Arguably, no country in the world has benefited more from the U.S.-led global order than China. Yet, to many eyes, Beijing seems determined to upset that order, its principles and its institutions.
Some would argue that such ambition is only natural in a rising power, one that played little role in writing the rules by which it’s now expected to adhere. In fact, at least some of the roots of China’s discontent with the current order run much deeper — back to the earliest emperors more than 2,000 years ago. Throughout history, Chinese leaders have rarely liked playing by other people’s rules.
For centuries, there was little need to do so. Ancient Chinese statesmen perceived the world as a hierarchy, with the Chinese atop a pyramid of peoples. In order for foreign kingdoms to share in the wonders of Chinese civilization, they had to send tribute to acknowledge the superiority of China and its emperor.
During those periods when China was weak, its rulers deeply resented having to bend to the will of outsiders. Indeed, they would incur great costs and surrender tangible benefits just to return to primacy.
This pattern emerged almost simultaneously with imperial China. In 200 B.C., after the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty barely escaped with the remnants of his shattered army from an encounter with the Xiongnu, a confederation of northern steppe tribes, the Chinese court agreed to effectively pay tribute to their militarily superior neighbor in return for peace. The Han accepted the Xiongnu as diplomatic equals.
Though the arrangement had flaws — the Xiongnu still sometimes launched raids into China — the costs of upholding it were far cheaper than fighting. Nonetheless, it rankled. How could the glittering emperor of China lower himself to the status of a barbarian chieftain? “To command the barbarians is the power vested in the emperor on the top,” one Chinese statesman told the throne. The situation with the Xiongnu was “like that of a person hanging upside down.”
After about six decades, another Han Dynasty emperor, backed by a strengthened empire, ditched the deal. At the cost of tremendous loss of life and treasure, he fought a lengthy war that smashed Xiongnu power.
More than a millennium later, the Song Dynasty repeated the cycle. After its founding in 960 A.D., the Song confronted another northern threat, the Khitan, and the court inked another money-for-peace agreement. This one, too, maintained stability at minimal cost. The Song’s economy, art and philosophy flourished.
Yet Song hardliners detested the deal. Not only did the Khitan have the gall to set up their own dynasty, the Liao, with their own emperor, they did so on a chunk of territory the Chinese claimed as theirs. In the early 12th century, the Song jettisoned the pact and forged an alliance against the Khitan with another steppe people. The Khitan dynasty was destroyed. But the Song’s decision backfired when their erstwhile allies invaded the empire and chased the court from north China.
Chinese leaders could be flexible with the rules when it suited. After the first European seafarers made their way to China in the early 16th century, for instance, trade boomed even though the newcomers were never fully incorporated into Beijing’s diplomatic system.
But there were limits. In 1793, when the British sought new diplomatic and trading privileges, those ran counter to Chinese practice. So did the antics of the envoy, George Macartney, who refused to perform the kowtow, an obsequious bow required by court ritual. All British requests were rejected. “How can our dynasty alter its whole procedure and system of etiquette … in order to meet your individual views?” the emperor asked in a condescending letter to King George III.
Ever since China’s defeat in the first Opium War to the British almost two centuries ago, the Chinese have been compelled to play by the West’s rules. Beijing adopted European-style diplomacy as just another nation state among many. Though this absorption into the Western system was traumatic, it ultimately proved a tremendous success. China is a rising superpower today because of the trade, investment and stability the U.S. order supported.
Still, many Chinese leaders appear to see the U.S. system as a foreign imposition that has relegated them to, in effect, a subordinate position in the world, besieged by alien ideals and norms. If they are not looking to overthrow that system entirely, they would like to clear out space to rule as they see fit — whether that means cracking down on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong or demanding obeisance from smaller neighbors. “Long gone are the days when we [in] China had to takes cues from others,” a senior Beijing official recently said.
This is deeply risky. The Chinese economy still badly needs the West for technology and job-creating investment. China’s actions are prodding countries from Australia to India to resist its climb. China’s rulers aren’t likely to be dissuaded, though, if history is any guide.