What a Difference a Century Makes: China from Imperial Plaything to Global Leader

News Abroad

Mr. Carter is Assistant Professor of History at Drew University and the author of Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building, 1954-1968 (Cambridge Press, 2008).

The world watched stunned as a proud and a self-conscious Chinese nation welcomed the games of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing in early August.  In opening ceremonies that many are calling the most spectacular ever, China announced itself as not only a major global power, something we’ve known for decades now, but also as a decidedly modern, forward-looking nation determined to reach out with the slogan “one world, one dream.”  The spectacle continued on to the Water Cube and the “Bird’s Nest” venues which will no doubt be remembered around the world for many years—the first as the place where Michael Phelps wowed onlookers. 

China finished the games second only to the United States in overall medals, and well out front in the gold medal count.  The nation’s athletes seemingly competed for nothing short of gold medals as its divers and gymnasts completely dominated their competitions and Chinese athletes in general picked up the top prize across a remarkably broad range of events.  Indeed, China has truly come out, launching a “charm offensive” well before the games opened, effectively using its growing soft power to build relationships within the region and around the world in Africa and Latin America, among others.  If the Chinese people and their leaders appear a little self conscious regarding China’s place in the world around the turn of the twenty-first century, they have reason.  To begin with, the Chinese still feel the sting of a humiliating invasion and occupation at the hands of the old imperial powers of the West at the turn of the previous one.

It is necessary to take the long view in order to understand both China’s desire to show itself to the world in particular ways and also to understand China’s relations with the West from then to now.  Few if any outside China are as keenly aware of this history as are the Chinese people in general and Chinese leaders in particular. 

Since at least the 1980s, China’s astronomical economic growth is simply assumed—the sun rises, the sun falls, and China’s economy expands.  China’s power is similarly now assumed.  But this was not always so.  It is difficult to imagine a China coming apart at the seams, its central government far too weak to guard against internal disintegration and external imperial exploitation, of China becoming a series of colonies.  But this was very much the case around the turn of the 20th century.  By the late 19th century, China had been undergoing profound internal change with numerous nationalist groups and individuals groping about for solutions for the nations continued rot. 

Meanwhile, the external threats to China mounted with the imperial states from the West pressing their advantage against both the Chinese Qing state and against their imperial rivals.  Indeed, this lopsided relationship became codified in a series of legal arrangements known by all sides as the “unequal treaties” because of what they demanded from a nominally sovereign China.  Chinese began referring to decades of Western imperialists efforts as “carving China like a ripe melon.”  A nationalist response was not long in coming. 

One of the most visible nationalist groups responding to China’s internal decay and its international humiliation was The Righteous & Harmonious Fists—or simply The Boxers.  This group grew out of the network of secret societies, superstition, rural poverty/anger built up over years, folk religion, and popular novels.   In 1898, the Boxer Rebellion exploded out of the countryside and spread like grass fire over large areas of the northwest very rapidly.  The Boxers (so called because of their practice of martial arts) expanded to include peddlers, rickshaw drivers, sedan chair carriers, canal boatmen, dismissed soldiers, leather workers, and barbers.  They attacked the growing foreign missionary presence in China destroying property, burning and looting settlements, and killings scores of Christian missionaries and Chinese converts.  A desperate Qing state went along lest the awesome organic power of The Boxers be turned against them.  By 1900, the state and The Boxers stood in violent opposition to the foreign exploitation of China.  But by this time, both were far too weak to sustain the momentum.

Eventually, a western force of some 54,000 British, French, Russian, Japanese, and American forces—a total of eight nations contributed troops—invaded and occupied key parts of coastal China including Beijing.  The invasion and occupation had little to do with what is today understood as regime change.  In fact, it had the exact opposite goal in mind.  The invasion of China in 1900 was designed to eliminate the Boxers, stabilize China, advance and protect imperial gains, and to actually buttress the Qing state—to give it enough power and legitimacy to quell domestic unrest, but not enough to expel foreign invaders.  The western nations maintained the occupation for nine months, setting up shop in Beijing and other towns and cities—organizing police forces, cleaning streets, handing out jobs, implementing “law and order,” and generally running a relatively efficient occupation—notwithstanding much rancor and division between and among the imperial powers.  Indeed, the occupation of China can well be thought of as the first multi-lateral imperial project of the new century.  The key imperial states, including the U.S. as a new arrival, worked hand-in-glove, though guarding against the ambitions of the other, to keep China both whole and under proper control for their continued exploitation. 

In the end, the invading nations triumphed, forcing the Boxer Protocol that officially ended the sordid affair in September, 1901.  According to this agreement, China was forced to pay indemnity of 450 million taels of sliver, with interest ($330 million-with interest, nearly $1 billion), execute all those involved, including provincial officials, imposed a ban on all weapons imports for two years, and allowed foreigners to station troops in Beijing.   In short, China continued to exist as an internationally humiliated and crumbling state, ravaged from within and without.  Obviously, these events fed the movement for revolution—to get rid of the increasingly feckless, confused, and humiliating Qing government that seemed to be causing China’s subordination to the west.

Over the next several decades China underwent disturbing change: a collapsed monarchy, an attempted restoration, a nationalist uprising, a civil war, and, finally, the Communist Revolution that swept into Beijing in 1949.  From that point, China was both ignored and isolated by the West for the next several decades.  China had gone from imperial play-thing to international pariah so far as the West was concerned.  It has been trying to prove itself in the eyes of the West for a long time.  Now, having embraced a sort of hyper-capitalist model for rapid economic development in more recent decades, it seeks to embrace the West and to be embraced by it.  In this sense, the Olympic games represent the culmination of decades of effort to remake China in the eyes of the world—albeit with a repressive state intact.  To a large extent, it appears the effort has paid off at least in the short term.  While criticism of the Chinese state will continue, it seems amid the buzz and whirr of the Olympics that leaders in Beijing have demonstrated that China is no longer the Asian backwater mired in ignorance and superstition and, in sharp contrast to the opening years of the last century, China’s role in this one may be dominant. 

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Richard Tang - 9/3/2008

It is my first time to read a reasonable Chinese History written in English by an foreigner writter.