The People’s Republic of China declared victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Hereafter referred to as simply, “China”, and the Republic of China, “Taiwan”, this war birthed both nations. After the war, the Chinese state was in economic ruin. Failed economic and cultural stimulus by the chairman Mao Zedong, did not only set the country back, but killed millions of citizens. The only great achievement for the CCP at this time was the unification of mainland China, and the annexation of Tibet. Concepts like the “Iron Rice Bowl”, which promised food, shelter, and employment, were great in theory, but lacked positive implementation. At this point, China was a backwards Marxist state, with a dim future.
This all changed with the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Although he never held an official office, oddly enough, he was de facto chairman of the People’s Republic of China. This position enabled him to implement many modern market-based reforms, unshackling the Chinese economy. His quote regarding cats, specifically that the color of a cat does not matter as long as it catches the mouse (paraphrased) formed the guiding principles for the adoption of a free-market system in a supposed marxist-leninist state. Since then, China has grown rapidly, bringing us to the present day. Hence, modern Chinese primacy in Asia, and possibly soon, the world, can be broken into two main concepts: economic and political. Sometimes, these are overlapping, such as the Belt and Road project. Other times, they can even be contradictory.
Deng Xiaoping’s reforms can be traced back to three cities: Guangdong and Xiaogang. In Guangdong, young Chinese citizens were attempting to escape into Hong Kong. Many died. Realizing this, Deng Xiaoping said,
[T]he problem could not be resolved by the police or the army. The problem, he said, had arisen from the disparity of living standards on the two sides of the border; to solve it, China needed to change its policies and improve the lives of those living on the Chinese side. (Vogel 2013, 394).
This acknowledgment of the economic issues in Guangdong, rather than tightening security or implementing even harsher punishments for those caught alive, was uncharacteristic of a Chinese leader. Deng Xiaoping proposed numerous solutions. First, the shortage of foreign currency, chiefly used to buy foreign goods and underwrite foreign construction projects, could be solved with trading spots along the border. These would trade primarily agriculture, with foreign governments. Deng Xiaoping also recommended the building of hotels to earn foreign currency.
One thing stood between Deng Xiaoping and the prosperity of Guangdong: communism. It was seen as capitalist to make such changes, to which local leaders and Deng Xiaoping simply accepted it in their stride and kept going,
During the April  Central Work Conference, Xi Zhongxun and Yang Shangkun, the people in charge of Guangdong, talked about bringing Guangdong’s advantages into full play. Deng brought up the question of special zones, and said, ‘we can carve out a patch of land and call it a special zone. Shen-gan-ning [the Communist revolutionary base area] was a special zone!’ (Naughton 1993, 509).
In this quote, Deng Xiaoping specifically acknowledges that these reforms would create special economic zones. It is evident that local leaders favored this solution to the Guangdong problem, as they “talked about bringing Guangdong’s advantages into full play”, which a special economic zone would achieve. It is also here that we see the irony between the very communist, marxist structures, e.g. “the Central Work Conference”, and those that are a part of these systems advocating for what is essentially its rejection.
A separate instance of Chinese rejection of communist principles occurred in the city of Xiaogang. Here, villagers signed a secret contract to divide government allocated, communal farmland, individually. Materially, it was a contract to secretly privatize communal land without government approval, and allow surplus crops to be held by the family that owned the land the surplus was grown on,
In 1978, in the same year that China’s market reform and opening policies were issued, 18 villagers in the Xiaogang Village of the Fengyang town in An Hui Province “risked their lives to sign a secret agreement to allocate communal farmland into individual pieces.” In 1982, such behavior was officially permitted by the government (Pan and Rui 2011, 209).
Rather than have them all executed, as Mao Zedong likely would have done, Deng Xiaoping did the opposite. He heralded the villagers as a model of Chinese innovation. In a more philosophical, psychoanalytical sense, crop yield increased dramatically because farmers could take any surplus. This is the idea of providing an incentive, and typically found in capitalism. Soon, Chinese central authorities allowed this system, now called the “household contract responsibility system”, to be used nationwide after brief backlash by communist hardliners,
On September 27, 1980, the Central Party Committee issued a circular, Several Matters Concerning the Further Enhancement and Improvement of Agricultural Contract Responsibility System, which pointed out that the ‘household contract is a necessary step to increase production and provide adequate food. As for the country…there is no danger of restoring capitalism and therefore nothing to fear.’ (Wang 2010, 6).
