The past 50 years have seen an unprecedented level of stability and cooperation in the world — despite the 24 -hour news cycle suggesting otherwise. Violence is down, wars are down, the middle class (worldwide) has grown, child mortality rates are down, and literacy is up. But today we sit, like frogs in a warming pot knowing it’s too late, having a societal realization: while the West has been lulled into complacency, domestic partisanship, and repeated unwinnable wars, China has become a united juggernaut.
The Cold War Builds Overconfidence
There are, of course, a hundred different points at which one can, with hindsight, perceive the dramatic shift when the People’s Republic of China goes from modest regional power to fighting for number one in the world. Here’s a few:
- During the Korean War the combined forces of the PRC, DPRK, and USSR are able to halt and force back what appears to be a surefire Western-power win
- In 1964 China acquires nuclear weapons
- China supports and supplies the Vietcong from 1964–1975 with little-to-no repercussions
- In 1972 Richard Nixon visits China — the first formal communication between the two nations in 25 years
- In 1979 the US establishes full ties with the PRC
But then, between 1988–1991, everything changes. Over the course of only a few years, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics completely collapses.
In the minds of Americans and Europeans, this is the end of Communism as a logical governmental enterprise — much like Nazism and Fascism which died with Hitler and Mussolini. Republican democracies have proven, once and for all, that they’re the most feasible way to provide power to the people!
This point is nailed home as two major Soviet allies — the DPRK and Cuba — enter prolonged depressions (with the DPRK losing millions of citizens to hunger during The North Korean Famine).
But in the background, quietly manufacturing all the world’s goods, sits the People’s Republic of China. The forgotten communist state.
It isn’t fair to paint China as a bad actor without giving history to supplement it. While Americans and Europeans tend to think of the period of ~1845–1945 as being entirely Western-centric — from the US Civil War to the French Revolution of 1848, the Crimean War to WWI and WWII — the Chinese have a name for this period, as well: The Century of Humiliation (or 百年国耻).
Between 1839–1842 and 1856–1860, Great Britain waged wars with China — important wars. Over what? Drugs, dude. Drugs.
The Royal Crown was keen to sell massive amounts of opium from its Bangladeshi colonies to the Chinese, and, lo and behold, Chinese royalty, who saw their populace decline into a state of useless, unproductive, stupor, decided that opium would be illegal.
To say Your Highness didn’t like that is a euphemism. The UK was absolutely and utterly livid, and you know what that means.
The UK not only forced opium onto the Chinese masses, but also took over Hong Kong and ensured China open up to the West — a fate similar to that of Japan when the US decided enough isolation was enough.
In ensuing years, the Qing Dynasty lost numerous areas of influence (Vietnam, Outer Manchuria, and Tibet) and numerous cities to Western-powers (Qingdao was ceded to Germany and Shanghai was split up amongst whatever powers felt like demanding a swath). China, as a whole, was getting the short end of the stick ala “globalization.”
Unfortunately, that was only the beginning. In the early 1930s, Japan decided to take Manchuria. And they did.
Then, in the late 1930s, they decided to take the rest of China, too.
This resulted in what’s now called The Rape of Nanjing and the exposition of Unit 731. Basically, Japan had their way with China, any which sadistic way they wanted. And during this period, WWII, the Chinese were only united by a common enemy in the Japanese. The truce between the two major internal Chinese factions — the Kuomingtang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Party of China, led by Mao Zedong — was uneasy at best, and in the aftermath of WWII China immediately erupted into civil war.
Through sheer determination and solid military tactics, the CPC defeated the superior weapons and numbers of the Kuomingtang and forced them onto the island of Taiwan. Fighting ceased between the two sides and Mao began to focus on internal strife. The problem was the people were not unified.
The solution, obviously, was killing millions and millions of people.
The Century of Humiliation Ends, Replaced with a Little Red Book
I am grateful to know people who’ve shared their stories of the Cultural Revolution with me. Here’s one:
Erin was a young girl when the Cultural Revolution began. She, up until that point, had been very lucky. She attended a top-tier all-girls high school in Beijing and was looking forward to traveling abroad in a year or two, to America, France, and other countries where she already spoke the languages well.
And then the Cultural Revolution began.
Erin was shipped off, far from her family (who were seen as part of the “bourgeoisie”), to the northern Chinese city of Harbin. Harbin, now, is heralded as the “Ice City.” But that had a different connotation in 1966.
The population of Harbin in 1966 was roughly 1/10 that of contemporary Harbin. On top of that, Harbin began to suffer from a wave of xenophobia against Russians, Christians, and, more or less, anyone not predisposed to fully and whole-heartedly believe in the teachings of Mao.
