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Know thy Friend

By Tahir Mehmood

The nations, like traditional families, cannot be detached from their past. Their present and future do have a linkage with their past experiences. According to Hegel, perfection of an idea covers a thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis cycle. It depends in which time one is living to take part in a particular phase of historic progression. These days the political and economic commentators often view Chinese conduct of domestic and foreign affairs in opinions like: 1) Chinese are observing strategic patience in their smooth rise as a world power; 2) Unlike former Soviet Union, Chinese are following a gradual transition to free market and political freedom that would not yield instability; 3) China is following a very careful policy of engagement with its competitors and rivals like USA, Japan, India and other power players; 4) Economic growth is China's top priority; and, 5) Gradually China is emerging as an important stakeholder in world politics, international peace and global issues.

Today's China is reflection of thousands of years of experience of its history and evolution. It is the world's oldest civilization that is to say following the Hegelian path of rise, fall and rise. China is not a new country and society, its nationalism has survived for thousands of years. There is much to learn from its historic experience.


Chinese trace back their history as back as 3000 to 5000 B.C. that comprises various region-bound dynastic rules. However, it was in 221 B.C. that China came under a single dynastic rule - Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 B.C.) - Emperor Qin Shi Huang conquered six of the seven warring states and brought it under rule of Qin state and controlled the whole China. This began a 2000 years saga of dynastic rule in China. The later kings manifested their rule as 'Mandate of Heaven' and Chinese considered it under Heaven'. The vast Chinese tract of land, civilization and Han race were able to absorb foreign invaders in their fold. The Chinese were invaded numerous times; the Great Wall is testimony of those times. Chinese civilization developed to the extent that it considered the foreigners including the Westerners - as late as 18th and 19th centuries - as 'barbarians' and conducted them with a certain disdain. It was during the rule of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that Chinese civilization could have extended to far off lands, had the emperors not seized great naval expeditions. Admiral Zheng He sailed his huge fleet to South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa on seven voyages from 1405 to 1433 (much before Spanish and Portuguese armadas to India and America). Then China was a considerable and probably the largest naval fleet holder. Later, the Ming emperors ordered to dismantle the fleet and destroy the record of Zheng He's voyages. This fateful decision to cut-off any further contact with the 'barbarians' eventually led to decay of China's naval capabilities and isolation of the 'Middle Kingdom'. Had they continued their foreign expeditions, learnt new scientific knowledge that Europe was to offer in coming centuries, they would not have felt helpless against invading navies of the West during Opium Wars and later.

Conclusion: The Chinese would never choose 'isolation' from the rest of the world in coming decades and centuries! The cost had been too heavy in the past.


The First Opium War (1839-1842) is another significant experience in Chinese history that led to emergence of a new political, social and economic order in China. The Qing Dynasty (also known as Manchu Dynasty), was ruling China since 1644. The Kingdom of Heaven suffered through the notion of superiority and invincibility. Their exports had attracted the foreigners. Although, the Europeans and other nations were doing maritime trade with China for many centuries but they were not given easy access to the markets by Chinese authorities. Now, the imperialist powers wanted end of these restrictions. The first British mission to China to formalize the trade reached China in 1793-94 under Lord George Macartney. The Emperor was not much interested in the guns and other scientific inventions that Macartney displayed at the Court to negotiate for further trade relations. Instead, the foreign missions were often asked to observe the Court protocol called kowtow (complete prostration before the Emperor after bending many times). The subsequent British missions were sent to China in 1816 under Lord Amhert and Lord Napier in 1834. For long, Chinese emperors resisted to give unhindered access and special rights to these missions. No foreign resident embassies were allowed; teaching Chinese by the locals to these 'barbarians' was a crime under the law, there was a ban on inland travel except the coast itself, and, the foreign merchants had to leave China each winter. Only Russians were allowed to establish a de facto embassy in Beijing in 1715. Meanwhile, the British merchants had started trading opium (mainly produced in India) particularly in coastal city of Guangzhou. Such was the spread of this addiction that from 8000 cases registered in 1824, it reached to 30000 cases in 1839. Alarmed, the Qing emperor Daoguang in 1939 decided to crackdown on opium merchants to end the trade. He sent Lin Zexu to shut the trade and force the Westerners to comply the ban. They had wrongly estimated technological edge and power of British Navy, as well as infantry. The British steam vessels could sail in unfavorable wind with high speed, and their cannons could fire in any direction. The losses and destruction during this war compelled the emperor to sign the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. He had to accept the principle of 'extraterritoriality' that meant 'no jurisdiction of Chinese law on the territory under use of foreign missions'. He had to give access to five coastal cities, and, lease of Hong Kong to the British. This was beginning of the concessions to foreign 'barbarians' that had no satiable limit. The Second Opium War (1856-1860) compelled Chinese emperor to give more concessions to the foreigners. This time other partners like France, USA and Russia had also joined hands in grabbing as much as possible. It was beginning of 'Century of Dishonour' that ended in 1949. The display of weakness by the Qing emperors by giving more concessions was taken as national humiliation. The Chinese nationalism had started questioning the king's 'Mandate of Heaven'.

