China: Empire

What is China to us, anyway? (Part 1 of 3)

An old Italian map of imperial China, from the mid 17th century.
“Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range, / Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change. / Thro' the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day; / Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.”

This the first of a three part series of essays on the rise of China and what it really means for our era of global upheaval. Click through on the title if it’s cut off by your email. I hope that you take your time and find it to be something interesting and thought provoking. – N.S.

When General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping, dressed in a grey Mao suit on a rainy grey Beijing morning, stood to begin a landmark speech on July 1 to mark the “great and solemn day” of the Party’s 100th anniversary, the crowd gathered in Tiananmen Square was subdued.

But when mid-way through Xi said that that after “100 years of struggle” China was at last “becoming strong,” declared that “China's national rejuvenation has become a historical inevitability,” and added that anyone who dared “nurse delusions” of trying to stop China’s rise would “crack their heads and spill their blood on a great wall of steel,” a now animated 70,000-strong crowd roared their approval.

Analysts watching in the West expressed some concern at the nationalist rhetoric, but little surprise. This kind of thing has become almost routine. But ignoring it would be quite the mistake.

I have previously described the rise of China as one of several great simultaneous revolutions underlying our current era of global “Upheaval” – that is, the notion that: “at few times in history have so many currents of civilizational transformation coalesced and crashed into us at once, and at such speed,” and that, unmoored, we are experiencing this as “a tectonic upheaval, a rending, uprooting, cataclysmic shift from one era of history to another.”

But what role does China play in this, exactly? At a surface level, the answer seems relatively straightforward. Indeed, I passed over the subject in a single paragraph of that introductory essay, writing that:

“Geopolitically, a decent understanding of what is happening, if not of its full extent, has emerged over the past several years. The relentless rise of China, and its Leninist state-capitalist governance model, within the globalized system presents an immense structural challenge to the “liberal international order” that has prevailed for nearly a century, as led by the United States.”

But, while that is true, the more I’ve thought about it, the less sure I am about how well the full complexity and impact of what is happening has been understood at all. Despite the sheer volume of material written on the subject these days, I don’t think most people (myself included) have yet fully wrestled, in any deep sense, with what the rise of China may mean for us.

This is one of the greatest megatrends of our time, and most people now recognize that at a low resolution level. But we should understand that the consequences of this trend will inevitably reverberate down throughout our systems, institutions, and psychologies in ways that may be difficult to predict or perceive. I would argue that this is happening now – and that it is impossible to understand the upheaval in our lives without understanding the context of the China factor.

To start do that, we first have to answer one question: what is China?

That may seem like a simple question to answer, and a rather silly one to ask. It is not. And the answer – which may not ultimately be what you think – goes to the heart of China’s role in our world’s upheaval.


What does China want? Now that is a silly question, and a cliché one. Cliché, because every Western book written on China in the last decade seems to begin by devoting a hefty volume of its pages to pondering this question, as if the answer were (as Churchill once wrote of Russia) “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” that can only be pieced together by painfully extracting it clue by clue from the Tao Te Ching, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, secret PLA documents, and Mao Zedong’s oblique commentary from a cave in Yan’an. Silly, because China’s leaders have simply been telling us, quite straightforwardly and candidly, for years.

In just one recent example, at the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Party Congress in October 2017, Xi Jinping delivered a speech that was as much a declaration of intent to the world as it was to the Chinese people. He started, as the Chinese so often do, with history:

“With a history of more than 5,000 years, our nation created a splendid civilization, made remarkable contributions to mankind, and became one of the world's great nations. But with the Opium War of 1840, China was plunged into the darkness of domestic turmoil and foreign aggression; its people, ravaged by war, saw their homeland torn apart and lived in poverty and despair. With tenacity and heroism, countless dedicated patriots fought, pressed ahead against the odds, and tried every possible means to seek the nation's salvation. But despite their efforts, they were powerless to change the nature of society in old China and the plight of the Chinese people. National rejuvenation has been the greatest dream of the Chinese people since modern times began.”

But things were now different, he said:

“The Chinese nation, which since modern times began had endured so much for so long, has achieved a tremendous transformation: it has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong; it has come to embrace the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation.”

What had changed?

“The Party has united and led all the Chinese people in a tireless struggle, propelling China into a leading position in terms of economic and technological strength, defense capabilities, and composite national strength. China's international standing has risen as never before. Our Party, our country, our people, our forces, and our nation have changed in ways without precedent. The Chinese nation, with an entirely new posture, now stands tall and firm in the East.”

Now, he declared, a new era was dawning on the world:

“It will be an era for all of us, the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation, to strive with one heart to realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. It will be an era that sees China moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind.”