Deng Xiaoping, and his willingness to pardon the villagers, as well as his cat and mouse quote, was a major force in pushing all of China to finally accept a form of free-market capitalism. Yes, little advanced economic activity with exchange of money was happening yet, but incentivizing production was certainly a start. Deng Xiaoping and this program would go on to shape an increasingly free-market economy in China which exists (at least for now) up until modern day. Out of this has come worldwide companies such as Alibaba, Tencent, and more.
Another portion of Chinese history that constitutes its growing power and run at establishing itself above America, is the issue of Hong Kong. While originally part of early Chinese Kingdoms, Hong Kong was seized by the British Empire during the opium wars. As unjust as it may be, the territory went on to develop a distinct identity, even distinct from China itself. Hong Kong utilized the British Pound, and for its justice system, British Common Law. Its head of state was Queen Elizabeth, and its people typically spoke English. There was much more British influence, such as the popularity of cricket, cars driven, and even the British military garrison.
The territory did have remnants of its Chinese ancestry: people of the ethnic Han group lived there during British rule, as did other ethnic minorities from mainland China. Mandarin was spoken under British rule, as was Cantonese. Yet, the main change British rule brought Hong Kong was greater freedoms. British colonial overlords can definitely be draconian and repressive, such as in Africa. However, in Hong Kong, citizens enjoyed basically the same freedoms British citizens from the British isles enjoyed. Rights nearly equivalent to the American Bill of Rights existed. Citizens of Hong Kong were guaranteed similar protections to American due process, police needed a legitimate warrant, free speech and media existed, and the right to practice one’s faith, and protest, were guaranteed too. Citizens of Hong Kong also enjoyed economic prosperity as a result of factors like their geography, British rule, totally free-markets, and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Though lacking representation in the British Parliament like all British colonies, the territory did function as a constitutional monarchy, ruled as a liberal crown colony,
Hong Kong has generally been governed benignly and in spite of the lack of participatory democratic government has benefitted from some of the other characteristic features of Western liberal societies, including an independent judicial system, which guarantees the rule of law and most basic individual freedoms, a relatively free press, and freedom of association. (Flowerdew and Scollon 1997, 421).
Simply put, while Hong Kong may have unjustly been conquered, its citizens had a lot to enjoy under British rule.
This began to change in 1997, when control of Hong Kong was transferred back to China. Originally seen as a moment of national reunification, China allowed Hong Kong to exist under the “one country, two systems” idea. Chinese laws would essentially not apply to Hong Kong, whose laws would remain intact. Recently, this has been far from true. China is seeking to “sinocize” Hong Kong, and bring it further under the control of the Chinese mainland. Specific actions have been met with backlash from the citizens of Hong Kong, accustomed to greater freedoms than mainland China, such as the process of extradition. Extradition is basically the moving of someone facing a trial, to another place to face a trial there. This has been done in Hong Kong, with anti-Chinese government protestors facing a far more lenient trial in there. They were then threatened with extradition to the Chinese mainland, to be jailed and silenced for an inordinate amount of time. Obviously disliking this, the citizens of Hong Kong protested fiercely. These protests were quelled, likely with covert support from Beijing. Overtly, Beijing stationed large numbers of the People’s Armed Police in neighboring Shenzhen. This paramilitary group began conducting exercises as a show of force to the protestors,
Most significantly, the exercises aimed to show to the Hong Kong people, including protesters, that if the HKSAR had any turmoil, the PAP would be able to intervene in such turmoil effectively and restore social stability. The exercises from August 4 to 6 were designed to send clear political messages to the people of Hong Kong, especially a warning to radical protesters (Lo 2021, 168).
Since the protests were quelled, Chinese authorities acting vicariously through the Hong Kong authorities, have seized upon the opportunity, and removed many of the rights of citizens. While still a free market, the right of free speech, the free media, due process, and much protecting the conceptual individual and opposition, have been scaled back or removed altogether in Hong Kong. Hong Kong police have even begun using the “goose step” march (typically a hallmark of autocracy), rather than the typical British/European Parade March we have come to know in America. Hong Kong presents a challenge to the Chinese Communist Party. Although not as free as independent Taiwan, the citizens are accustomed to freedoms normal Chinese citizens are not. Even though the GDP per capita is higher in Hong Kong than many cities across China, the total GDP of the city, population, and even educational statistics, are beginning to be matched and surpassed by larger cities like Shanghai. Therefore, the likely goal of China is to turn Hong Kong into a submissive, Chinese city no different than neighboring Shenzhen. Let us hope that never happens.
