The ICAS Lectures

No. 99-0507-JiC

 China's Place in the New Century: 
Regional and Global Roles

  Jian Chen

ICAS Spring Symposium
Asia's Challenges Ahead
University of Pennsylvania
May 7, 1999

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3992


Biographic Sketch: Jian Chen



China's Place in the New Century:
Regional and Global Roles

Jian Chen
Professor of History at Southern Illinois University

      On the eve of the 21st century, the human race must answer many tough questions. One of the most important among them is how to comprehend the implications of China's phenomenal economic growth and, as a result, dramatic expansion in overall national power, in the last two decades of the 20th century.1 Will China's strength continue to develop at the same magnitude and rapidity in the next century? If indeed China is continuously getting stronger, what role will it play in the Asian-Pacific region and in the world? Will China in the coming new century, as warned by many advocates of various versions of the "China threat" thesis, become a dangerous expansionist and hegemonic power imposing fundamental threats to regional and global peace and stability? Or will China, as advised by many prominent China scholars (Harry Harding, Kenneth Lieberthal, Ezra Vogel, and the late Doak Barnnett, to name just a few), increasingly become a responsible and cooperative member - a real "insider" - of the international community? Considering the simple fact that China is the most populous country in the world, one thing is certain: no matter how these questions will be answered, they will carry serious and significant meanings on the future development of the whole world.

      In a previous study, "The China Challenge in the 21st Century: Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy," I have argued that "the problems generated by China's emergence as a prominent world power should be defined as a 'China Challenge,' with which both the Chinese people and the rest of the world must cope through mutual understanding and cooperation, rather than a China threat, against which the rest of the world must form a strategy in a well-planned collective effort."2 Following the same line of thinking, I will argue in this essay that how to identify China's regional and global roles in the 21st century is a question that should, first and foremost, be answered by the Chinese themselves. Indeed, from a Chinese perspective, an essential prerequisite of identifying China's place in the new century lies in to what extent the Chinese people themselves may satisfactorily respond to a series of basic challenges facing China today. In order to make this point clear, I will need to get down to the analysis of the meanings and implications of the "De-revolutionization" process that China has experienced since the late 1970s.

      Viewed from a grand historical perspective, 20th-century Chinese history can be divided into two distinctive stages: while the first three quarters were dominated by a series of revolutions and, from 1949 to 1976, Mao Zedong's "continuous revolution," the last quarter witnessed the rise and continuous development of a profound de-revolutionization phenomenon triggered by Deng Xiaoping's "reform and opening" policies. Despite their apparent differences, ironically, the revolutionary and de-revolutionization processes are interrelated at deeper levels, and they both have bequeathed important leverages and legacies, shaping the foundation of the Chinese attitudes toward the outside world on the eve of the 21st century.

      During the "age of revolutions," China emerged as a revolutionary power. Especially during the twenty-seven years of Mao Zedong's reign (1949-1976), the People's Republic of China (PRC) constantly challenged the legitimacy of the existing international order, which Mao and his fellow Beijing leaders believed to be the result of Western domination and thus inimical to revolutionary China. Within this context, the PRC provided extensive material and other kinds of support to revolutionary and radical nationalist movements in other parts of the world, with China's neighboring areas as a particular focus. In the mean time, Beijing's leaders seemed to have been unafraid of using force in dealing with foreign policy crises that they believed threatening to the PRC's vital interests. Consequently, the PRC during Mao's times was one of the major powers most frequently involved in major military confrontations.3

      Underlying the Maoist China's revolutionary external behavior was a unique and highly influential "victim mentality." During modern times, the Chinese perception of their nation's position in the world was continuously informed by the conviction that it was the political incursion, economic exploitation, and military aggression by foreign imperialist countries that had undermined the historical glory of the Chinese civilization and humiliated the Chinese nation. While it is common among non-Western countries for people to identify themselves as victims of the Western-dominated worldwide course of modernization, the Chinese perception of China being a victimized member of the modern international community is most outstanding as it formed such a sharp contrast with the age-old Central Kingdom concept, making the Chinese feel their nation's modern experience more humiliating and less tolerable than any other victimized non-Western countries. With their conceptual realm dominated by such a mentality, the Chinese Communist leaders, as well as the overwhelming majority of the ordinary Chinese people, were deeply convinced that China's constant challenge to the existing international order was both necessary and justified.