Gradually the Chinese were organizing to end the kingship and introduce a republican form of government that could restore their honour and dignity. As it happens, the rulers could not appreciate the changing winds and did not adapt to the times. The efforts to implement what is known as Hundred Days Reforms in 1898 by Emperor Guangxu were stalled by his powerful aunt, Empress Dowager Cixi who controlled state affairs for 47 years from 1861 to 1908. The Boxer Rebellion (1898-1900) violently asked for the end of foreign influence. In coming years, the Chinese nationalist organized everywhere, both abroad and at home, and unleashed Xinhai Revolution (10 October 1911 to 12 February 1912, four months two days). Finally the six years old last Qing Emperor 'Xuatong Puyi' had to abdicate on February 12,1912. China had had its share of kingship. It turned into a Republic on January 1,1912 under Dr. Sun Yat-sen as Provisional President. However, Sun had to cede presidency to powerful military general, Yuan Shikai (who declared himself emperor on December 12,1915, received fierce opposition, abdicated and died on June 5,1916). Sun Yat-sen, a western educated nationalist, became strong proponent of: 1) nationalism, 2) democracy, and 3) welfare/ people's livelihood (commonly known as Three Principles).

Conclusion: The Chinese would never shy away to learn from foreign civilizations (as they did during the time before Opium Wars) that had harmed none other but the Chinese. The China of today and future would reach out to assimilate the foreign experience, learn and defend itself. China of the future would be more republican and will integrate with the rest of the world.



The years since declaration of republic in 1912 to 1949 were an extraordinary tumultuous time in Chinese history. After the loss of central authority as manifested in the kingship, the newly formed republic could not assert its control on all parts of China. There was an internal chaos and external intrusions due to absence of a strong government. Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who is considered as Father of the Nation, founded Chinese National People's Party (called Kuomintang of China, KMT) in 1912. After turbulent years of Yuan Shikai rule, the KMT resurrected in 1919, and Sun Yat-sen again formed the government in 1921. However, the Republic of China (ROC) was too feeble and infant to assert its authority over vast mass land. China in many parts was ruled by the cruel warlords. Meanwhile, Communist Party of China (CPC) was founded on July 1,1921 by Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao. The communist leadership of the Soviet Russia supported both the KMT and CPC. The architect of modern China, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung, December 26,1893 - September 9,1976) had also emerged on the scene. Mao was a voracious reader of politics, history and philosophy. He and many others joined KMT as directed by Joseph Stalin; though still members of the CPC. Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 and KMT leadership fell on Chiang Kai-shek who launched Northern Expedition in 1927 to unite all parts of China under one rule. He also unleashed many bloody crackdowns on CPC and killed thousands of its members. The CPC retaliated with its armed wing (Red Army) that became People's Liberation Army (PLA) later. China had to suffer two decades of Civil War in which millions perished. To disengage from unfavourable battle conditions against KMT forces, Mao withdrew his forces from Southeast to North in 1934-35 covering over 6000 miles in one year (famous Long March from Jiangxi province to Shaanxi province). Of the 100,000 original participants, nearly 75 % perished along the route. So huge was the price that Chinese could pay for their idea of nationalism and people's rule. Meanwhile, the Second Sino-Japanese war had started in 1937 (The first Sino-Japanese war was fought in 1894-95 and China had lost). In 1931, Japan had already occupied Manchuria and established a puppet regime, now further advanced to the Mainland China in the North. China was suffering from internal as well as external violence. The CPC and KMT formed Second United Front against Japan but could not end internal conflict that continued intermittently. After surrender of Japan in August 1945, the two parties again started fighting the civil war. China was to suffer heavily again due to this internal strife. The Communist Russia was supporting the CPC whereas America provided support to KMT. Finally, KMT forces under Chiang Kai-shek were defeated and they withdrew to Taiwan in 1949. Chairman Mao declared Chinese independence on October 1,1949, and founded People's Republic of China, PRC (It must be noted that China never became a formal colony of any imperial power). Such is the tale of struggle, strife and sufferings in absence of a strong central authority, to rid China of old power elites, and to achieve a people's rule based on democratic centralism.