Xi’s was lauding himself for progress made toward his signature personal political slogan: the “China Dream” of achieving “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” He had revealed the slogan in 2012 during a visit to a “Century of Humiliation” exhibit at the National Museum of China, but he was hardly the first to come up with the idea. Indeed, in doing so, Xi encapsulated a far-reaching answer to the question of “what China wants” that transcends his personal ambitions, or even those of the ruling CCP regime.

There is a reason Xi used the term “rejuvenation” (fuxing 复兴), or “revival,” 26 separate times during his July 1 speech alone. It’s because the dream of rejuvenation runs deep in China – very deep.

It was already there when the nationalist students of the 1919 May Fourth Movement (out of which the Chinese Communist Party was born) marched en masse calling for “a rejuvenated, unified China” that could resist the “unequal treaties” of imperialism better than the weak Republic of China could then manage.

It was there in 1894 when Sun Yat-Sen, the father of the Chinese Republic, formed the “Revive China Society” with the goal of overthrowing the decadent Qing Empire.

And it was there is 1860, when reformist Qing officials founded the “Self-Strengthening Movement” endeavoring to “revive” the empire and protect it from invasion. (Its founder, the scholar Feng Guifen, memorably expressing his frustration in comparing his country with Britain and France by asking: “Why are they so small and yet so strong? Why are we so large and yet so weak? The intelligence and wisdom of the Chinese are necessarily superior to those of the various barbarians… what we then have to learn from the barbarians is only one thing: solid ships and effective guns.”)

Indeed it was there in the 13th century, when the Chinese painter and poet Zheng Sixiao lamented having a “heart full of the China Dream,” longing for the strength and unity necessary to revive a once-great Song Dynasty then crumbling in the face of Mongol invasion.

What is this dream of rejuvenation? It is to restore national glory. It is to return to a golden age before the fall, as when the China of the 15th century may have accounted for somewhere between a quarter and as much as half of all global economic output and received tribute from as far abroad as Africa. It is to Make China Great Again.

The China Dream is the same as it was when the Qin Dynasty first united China in 221 BC under one emperor, one banner, and one overriding philosophy: “wealth and power,” or fuguo qiangbing (富国强兵) – literally, “rich country, strong army.” (This was also, not coincidentally, the slogan of the Meiji Restoration which re-established Imperial Japan in the 19th century).

The China Dream is the eternal dream of Empire.

Chinese sailors on China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, stand in formation forming characters reading “China Dream, Strong Army Dream.”
Chinese sailors on China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, stand in formation forming characters reading “China Dream, Strong Army Dream” sometime circa 2013. (China Daily)


It is worth pausing for a moment to appreciate how thoroughly un-revolutionary this goal is for Communist China. What happened to proletarian internationalism? World revolution? The march of progress and the abolition of the Four Olds? The final defeat of imperialism? Hello?

Mao Zedong might be disappointed. But Xi Jinping knows what he’s doing. Historically, nationalism has generally proven a far more durable form of unity and legitimacy than any abstract ideology. So, after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 were crushed, a new bargain was struck between Party and People: they would shut up and accept the regime, and the Party regime would deliver the dream of wealth and power – and an intoxicating serving of national pride to go with it.

Or as Harvard China scholar Mark Elliott has put it: “We now see a bright line drawn directly from empire to republic. The People's Republic has become the successor state of the Qing [Empire]... and increasingly has come to rely upon this equation for its legitimacy.”

After Xi took power in 2012, he doubled down on that equation. Speaking at a definitive Party conference on foreign affairs in 2014, he declared an end to the guiding foreign policy philosophy that had prevailed in Beijing for decades since first being set by Deng Xiaoping: “hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.” That kind of thinking was for weak, low-energy countries, in Xi’s opinion. He proposed an “active” strategy of “striving” and “struggle.”

“Today’s world is changing,” Xi said. “It is a world in which new opportunities and new challenges keep emerging, a world in which the international system and international order are going through deep adjustment and a world in which the relative international forces are in profound shift.” He was speaking of China’s steadily growing power and the decline of the West’s. In taking stock of how to act in this new world, “we should not allow our views to be blocked by intricate developments. Instead, we should observe the world through the prism of historical laws.”

In other words, it was time for China to embrace its historical destiny as the once and future superpower.

“The wheels of history roll on. The tides of the times are vast and mighty,” Xi would declare in 2017. “History looks kindly on those with resolve, with drive and ambition, and with plenty of guts; it won't wait for the hesitant, the apathetic, or those shy of a challenge.”