      But, it should be emphasized, Mao's China was not an expansionist power. In using force, what Mao and his fellow Beijing leaders hoped to achieve was not the expansion of the PRC's political and military control of foreign territory or resources (which was for them too inferior an aim), but the spread of the Chinese revolution's influence to other "hearts and minds" around the world (with China's neighboring areas as an emphasis). It was aspiration for "centrality," rather than pursuit of "dominance," that had been the basic aim of the external policy of Mao's China. (This, in my view, is important for understanding the implications of China's external behavior today and in the future.)

      Since Mao's death in September 1976, China has experienced a profound de-revolutionization process, undermining Mao's revolution both as an ideal and a reality. While in domestic affairs, Deng Xiaoping abandoned Mao's discourse and practice of "continuous revolution" to placed modernizing China's industry, agriculture, national defense, and science and technology top on his agenda, he also adopted a new opening approach in China's external relations. Throughout Mao's era, as is well known, China maintained only minimal exchanges with other countries. Starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Beijing took several important steps, including dispatch of Chinese students to study abroad, promoting China's international trade, and welcoming foreign investments in China, to open China's door to the outside world. As a result, the interconnections between China and the outside world have increased dramatically, strengthening the interdependence between China and other parts of the world and pushing the age-old 'Central Kingdom" continuously toward becoming an "insider" of the international community.

       But the legacies of China's revolutionary age are deep and influential. A conspicuous revelation is that the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) one-party reign has persisted during the post-Mao age. China's reform and opening policies, not surprisingly, are highly unbalanced in essence: their emphasis has been placed on the economic and technological fields, leaving politics and ideology a forbidden zone. Indeed, despite China's abandoning of revolutionary discourses in a general sense during the post-Mao era, the Chinese Communist leadership repeatedly called on the whole Party and the whole Chinese nation to fight against the influence of "bourgeoisie liberalization," warning ordinary Chinese people that they should boycott the "spiritual pollution" of Western influence as a by-effect of China's opening to the outside world. As has been identified by many China scholars, the huge gap between this political stagnation and the rapid social changes brought about by the reform and opening process constituted one of the most important causes underlying the Tiananmen tragedy of 1989.

      In international affairs, the legacies of China's revolutionary age have been reflected in Beijing's frequent criticism and occasional challenge to the Western-dominated existing international economic and political order. Beijing's leaders consistently claimed that in no circumstances would the Chinese government allow foreign powers to impose their values on China's external behavior, or to use their norms to interfere with China's internal affairs. Since 1989, the increased criticism by other countries, especially those in the West, of Beijing's alleged human rights abuses and hard-nose policy toward Tibet and, more recently, Taiwan further offended Beijing's leaders. Beijing has persistently rebutted such criticism, claiming it to be the continuous revelation of Western countries' interference with matters within the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. Approaching the end of the 20th century, China is no longer a revolutionary country, but it is not a real "insider" in the international community either

       Many in the West, especially the advocates of the "China threat" thesis, believe that in order to change China into a more "responsible" or, at least, less dangerous, member of the international community, it is necessary to "constraint" or to "contain" China, so that China will be forced to behave less aggressively under the pressures from without. Yet the reality is: China's external behavior is primarily shaped by domestic issues. Indeed, one of the biggest paradoxes facing both China and the rest of the world today is: While China is increasingly growing into a prominent global power, thus bearing considerable regional and global responsibilities, the orientation of China's external behavior is less determined by its connections with important regional or global issues than dictated by an agenda overwhelmingly dominated by dilemmas and challenges of domestic origins.