The real equalizer for China in competition with aging giants of the world stage, seems to be education and an advancing society. Initiatives in China are being taken to equal out the playing field between the poor and rich post-Cultural Revolution, mainly to limit financial burdens of higher education for the underprivileged. One source highlights a socialist backlash of sorts within China, in which those who prefer government subsidization of education, have seemingly won over the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (those who are just below the Chinese Politburo in decision making power),
In June 2006, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress approved the Amendment to the Compulsory Education Law that was to come into effect on 1 September 2006. Considered a strategic part of developing a ‘new socialist countryside’, this law aims to give rural children the same educational opportunities as their urban counterparts, and arrangements are being put into place to address persisting financial and human resource problems in rural schools. (Hannum 2011, 269).
This continues a sort of balancing act between communism and capitalism in China. More importantly, it is a step that could likely lead America to fall behind China. Logically, if children are rendered farmers because they cannot afford an education, a nation is missing out on vast swathes of untapped human ingenuity. With China’s overwhelming population, they are potentially saving the future Albert Einsteins of their nation. China is already seeing these efforts pay off with higher enrollment and graduation at the collegiate level according to their Ministry of Education,
In 2019, there were 40.02 million students across the country enrolled in one form or another of higher education, an increase of 1.69 million over 2018. The gross enrollment rate rose to 51.6%, 3.5 percentage points up on 2018. 2,857 out of every 100,000 people in the population were attending higher education programs, marking an increase of 199 over the previous year. (Ministry Of Education 2020, 1).
Obviously one should take these statistics with a grain of salt as they are from the Chinese Ministry Of Education itself, but the numbers are likely still pretty high even if they are rounded up. That is over two times the amount reported in The United States of America, which saw a decrease in enrollment by 900,000 students between 2009 and 2019 (National Center For Education Statistics 2019, 1). Now that the foundation is set, it is no wonder China is beginning to match America with cutting edge technology, such as prototype fusion reactors with net positive energy outputs. If an educated citizenry is the driving force behind growth, the western nations should take note and adapt.
China is using this growth in status to establish itself as a worldwide economic power. Chinese banks now fund everything from part of the New York skyline, to construction projects in Pakistan. This has occurred for two main reasons: Chinese co-founding of the BRICS group, and the Belt and Road Commission. First, the BRIC group is an economic collective of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Generally speaking, member states seek reductions in tariffs between one another. However, BRICS has also evolved into a World Bank competitor,
The BRICS Cooperation Mechanism has four goals. First, the BRICS plan to gradually increase mutual credit lines denominated in national currencies and to set the transactions in national currencies in order to promote mutual trade and investment. Second, they agreed to cooperate in investing and lending for projects in key areas such as natural resources, technology, carbon reduction, and environmental conservation. Third, they agreed to increase cooperation in financial markets, including stock market listings and bond issues. Finally, they plan to increase the exchange of information between their banks about economics, the financial situation, and project finance. (Stuenkel 2020, 64).
This is largely similar to the functions of the World Bank or International Monetary Fund. This BRICS program is also likely very stable, as the economies of the five member states are some of the largest in the world. For those more belligerent members, such as China and Russia (the two autocracies of the group), BRICS could also serve as a potential avenue to thwart the effects of international sanctions. The world has not yet seen this play out with Russia, (besides some Chinese aid during their invasion of Ukraine), yet it still remains possible BRICS could extend an emergency credit line to Russia, or China if it were to invade Taiwan, possibly even covertly. Finally, while the BRICS program functions only for member states at the time, opening it up to other countries would then directly compete with The World Bank or IMF. This benefits China because both institutions are headquartered in the west, and thus, competing with them would undermine the influence of American and its European allies.
China also meddles in the economic issues of other countries alone. The Chinese economic initiative called the Belt and Road Initiative is one approach. Benign on the surface, China seeks to invest in infrastructure projects of other nations, typically those of developing nations. Yet this is the dark genius of the initiative: China targets developing nations with aid they cannot pay back. It is a form of debt trapping, and a very effective one at that. Once these nations are in debt, typically, China either assumes control of the completed project, or uses the debt as leverage against the borrowing nation. In one study that lists potentially debt trapped countries, the amount seems concerning to say the least,
There are 10–15 that could suffer from debt distress due to future BRI-related financing, with eight countries of particular concern. These countries are Djibouti, the Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyzstan), Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), the Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. (Hurley 2019, 148).
