamic World were inseparable from one another. The Prophet had managed to unify the tribal states of the Arabian Peninsula by the time of his death and with doing so he had created a movement based on the teachings of the Koran and of the Sunnah (Kerr, 2016: 32). These holy texts led to the creation of Sharia Law which has been the governing force for most Muslim states for centuries. In order to understand the Islamic world, we must understand this concept of faith and politics and their insuperable bond. Indeed, after the split between the Shia and Sunni Muslims, the Golden Age for the Islamic faith was founded under the Abbasids in Bagdad. Under Harun al- Rashid and al-Ma’mum, the first forms of free trade between the Middle East and China were created. The developments of mathematics, literature and finance were also significant in the development of all her people.
The Hindustani Civilisation could be sighted as the first civilisation to ponder over ideas and values which were similar to the future Rule of Law. This was because it promoted the ideas of decentralisation and class individuality in a state. The Varan System was a hierarchy which was based on the Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaisyas (merchants) and Sudras (peasants). Its main goal was to create a system of order and ranks which would rely on each group to work with one another in order to allow small communities to function. Although the Brahmins were the most important figures in Indian society, they did not hold religious armies of that like the Vatican in the Medieval Era but rather they relied on the other sections of society to organise their own skills (Fukuyama, 2012: 167). India shows us the diversity in how one can maintain order in society without allowing top-down control to run rampant in a civilisation.
With all this knowledge on some of our main civilisations on this earth, why was their such a civilisational divergence in 1500 and now once again 600 years later? The answer to this has to be the rise of specific institutions which were first coined by the Western world in the sixteenth century. These institutions include competition, the Rule of Law, private property, the consumer society, science and the western banking system. These institutions were founded within Western Civilisation not because of culture, geography, religion nor of race, as nineteenth century figures would have thought, but merely because of our unique historical events which played a role in the policy changes which our people had made in history. In 1517, Martin Luther wrote his ‘Ninety-five Thesis’ which had started the Protestant Reformation. This reformation was not just a religious dispute between the Papacy and the Lutherans, but rather it was a battle on whether the Church would continue to hold a monopoly over the governorship of the European continent or whether the decentralisation of the faith would bring forth more sovereignty over the nation states of Europe (Kümin, 2018: 103). In Tudor England, the powers of the Monarch, the Privy Council and of Westminster were expanded and the competition between nation states became far more prominent due to their political and economic clashes in the New World and religious conflicts on the European continent (Trevelyan, 1960: 219). In December 1600, the Rule of Law was shown prominently in English society under Queen Elizabeth I when she had allowed the opening of the East India Company. This was one of the first joint stock companies which were responsible only to its shareholders. The removal of regulations in Europe under the Rule of Law played a crucial role in its success as it enabled citizens to live more freely away from the direct grips of the monarchies of Europe (Ferguson, 2003: 20). Private property rights were coined under the philosophy of John Lock in the ‘Two Treaties of Government’ when he had talked about how private property was earned through the labour of its owner. ‘Terra Nullius’ (virgin land) was always up for grabs if not protected. In the 1689 Constitution of North Carolina, Locke stated that the property that one owned brought with it political influence which, depending how much you had, showed how much power you could hold. This was to show that no matter one’s social status, he was able to go onto the property ladder and start a new way of life. (Ferguson, 2012: 108; Locke, 1823: 62) Thus, the philosophy of the USA was born. Under the Medici Bankers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, bills of exchange were used to allow citizens to by loans from the Medici. This strategy in public finance allowed many European nations to start using loans to fund their wars and exhibitions rather than increasing taxation. The first Bank to pioneer the system of cheques and debit transfers was the Amsterdam Exchange Bank. Furthermore, the first central bank was the Bank of England. The latter aided England in controlling her public finances and aided her in funding the nation. Lastly, in the west, the weakness of the Church was shown greatly in the renaissance period. Their failure to stop these developments from taking place led to the concept of more individual liberty which then led to the Scientific Revolution, after Galileo discovered the concept of heliocentrism in the sixteenth century. The consumer society was also discovered in this period which had led to the enlightenment and the industrial revolution as to answer these consumer needs and wants.
These institutions are the reason to why China has begun her rise once again in the twenty-first century. Whilst we see the Indo-Pacific becoming more prosperous with nations like India and China, we can also notice that Western Civilisation is stagnating. Francis Fukuyama had stated in the ‘End of History’ that with the fall of communism, the world would reach its final political development in history which would be Liberal Democracy. The teachings of Plato and Hegel on how human beings strive for ‘thymos’ (self-recognition) has proven not to be referring to liberal democracy as the solution to this need (Fukuyama, 2020:15). This is because whilst the Western World stagnated in the post-Cold War international Order, China has increased her GDP by four times as much than that of the US and India has increased her GDP by three times as much of that of the US, with only one of the latter adopting liberal democracy as a political system (Ferguson, 2014: 1). Whilst China has indeed modernised by allowing the consumer society and industrial manufacturing to enter her country, she has also refused to allow the Rule of Law to be imposed in the region as Xi Jinping has tightened his grip in the administration of China’s people and economy. State Capitalism has become the rule of the day for the People’s Republic and with this, one can see how they have not abandoned their concept of preventing anarchy from taking place by stopping individual liberty. In the US, their liberal economy has ceased to be recognised as one of the most advanced in the world. The ‘World Economic Forum’ had cited not long ago that, with regards to western institutions, the US had ranked 35, whilst Hong Kong was ranked 9th place (see WEF, global competitiveness report, 2013- 2014). The federal tax laws have also increased throughout the years, with over 73,000 pages of laws, which has led the nation being less competitive in the markets (CCH Federal Tax Report). After Ronald Reagan cut US regulations on businesses by 31% and gained a GDP increase of 30% into the US economy, the Nation has reverted back to Keynesian economics and has continued to gain a national debt of over 125% of GDP (Ferguson, 2014: 2). The story in Western Europe is also not that pleasant, with 90% of world economic growth coming outside of the European Union in this decade alone and 40% coming from the Indo-Pacific region it seems we are truly facing a civilisational divergence between the West and the East.
Studying the history of civilisations, as a discipline, is one of the most important for any student of international relations. It must be through it that future political decisions ought to be taken. With the post-Cold War international order stagnating due to civilisational clashes, we must create a new international system that upholds the balance of power of all civilisations, and which values itself as an international system where regions have different leaders which symbolise their region’s values. One should not attempt to bring down these different civilisations but rather to embrace them. In this age, we mustn’t be idealists but rather realists.
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