Xi set two broad goals: that by 2021 (the 100th anniversary of the CCP) China would double its GDP per-capita to $10,000, and that by 2049 (the 100th anniversary of the PRC) China would be “fully developed, rich, and powerful,” have “become a global leader in terms of comprehensive national strength and international influence,” and have built a “stable international order” to fully facilitate this national rejuvenation. And of course Taiwan would necessarily have been returned to the loving embrace of the motherland. At the end of 2020, the first goal now accomplished, he set two more: that by 2027 the Chinese military would achieve complete “modernization,” and that by 2035 China’s economy would at least double in size, to what would make it by far the largest in the world.

In the years following Xi’s rise to power, China greatly accelerated a rather specific strategic playbook to achieve these goals – one that, despite the general ongoing outcry in the West, should be rather recognizable there, since the West wrote it.

In 2003, China’s top leadership ordered the undertaking of a national “Study of Historical  Development  of  Major Countries  in  the  World  Since  the  15th  Century,” with the goal of determining once and for all what factors have been most consistently significant in allowing major powers to rise most rapidly. Hundreds of China’s top scholars consulted on the project. Completed in 2006, the result was a report to the Politburo titled The Rise of the Great Powers (subsequently transformed into a twelve-part documentary TV series and an eight-volume book set for the public that sold out immediately).

Profiling the rise and fall of nine different nations and empires, the study concluded that the emergence and strength of various great powers over the last 500 years were all, fundamentally, the product of the same formula: rapid state-assisted economic development fueled primarily by foreign trade, and the global infrastructure built to support it, as protected (or coerced) by a powerful ocean-going navy. Only military overreach and/or losing a military confrontation with similar powers had brought low those nations ascending by following such a strategy. Examples lauded included Britain, Imperial Germany before its rise was halted by the combined might of its European rivals, and, most successful of all, the United States.

Students at China’s military academies started reading Mahan ahead of their Marx.

Presumably Theodore Roosevelt would have recognized the playbook as China began looking to establish East Asia as China’s personal hemisphere, with the region politically captured by reliance on the Chinese economic market, the South China Sea transformed into a “Chinese lake,” and outside foreign powers (i.e. the United States) steadily pushed out of China’s new sphere of influence.

Under this Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine, it would be, as Xi declared in 2014, up to “the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia” – though of course in Asia, as China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi once shouted at Singapore’s foreign minister, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”

And as a big country, as Xi put it in 2017, “no one should expect us to swallow anything that undermines our interests.”

Nor would Teddy or his contemporaries have mistaken the intent of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” first unveiled in 2013, to construct a vast network of infrastructure (including roads, railroads, ports, pipelines, power lines, and fiber optic cables) spanning the Eurasian continent and its maritime periphery in order to economically link China to Europe, with offshoots running through the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and just about everywhere else, including the Arctic.

This is the distinctive infrastructure of empire.

Along these links is intended to flow the economic lifeblood of Chinese power as Xi now implements a new “Dual Circulation” economic model, upgrading Chinese technological capacity, ending China’s overreliance on low value-added exports, and transforming the consumptive power of China’s vast internal market into what he’s described as a “huge gravitational field attracting international commodity and factor resources” capable of capturing the rest of the world in its commercial orbit.

And where trade flows, the flag inevitably follows.

With Chinese commercial interests, assets, and citizens now spread across the world – including more than 10,000 Chinese-owned firms and more than 1 million Chinese citizens in Africa – the need to defend those interests has become a priority. This was a problem made suddenly concrete for Beijing in 2011, when the Chinese government and military struggled to haphazardly evacuate more than 35,000 Chinese workers and their families from Libya, sparking widespread anger on the Chinese internet that the government was unable to protect its people. Again in 2015, a Chinese warship had to be sent to evacuate Chinese workers from Yemen.

“Development interests” soon started appearing in the list of things the People’s Liberation Army was supposed to defend – as when Xi promised to “elevate our people's armed forces to world-class standards so that we are equipped with greater capacity and more reliable means for safeguarding our national sovereignty, security, and development interests.”

By 2017 China had opened its first overseas military base, in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, and one of the highest grossing films on the planet that year (Wolf Warrior 2 – official tagline: “Whoever attacks China will be killed no matter how far away they are”) had notably ended with the still image of a Chinese passport overlaid with the message, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China: when you are in danger overseas, don’t give up! Remember, behind you, there is a powerful motherland!” (It would hardly be the only one of its genre, either.)

More bases appear to be planned or under consideration, potentially including in Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Tanzania, and Namibia, among other locales.

But having a string of naval bases, your own lake, and your own hemisphere is of course all pointless if you don’t have big enough gunboats with which to conduct regional diplomacy.

