What is China up to is a question that is more often asked than answered. Journalist Howard French‘s book Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power certainly has not the most benign take on the country’s ambitions. Fellow author Ian Johnson reviews the book for Chinafile.
This opens what for me was the most interesting part of French’s book: a look at the origins of this idea and how it manifested itself historically. French is not a historical determinist, but he sees China’s push to Southeast Asia as a “march to the tropics” that began millennia earlier with Chinese civilization moving southward from its origins in north-central China toward the Yangtze River and then down to the area around modern-day Hong Kong and Yunnan. Chinese rulers and officials eventually came to see three peripheries: an immediate zone that could be conquered, such as the modern-day province of Yunnan and its many hill tribes; an intermediary zone including Vietnam, Burma, and Siam, which could be assimilated; and the further reaches of Southeast Asia, which could be occasionally conquered but were too remote for effective control.
Vietnam and the people of what was then known as the Yue kingdom bore the brunt of this thrust to the south. After losing territory in present-day Guangzhou province (which is still known in China as Yue), Vietnamese rulers hunkered down in modern-day northern Vietnam and pushed south, conquering other peoples in what was essentially a mini-version of China’s imperialist mission. Vietnam’s rulers even had a Chinese-style name for neighboring Cambodia: “the pacified west.”
China’s last great gambit south was in the Ming dynasty, from the 14th to the 17th centuries, when it initially sent armadas to the South China Sea and beyond, most famously under the eunuch Zheng He. Like the Great Wall, Zheng He’s exploits were largely forgotten in China until Westerners discovered him and saw him as a Chinese Columbus or Magellan. Chinese nationalists in the 20th century latched onto this, constructing a version of history that persists today—mainly that Zheng He was a peace-loving explorer who went to trade with the natives.
In fact, the historical record is clear that Zheng He’s ships were designed not to explore but to carry large armies that fought and bullied local governments into surrendering booty. As French argues, this makes China a classic gunpowder empire that pillaged territories by using new technologies that its neighbors hadn’t yet mastered.
What stopped China from more firmly controlling these areas—and essentially giving them their independence today—was domestic turmoil. The Ming court decided it was not interested in far-flung seas, instead concentrating on pressure from northern nomadic tribes that eventually conquered the Ming and set up the Qing dynasty in the mid-17th century. The Qing also had little interest in lands beyond their coasts, but they did create an enormous land-based empire that China mostly still possesses today, including control over Xinjiang, Tibet, large swaths of historically Mongolian territory, and the northeast of the country, none of which had been under long-term Chinese control until the Qing. (Only modern-day Mongolia is now an independent state.)
This gives modern China a great land mass reaching deep into Central Asia—the equivalent, perhaps, of India controlling today’s Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Afghanistan. But paradoxically, even though China ended up with generous modern borders, it still suffers from what scholars call the “frustrated state” narrative: that it was a loser in history. In the 1920s and 1930s, influential writers like Liang Qichao bemoaned this loss. China, they felt, rightfully should have pursued Zheng He’s journeys and become a maritime empire.
This mattered to China’s modernizers—and today’s rulers—because they saw the world as built on sea-based empires and trade. So in 1947, the Chinese government (the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek) came up with the “nine-dash line,” a crude demarcation of China’s claims to the South China Sea that seemed to have been drawn with little more than chutzpah and a magic marker. It delineated China’s claims to all of the sea right up to the coastline of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, as if they didn’t exist and didn’t deserve their own coastal territorial waters. Zheng He had been there, and that trumped the centuries of kingdoms and empires in those countries. Their history didn’t matter.
Unfortunately, this untenable claim is what successive governments have adopted and every schoolchild learns that this is China’s inalienable territory. At first China was hesitant and downplayed these claims—Mao didn’t care about these sorts of issues, while Deng was realistic enough to know that China was too weak to challenge its neighbors. But 40 years after Mao’s death and 20 years after Deng’s own passing, China is now strong and its neighbors are divided and weak. Hence the push to fulfill China’s historic mission and recreate the imagined lost empire of Zheng He
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Howard French at the Asia Society discusses the dangerous trends coming up for China