The Asian Century 6 18 July 2019.

Normally, China pursues a policy of self-regarding isolationism.  Britain’s “McCartney Embassy” of 1793 offers a good example.[1]  “Sometimes you’re the windshield; sometimes you’re the bug.”[2]  Occasionally, however, China abandons isolation for engagement with the outer world.  Neither isolation nor engagement offers China an un-mixed blessing.

Take the late 19th Century, for example.  China’s defeats in the Opium Wars led to the infiltration of Christian missionaries into much of the “Heavenly Kingdom.”  Many of Western ideas expounded by the missionaries clashed with widely shared Chinese beliefs and social relationships.  The Chinese proved much like Will Rogers’ minister preaching on sin: “He was agin it.”  Hostility to the enforced contact with the outside world boiled over between 1899 and 1901 in the so-called “Boxer Rebellion.”[3]  Widespread attacks on foreigners and a long siege of the foreign embassies in Beijing resulted in a multi-national invasion.  Western victory over China in the war that followed did not make China more Western.

A century of turmoil in Asia followed.[4]  By the first decade of the 21st Century, once-Marxist China had embarked upon the process of becoming a capitalist behemoth.  This required a renewed encounter with the West and its beliefs.  Chinese students, experts, and exports went abroad; Western investment, experts, and imports came in.  It proved to be a remarkable period of “opening.”

Since the 1990s, in what amounts to a new Boxer Rebellion, the Communist Party has begun to slam the brakes on certain kinds of contact with the outside world and on sources of dissent.  There are about a million Muslims in “vocational schools,” political activism outside the Communist Party is repressed, and a “Great Firewall of China” censors the flow of information and ideas.[5]

The government censors blacklist and block access to sites like Google, foreign social media, and news publications.  At the same time, the pull of the China market is so great that foreign technology companies may accommodate the government’s demands.  The censors also keep watch on China’s own social media platforms because these have a much greater potential to facilitate political activism of the sort that produced Egypt’s Tahrir Square movement.

China’s economic transformation has wreaked havoc with economies and political systems in many countries.[6]  Now it’s “techno-authoritarianism” may serve as a model for aspiring tyrants elsewhere.

There is a rationality to this effort that escapes many Westerners.  China’s economic transformation has been faster and deeper than the equivalent experiences of Western countries.  Much about the experience has been disturbing, even traumatic, for many ordinary Chinese.  The potential for massive unrest in response to that dissatisfaction could overthrow Party leadership and derail China’s transformation.  In case it isn’t obvious, that’s an explanation, not a defense.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macartney_Embassy

[2] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_rbjg2k6cI

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boxer_Rebellion#Causes_of_conflict_and_unrest

[4] OK, that’s something of an understatement.

[5] James Griffiths, The Great Firewall of China (2019).

[6] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2019/07/15/the-asian-century-3-15-july-2019/