Hence why China has embarked on a crash shipbuilding program to produce aircraft carriers and their escorts. The first, the Liaoning, was retrofitted from a former Ukrainian scrapheap once called the Varyag and commissioned in 2012. But the second, the Shandong, launched in 2017 and commissioned in 2019, was fully domestically produced, if still well behind American counterparts. The third, nearing completion in a Shanghai shipyard, is expected to be considerably larger and more advanced, including with modern electromagnetic launch technology. The keel has already been laid for a fourth. Two more, this time nuclear powered, are expected to be added eventually, bringing the number of carrier battlegroups China aims to field by mid-century to six.

Now, the most striking thing about this is that China has worked very hard over the last two decades to pioneer and mass produce a whole generation of cheap and deadly asymmetric “anti-access/area denial” weapons (such as the DF-21D “Carrier Killer” anti-ship ballistic missile, advanced sub- and air-launched cruise missiles, and swarms of various drones) all specifically designed to make the aircraft carrier obsolete as a weapon of modern, high-intensity warfare.

The fact that China is still so interested in building them, while knowing full-well just how easily peer-level foes will be able to sink them, therefore seems like a paradox. Until, that is, one realizes that China knows these aircraft carriers will still serve for decades to come as wonderfully Big Sticks with which to remind small countries that they are still small. The U.S. Navy hasn’t nicknamed them “90,000 tons of diplomacy” for nothing, after all. Their very existence therefore makes it pretty clear that all refrains that China is, by some virtue of civilizational history, “different” (or “does not carry aggressive or hegemonic traits in its genes,” as Xi has assured us) and will never seek to project power beyond its borders, should be viewed with some serious skepticism.

That an imperial projection will follow if China succeeds in its quest to move “closer to center stage” and create, if not a Chinese-led world order, then at least a much more “multipolar” (i.e. less American) one seems rather inevitable.

This is not because China is necessarily some kind of new and uniquely menacing entity, but rather because it is in essence something so historically normal. It is merely following, consciously or unconsciously, in the footsteps of so many others who have walked the path of empire – even if they blundered into it in “a fit of absence of mind,” as some have tried to claim in the past – and should be expected to default to behavior at about the same baseline that most others have in the same circumstances.

The truth is that the contours of power always remain roughly the same across time.


What is China? The first way to answer that is to say that the rise of China is not something new at all, but the return of something old: empire, yes, but also of the simple, unchanging realities of power that humanity had long understood, and only recently seemed to forget.

When Russia sent barely-disguised troops into Ukraine to seize Crimea and other portions of the country in 2014, a shocked then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry exclaimed that, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country.”

This was a rather revealing remark in a couple of ways. First, in its seemingly oblivious hypocrisy, coming from a country that had recently launched wars in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But, more essentially, in its assumption that international politics is somehow in any fundamental way different in the 21st century than it was in the 19th.

As Thucydides could have told him more than two millennia ago, the nations of men will always behave in ways, “such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same.”

Why might Kerry have thought otherwise? Perhaps because he was still in the grip of a rather odd ideological phenomenon that seemed to seize much of the West in the unique period that followed the end of the Cold War. This was a period in which American hyperpower became so all-encompassing that some living in the world that power had created seemed to forget that it even existed, like fish unaware of the water in which they swam. Simultaneously, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed like proof that a triumphant liberalism was the ideological “end of history.” Crucially, in my view, these two soon blended together, with many in the West coming to mistake the peace and security provided for them by overwhelming U.S. hard power predominance as being instead the product of linear ideological moral and political progress. From this point on, as liberalism and democracy spread and flourished, the increasingly globalized world would only continue to grow more interconnected, enlightened, and peaceful. Eventually war itself would presumably become obsolete.

Even after 9/11 and America’s Middle Eastern wars, it took the rise of China to begin to really smash this particular Great Illusion, because China is the first challenger to ever really rival U.S. power (already being far larger and more sophisticated than even the USSR ever was). Today one seemingly cannot walk more than a few hundred feet through downtown Washington D.C. without hearing some bureaucrats or think tank wonks muttering about the “return of great power competition.” With Washington clear in its determination to “remain the preeminent military power in the world” and push back in the face of China’s challenges, the prospect of a U.S.-China war is increasingly taken as a serious possibility by both sides. (Though, given that neither country has fought a war with a peer-competitor in so long, real understanding of the prospect seems to remains awfully abstract.)

But, in general, surface-level discussions of great power competition, or our entering into a “new cold war,” I think disguise some less noticeable, but broader and perhaps more fundamental, psychological changes that may be occurring beneath the surface in the West, which I will try my best to put a finger on here (though this could easily be an extended essay in itself).