Conclusion: The Chinese would keep reforming and evolving the central authority to protect it from decay, and would not experiment a government that in rhetoric stands for freedom or some form of democracy but in practice is unable to maintain internal stability, peace and progress. Any untimely or uncalled for adventure or experiment in the name of Western style parliamentary democracy that could lead to catastrophic internal chaos would not go well with hard earned Chinese cohesion. The Chinese would take all measures to protect the nation from any sort of anarchic freedom.



After October 1,1949, China has started yet another important phase of its historic journey. The rule under Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai marks most influencing period in Chinese history. Since Mao had a deep sense of history, political science and philosophy, he adopted a course of action that may appear somewhat fallible in retrospect, but he was answering to the dilemmas of Chinese old and recent past. His treatment of the present and future, and, internal and external policies were reflection of Chinese experiences through the centuries. Being a staunch nationalist, he would not yield to anything that could undermine respect and sovereignty of the country. Mao knew that if not reformed and critically assessed, the continuous rule of one party (CPC) would decay. Therefore, he launched Hundred Flower Campaign in 1956 and allowed freedom to criticize policies of the CPC. Mao also well understood the importance of science, technology, heavy industry, modernized agricultural methods, and, importance of self-reliance, therefore, he asked for the Great Leap Forward in 1958. He wanted China to exceed in production of steel from Great Britain. Instead of individual property-holding, he implemented economic collectivization and communes. China might not have produced high quality heavy industry products during the Great Leap Forward, but the foundations had been laid for a self-reliant nation and trained work force that would prove very useful in coming decades. Mao also viewed the old Chinese customs and traditions including Confucianism as a barrier to progress and development. Therefore, in consonance with his ideas of 'continuous revolution' and, manipulation of 'contradictions', he launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966. He sensed that the CPC might fall prey to bureaucratic procedures and bourgeoisie practices, therefore, he asked the common man to take power in his hands and 'purge' the system. All this created another sort of violence, massive sufferings and chaos in Chinese society. Millions again suffered and perished during the evolution but China did change.
In retrospect, one might blame Mao for these actions, but inner cleansing and evolution did not let CPC fall victim as happened to the contemporary Communist Party of the Soviet Russia.

Conclusion: If there is no repetition of 'continuous revolution' in China, the CPC, however, would continue internal cleansing and transformation. Seemingly, it may remain one party rule in China, but CPC would remain dynamic due to freedom of internal criticism and transformation.

After Zhou and Mao's death in 1976, Chinese leadership embarked on yet a different type of socialist economic evolution. China has seen that self-reliance without requisite expertise and market may not prove to be a successful economic and trade policy. China has also learnt that total rejection of old customs, traditions and practices could create an inner turmoil in the society. New China has to keep evolving its economy, politics and societal values in light of these experiences. Deng Xiaoping has steered modem China on a journey that has led to massive economic growth and relatively more social freedom. The Chinese leadership after Deng has continued his policies of economic liberalization. Deng's successors have improved economic relations with USA, Russia, Japan, India and other leading economies of the world. Since then China has maintained a growth rate over 8 to 10 % for many years. Today Chinese economy is world second and has surpassed Japan. China invites huge foreign investments and also is a leading investor in other countries including USA. The US economy suffers huge trade deficit vis-a-vis China. However, the Chinese have been careful, deliberate and akin to world's sensitivities during these years. Chinese leadership has very carefully replaced the cliches attached with China's development from "peaceful rise" to "peaceful development" to address the World's sensitivities. Today China is playing its important role in regional and international issues concerning peace, development and security.

Conclusion: China in future is likely to continue its policies of economic liberalization, peaceful co-existence, and observe strategic patience to avoid internal instability and external conflict. China would not be the Soviet Union of the Cold War era.

China has a great past to enter into the great future.

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