      A highly revealing case in this regard is Beijing's harsh attitude toward Taiwan. Despite facing great international pressures, Beijing's leaders stubbornly refused to give up using military means as a possible way to solve the Taiwan issue. Every time Beijing was criticized for adopting such a policy, Beijing's leaders would argue that the Taiwan issue is an internal Chinese issue, and that their adoption of a Taiwan policy without excluding use of force is necessary for maintaining China's sovereignty and territorial integrity.4

      It is apparent that Beijing's Taiwan policy has been defined by concerns of deep domestic origins. In the final analysis, such concerns must be understood in the context of the profound legitimacy crisis that the Chinese Communist state is facing as a result of the reform and opening process. From a historical perspective, the CCP has justified its one-party reign by emphasizing two of the Chinese Communist revolution's fundamental missions: that the revolution would create in China a new, communist society characterized by universal justice and equality; and that it would change China's weak country status and revive its central position on the world scene. Mao's revolution, while failing to end political privileges in Chinese society, succeeded in creating an egalitarian situation (though accompanied by poverty) in China's economic life. The de-revolutionization process, in challenging the economic poverty left by Mao, has created new divisions between the rich and the poor within Chinese society, thus undermining the Maoist egalitarianism both as an ideal and a social reality. As a result, the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist regime is called into serious question.

      Under these circumstances, the Chinese Communist state had to attach more importance to the Chinese revolution's second mission in an effort to legitimize its existence. Consequently, a central myth of the Communist narrative of modern Chinese history-if there had not been the CCP's successful revolution, China would have remained a weak, corrupt, and divided country with no status on the world scene-has been made the single, most important justification for the existence of the CCP's one-party reign (as the myth is easily echoed by the victim mentality still existing among China's ordinary people). As a result, maintaining China's unification and sovereignty becomes an issue of utmost importance for the CCP, and Taiwan represented a crucial test case in this regard. Such a policy, however, inevitably caused instability and tension in the Asian-Pacific region, as well as in the world.

      In a deeper sense, this legitimacy crisis is not just one entangling the Chinese Communist state. It epitomized a fundamental puzzle facing Chinese society in the post-Mao era: if the ideology embodied in communism is no longer in a position to bind the nation together and to direct the nation's path toward modernity, which "ism" (if any) could take over the mission? The failure to answer this basic question has resulted in a lingering moral crisis among the Chinese population (especially among the younger generation). What made the situation more complicated is that although it was the failure of the Chinese Communist state which should be responsible for this moral crisis, one of its direct political consequences is that it enhances the popular conviction in the need for the Chinese Communist government to remain in power. The logic is simple: despite all of its deficiencies, without the Chinese Communist regime things in China could get worse and, in the worst case scenario, even the Chinese nation and Chinese society could suffer from total disintegration.

      All of this not only reflects the uncertainty of the course of China's future political, economic and social changes, but also, and more relevant to the main theme of this essay, increases the difficulty involved in predicting the role China will play in the Asian-Pacific region and in the whole world in the coming new century. In actuality, the orientation of the latter must depend upon the outcome of the former.

      Thus, if only until when China is changed into a genuine "insider" of the international community will she consistently play the role as a cooperator and promoter of regional and global peace and stability, the key for China to become such an "insider" lies in the development of China's ongoing reform and opening (de-revolutionization) process. This process, indeed, is the greatest transformation-political, economic, social and cultural-China has ever experienced in her history. Two decades after its introduction, the process has imposed tremendous challenge for the Chinese people, causing profound frustrations for China's intellectuals (especially in face of the deepening moral crisis). The triumph of this transformation process may open the way to lead China to economic prosperity, social stability, and, most difficult and yet significant, political democratization. In actuality, these three aspects of the process are closely interrelated-a China that is increasingly becoming an integral part of the regional and world economic system will have a larger stake in maintaining regional and global peace and stability; a Chinese society that is dominated by a strong middle-class will be more receptive to democratic political institutions characterized by checks and balances. In the same time, the triumph of the process will create an environment in which the age-old Chinese "victim mentality" will gradually lose its appeal, creating a crucial additional condition for China to emerge as an genuinely equal member of the international community. It can be anticipated that such a China will play a highly positive role in security, economic, and environmental affairs in the Asia-Pacific region as well as in the whole world.