Since the end of the Second World War, we have lived in the most peaceful period in human history, known as the “Long Peace,” in which there has been no large-scale inter-state conflict. Those with personal experience of such conflicts have now largely passed away. And with the professionalization of Western militaries, a smaller and smaller share of the population in our societies has ever experienced those forms of war that have continued, such as the long conflict in Afghanistan. Meanwhile the West has also been almost entirely free from any domestic civil conflict.

Overall, the West’s elite class, in particular, has largely succeeded in almost fully isolating themselves from any direct experience with the realities of non-virtual violence – of war, of crime or policing, even in sport or in any conscious participation in what appears on their dinner table and how. (It’s worth reflecting on how rare and perhaps unprecedented this is in human history.)

As I posited above, this climate of security and general separation from the experience of violence became mixed up and confused with a sense of inherent moral and societal progress, even progress in human nature itself. A subconscious assumption emerged that politics (international and domestic) had become something new, different, and separate from what it really was – that is: the exercise of power. And an even deeper disconnect separated the nature of power from its fundamental basis in organized and monopolized coercive force. Power itself was seen as having been somehow transcended as a part of how the world functioned.

The nature of power became cloaked in layers of moral euphemisms and humanitarian justification to the extent that collectively we started, in a sense, to believe our own propaganda about never exercising power as power. Simultaneously, a naïve ignorance about human nature emerged, in which it was forgotten that, in an unconstrained state of nature, people will inevitably take and do what they can, if they can (at least absent spiritual/moral intervention, some would argue, of course). With this came a naïve ignorance about how the world works in general. This started to bleed into policy decisions, and in some places monopoly on force was lost to those who hadn’t forgotten – although that’s a broader discussion for another day.

I think this bliss of ignorance is starting to implode. Not only was it always unsustainable, because it was ultimately unconnected to reality, but such naivety itself created incentives and openings for the aware and unscrupulous to seize, accumulate, and exercise crude power. Now, all our politics (domestic and international) are rapidly moving in the opposite direction: toward a scramble to gather and leverage maximal factional power, without any clear limiting frameworks.

How does China enter into this?

Well, first of all, China’s Leninists certainly never forgot hard truths about power. “People who have little experience with power, those who have been far away from it, tend to regard these things as mysterious and novel,” a younger Xi Jinping once told an interviewer, reflecting on the ruthless purging of his father by Mao and his experience during China’s Cultural Revolution. “But I look past the superficial things,” he said. “The flowers and the glory and the applause. I see the detention houses, the fickleness of human relationships. I understand politics on a deeper level.”


And today, China has begun (I would theorize, going out on limb here) to function as an increasingly imposing and un-ignorable monument to the Old Ways – that is, to the cold reality of worldly power. The further and faster China and its empire rises, the further and faster the Old Ways spread across the world, becoming a “trend of the times,” in Xi Jinping Jargon. Our behavior adjusts consciously or unconsciously, whether we want it to or not.

This then is the first of many roles of China in our upheaval: it is helping to roil our psychological understanding of how the world works, stomping all over our self-imposed innocence – even if it is not, of course, the only cause for the loss of that innocence. And for the first time in about five centuries, the West now contemplates a nation not of its own tradition taking over as top dog, rather enhancing the effect.

It is not clear that we (the liberal-democratic West) are entirely ready for this. We’ve been shaken awake, are still disoriented, and have yet to digest our breakfast of power politics. This will be a time of testing and clarity as to our own cohesion and strength. Can we still play this game? Can we win it before we tear ourselves apart?

At least one could argue that there is some, if not comfort, then at least familiarity and predictability in the nature of this geopolitical game with China – if power is power and empires are empires, then we should be able to predict that, in a worst-case scenario in which the Empire strikes back, as it were, a Chinese world order would probably not be that different from what was actually a more straightforward world of the past, before the triumph of 20th century ideologies: a world of spheres of influence, in which a powerful China demands respect and tribute, but not necessarily ideological conformity around the world. China has not been an especially missionary imperial power historically, after all, since it never assumed non-Chinese barbarians could ever succeed in adopting Chinese civilization.

But wait a minute: most of us have a strong sense that living in a world run from Beijing would probably be much more… unpleasant. After all, there is the issue of totalitarian Communism, or whatever China’s ideology actually is now. And what about all those detention houses Xi mentioned? He certainly followed through on building those.

It turns out that Empire is the only simplest of the explanations for what China is. Ideology is up next in Part 2, so stay tuned. And, in the meantime, don’t forget to subscribe and leave your thoughts and feedback below.