Erin had a rough time.
Rations were meager and Erin’s life took a complete 180 degree turn. No longer did she dream of traveling abroad or learning as many languages as possible, now her dream was simply to get out of Harbin.
Thankfully, she did, and Erin’s story is a good one. She left China to marry a Singaporean citizen and subsequently relocated to the US.
But the story Erin was able to share with me wasn’t as bright for millions of others, who suffered from political purges, famine, and other atrocities.
Included in this indoctrination was an infamous piece of literature called The Little Red Book, or Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung.
The book asks important questions, like “Can a Communist, who is an internationalist, at the same time be a patriot?” and establishes simple rules like:
Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold
China, with amazing grit and fortitude, digs itself out of the economic and societal hole that it had made for itself, and also manages to establish some really sweet deals:
- any nation that recognizes the PRC cannot recognize the ROC (Taiwan), and likewise, if a nation recognizes the ROC, the PRC will not recognize them
- a handover of Macau by Portugal without any major hiccups
- a handover of Hong Kong by the UK without any major hiccups
What does this end up creating? Well, this is the current list of nations that recognize the Republic of China:
Not the most renowned, powerful group.
In addition, though a little vague, the US recognizes China’s ownership over Taiwan when Nixon re-establishes ties via the Shanghai Communiqué:
So, with the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of the internet and computers as the key to powering the future, China finds itself in a perfect position to expand its manufacturing (cheap labor) and monopolize important sectors (chips and semiconductors).
The US is happy to buy everything from its former enemy because it allows it to become the leader in innovation preceding the dot-com bubble. And with this uptick in white collar employment opportunities, America’s manufacturing sector begins to disintegrate:
This relationship, despite the turbulence of the dot-com bubble and 07/08 Financial Crisis, appears to benefit both countries, with the US economy making leaps and bounds while the Chinese middle class explodes.
Americans slowly dawn on the importance of this relationship at some time in the early aughts and — even though China isn’t the largest holder of US debt — the concern picks up traction.
Even more important are several global infrastructure projects that China takes on, one being the all-important Belt and Road Initiative and another being the creation of dozens of islands to wrest control of the seas surrounding the PRC. They also hand out loans to nations throughout the world, giving them control of important manufacturing hubs in Africa and ports throughout Asia and Europe.
Brilliantly, China works its way east and west utilizing its soft power to win allies, as opposed to the US policy of hard power — which has repeatedly failed to not only win allies, but has destabilized entire regions and easily made America far more enemies than friends.
There are other layers, too.
With Xi Jinping becoming leader of China in 2016 and embarking on an anti-corruption blitz, the world seems to be hypnotized by the charismatic and… happy looking head of state.
But looks can be deceiving.
Shortly after becoming president, Xi clarifies the PRC’s stance on Hong Kong: it will no longer be the autonomous region promised when it was handed back to China by the UK in 1999. There’s a variety of great reasons for doing this, from squashing freedom of speech, getting the expats out, and flexing their power, but the reality of why now is more simple.
The world watches as peaceful protests in Hong Kong are relentlessly and violently put down.
What will the US do? How will Western-powers retaliate? Will China regret this decision?
For the time being, the US has been occupied with a disunited domestic populace, ending a 20 year war with Afghanistan, attempting to stomp out the opiate crisis, and, maybe, fix healthcare.
There’s plenty of individuals who will you tell you there’s next to zero chance the PRC will “take over” the island of Taiwan (take over is in quotes because Chinese people assert it’s theirs and even the US has made the claim that there’s “one China”). I tend to take that opinion with a grain of salt, especially after witnessing how quickly the PRC completely altered Hong Kong and the lack of will to help Hong Kongers from the West.
While there would definitely be ramifications for a forceful take over of Taiwan by the PRC, the positives of such an action may be greater than the negatives.
- control of a large swath of the semiconductor industry
- unlike when East and West Germany were unified or a hypothetical reunification of North and South Korea, there won’t be a huge discrepancy in language, economies, factories, or education
- China will have complete control of the seas and oceans surrounding it
- Japan, a generational enemy, will be within spitting distance
- America will lose one of its strongest trading partners
This isn’t to suggest that WWIII as once imagined (nukes, world destruction, etc) is on the horizon — in fact, quite the opposite. What we’re on the brink of, instead, is a second, perhaps more economically devastating Cold War, with a smarter, more populated, and more powerful opponent. That lynchpin keeping it from happening is a tiny island off the coast of China, and if America and Europe lose that ally all one can do is hope for the best and expect the worst.
Stay skeptical, friends.