      By contrast, the failure of the process could lead to China's disintegration-this is particularly true as how to identify "China" remains a tough challenge that the Chinese people must meet.5 If the process fails, in a worst case scenario, China's nuclear arsenal could get out of control; the Chinese efforts for environmental protection could completely collapse; over a billion Chinese could make neighboring regions panic by creating huge migratory flows; and it would be impossible for China to play a key role in promoting regional and world stability and peace.

      As far as the practical development of this process is concerned, the first fifteen to twenty years of the 21st century will be crucial. This is largely due to the anticipated result of two important developments. First, in formulating plans for China's economic, social, and political reforms, Chinese leaders, as well as the majority of Chinese scholars, treat the next fifteen to twenty years as a crucial period, taking the years 2,015-2,020 as a target point for achieving a series of goals in improving China's economy, polity, environment and quality of life. Second, in terms of the prospect of China's political democratization, which has proven to be the most difficult part in China's reform and opening process, we will see in fifteen to twenty years the last generation of Chinese leaders who grew up in the Chinese revolutionary era withdraw completely from the central stage of Chinese politics. It will be much less difficult for a new generation of Chinese leaders, who have gained their education and political experience in a more open environment, to commit themselves to transforming China into a true democracy (this will create a central condition for China to become a true "insider" of the international community).

      It should be emphasized, though, whatever the outcome of this process, China is not likely to become a fundamental threat to the international peace and security as perceived by the advocates of the "China threat" thesis. If the reform and opening China is experiencing today finally bring economic prosperity, social stability, and political democratization to China, it will simultaneously transform China into a real insider of the international community, willing to observe a broader range of international norms and regulations. If China fails to hold up under extraordinary pressure brought about by total state and societal transformation, and disintegrates as a result, it will be too weak to pose a threat.

      While it is impossible and implausible for other countries (those in the West in particular) to try to dictate the basic direction of further development in China's de-revolutionization process, there are things that they can do in order to help facilitate China's continuous integration into the international community:

  • Great effort should be made to understand China's situations and problems; in no circumstances should a "second Cold War" be waged against China.
  • Exchanges with China should be greatly strengthened in all areas, but especially in the economic and cultural fields, and the Chinese "victim mentality" should be handled with high sensitivity.
  • China's contributions to regional and global peace and stability should be adequately acknowledged and properly encouraged.
  • Long-term perspectives should be adopted in formulating strategies and policies toward China. Never be frustrated by China's lack of sufficient change in the short-run; never give up an attitude of good-will toward China.
  • China should not be regarded as a passive reactor to outside influence; in order for China to play a stabilizing and contributive role in Asia-Pacific and global affairs, the international regime should also reform itself by incorporating China's terms and values.

      In the final analysis, one must remember, China is one of the oldest and most continuous civilizations in the world. One should have confidence in the Chinese people's ability to make rational choices for their nation's future development, as well as in defining the role their nation should play in regional and global affairs in the 21st century.


1    According to a 1993 International Monetary Fund report, if one measures the Chinese economy with the purchasing power parity method, it was already the third largest in the world.
2    Chen Jian, The China Challeng in the 21st Century: Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy, Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace, June 1998, p. 3.
3    Quoted in Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 256-257.
4    For a more detailed discussion, see Chen Jian, "Understanding the Logic of Beijing's Taiwan Policy," Security Dialogue, December 1996, pp. 459-463.
5    For a more detailed discussion about the challenge facing the Chinese people on how to identify China and her position in the world, see Chen Jian, "The China Challenge in the 21st Century," pp. 11-13.

This page last updated 5/13/99 jdb


ICAS Fellow