Review Essay: An Unbetter China

Chinese armies defeating the Dzungar prior to the genocide.

There is a growing chorus of voices, mostly Sinophilic or Russo-philic, who attempt to bestow upon China a mantle of moral superiority in its dealings with the wider world for the sole reason that it has not waged any form of expeditionary warfare in its recent history.

This forum and this writer have criticized many of America’s forays into overseas military engagements over the past 50 years. That said, there is no moral standard of which this writer is aware that bestows moral ascendancy upon a country that systematically slaughters its own citizens over another country that engages in misguided adventures abroad.

It is possible to deplore most or even all major exercises of American military power abroad since the cessation of hostilities in Korea in 1953, to see them as misguided and their outcomes to be awful, and yet to acknowledge that with a few exceptions the intentions were neither evil, nefarious, nor malicious. As an historian, you judge the decisions of the past in the context of the times, on that basis this writer would argue that that on the balance the US mostly acted in good faith, with notable and egregious exceptions in Chile, Iraq and Afghanistan.

China’s history leaves the nation much for which it must answer, including the “red on its ledger” from the nation’s imperial period that has not been entirely expunged by decades of foreign incursion, Republican rule, civil war, and Communist rule. Indeed, in the period following the revolution, the Chinese Communist Party has continued some of the tendencies that characterized the worst behaviors of its emperors.

Explore, if you will, how a middling agrarian kingdom actually managed to expand to dominate the continent. I’ll give you a hint: they weren’t invited by their subject peoples, Han or otherwise. Dig, if you dare, into the the gritty details of China’s imperial tributary system, which was outwardly peaceful but often ugly and violent, involving the stationing of military forces beyond China’s borders. Ask the Koreans, Mongolians, and Russians how their histories see China as a “ good neighbor.”

Consider the forcible takeover of the Tibetan region in the 1950s, China’s war with India, and its attack on Vietnam in 1977. And finally, look at the background of the 20+ territorial disputes in which China is currently engaged, including China’s extraordinary claim to the overwhelming majority of the South China Sea, and it’s effort to buy vast swaths of land in Africa and elsewhere. China has been, and is once again, an Imperial Power with 21st Century Characteristics.

Both China and the US have done great things, and both have done atrocious things. But we do ourselves and those countries a disservice by exaggerating the good or whitewashing the bad of either. And if China appears to be under more of a microscope at the moment, there is good cause. For if we accept the premise proffered by scholars both within and outside of China that America is entering a period of relative decline in its international power and China is in a period of relative ascendancy, we must use extreme care in bestowing moral superiority over a nation whose record is distinctly mixed. Doing so only grants it license to engage in much more of the same.

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One thought on “Review Essay: An Unbetter China

  1. I wasn’t aware there was a growing sense that China is morally superior in its international relations, and you had some good thoughts to share. If we look at the history of almost any powerful country, we’re going to see a lot of red. Maybe the silver lining is that if China is indeed under a microscope, people are going to have to see the bad–eventually.

    I’ve always found the US-China power dynamic interesting (I definitely need to write about it more) and I’m excited to see how this political situation plays out over 2016.

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