It is possible that China is thinking strategically with this list, perhaps selling more infrastructure projects to these nations specifically for geopolitical and geoeconomic reasons. First, Pakistan is a moderate American ally. Debt trapping Pakistan could undermine that relationship. Second, Montenegro rests near staunch American allies in Europe, such as Italy, and farther, Germany, as well as more minor NATO countries. Third, Mongolia serves as a buffer state between Russia and China. Lastly, Djibouti hosts many foreign military bases. What would be most strategic besides the undermining of international alliances, is the potential to exert control over developing countries and expanding markets. China has debt trapped economies like Nigeria to the tune of over two million USD. It may not seem like much, but Nigeria has a host of problems and its money is better spent on more useful things rather than paying back Chinese debt. Worse yet, other countries have far more debt to China. It should also be said that for some nations, debt is being written off, in apparent attempts to make goodwill gestures, like a modern day Marshall Plan. Whatever the case may be, again, this should worry America and the west.
The final pillar of Chinese ascent is societal, political and economical, if it were to happen. That is reunification with Taiwan. For those that do not know, Taiwan is an independent state, having broken away from China during the Chinese Civil War. Chang Kai-Shek and his Nationalists, the Kuomintang, fled to the island when they lost the Chinese mainland. Although Taiwan was once authoritarian, it is now a very liberal republic. Taiwanese citizens enjoy rights greater than those afforded to the citizens of Hong Kong before the Chinese clampdown of their civil rights (such as widespread suffrage). The two nations, while linguistically (Mandarin, Cantonese) and ethnically (Han Chinese majority) identical, have grown far apart. Yet still, China considers Taiwan a rogue state, and intends to reunify it with the Chinese mainland. Because Taiwan has had adequate time to arm itself, and would likely be assisted by America in the event of an invasion, China has prepared too,
According to the 2013 United States Defense Department Annual Report to Congress, China has more than three times as many troops in the area as Taiwan (which number 400,000) and possesses not only an imposing submarine force but also various types of surface vessels, which can both assist in amphibious operations and serve as platforms from which to launch missiles against other vessels at sea or in support of land operations. (Goldstein 2015, 120).
This report is from 2013. While recent in perspective, it has been nine long years. China has since developed more advanced weaponry, including aircraft carriers and stealth bombers. Taiwan may be armed well, and has had American training recently via the United States Marines, yet quantity is a quality in itself. Some released American intelligence reports say that China intended to invade Taiwan this year, but waited when Russia invaded Ukraine. The invasion is likely imminent, and would be horrendous for both sides. But the international response and sanctions may draw parallels to the Russian invasion of Ukraine,
Other countries reacted by imposing sanctions on Russia such as the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, France, Japan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Taiwan. Some of the sanctions imposed on Russia during the 2022 invasion include: Blocking some Russian banks from using the SWIFT global payments system. SWIFT is a high security network that facilitates payments among 11,000 financial institutions in 200 countries. (Ozili 2022, 7).
If we assume that the intention of China is strategic dominance and ultimately, the reclamation of lands it claims to be part of a “Greater China”, (having begun with annexing Tibet, then Macau, then Hong Kong), we can assume the next logical step is Taiwan. Economic assimilation of Taiwan would likely be beneficial to China too. But would it be beneficial in ruins? This is a question China must ask itself. Taiwan would likely not agree to a “One nation, two systems” deal, having seen what happened with Hong Kong. Hence, invasion is the only realistic option for China. The BRICS system may aid China somewhat, China may be able to use some Belt and Road leverage, and China may be partially energy efficient with its vast solar arrays, but is it all enough?
Russia had long thought the international response to invading Ukraine, a non-NATO country, would be miniscule, and it was the exact opposite. Would China risk being economically shut off from the world when it dually seeks to rival America? Furthermore, attacking a defiant, freedom-loving citizenry in an attempt to repress them is never easy, like with the Russian attempt to conquer Ukraine. These are all concerns China must ponder if it will act in its own best interests. A bold American response is necessary. This should attempt to prevent such an invasion by directly recognizing Taiwan, and establishing a “NATO-like” defensive treaty in the pacific. Taiwan is not the only Asiatic nation worried by the growth of China. Others like Japan, South Korea, and even those in Oceania, like Australia or New Zealand, would likely join immediately. It may annoy China, but safeguarding democracy is far more important than cozying up to autocracies.
The staggering growth of the People’s Republic of China is no accident. It is the culmination of strategic and decisive actions. Whether it is Deng Xiaoping theorizing a free-market but not free people, the multitude of economic initiatives China has engaged in, or the possible conquest of Taiwan: none of these are the result of impulse. Confucius once said, “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals; adjust the action steps.” This is China’s strategy. They envision an end goal, perhaps Taiwanese reunification. Then, if America sends aircraft carriers to ward off China, or military advisors to train Taiwanese soldiers, China recalculates, but stays on task. They are as relentless as the Romans when facing Hannibal and will not give up easily.
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Banner Image: Forbidden City, Beijing, China. Image Credit – Ling Tang