In 1793 the envoy Lord Macartney appeared before the Qianlong emperor in Beijing and asked for British trading rights in China. “Our ways have no resemblance to yours, and even were your envoy competent to acquire some rudiments of them, he could not transport them to your barbarous land,” the long-reigning (1736-96) emperor replied in a letter to King George III.
“We possess all things,” he went on. “I set no value on strange objects and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”
The emperor had a point. China at that time, according to economic historian Angus Maddison, had about one-third of world population and accounted for about one-third of world economic production.
Today’s China of course has a different attitude toward trade. Since Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms started in 1978, it has had enormous growth based on manufacturing exports.
In between Qianlong and Deng, China went through tough times. The Taiping rebellion (1849-64), decades of Western domination, the Chinese revolution (1911-27), the War with Japan (1931-45) and Mao Zedong's Communist policies (1949-76) each resulted in the deaths of millions.
The Chinese ruling party and, apparently, the Chinese people see the economic growth of the last 35 years as a restoration of China’s rightful central place in the world. And note that that period is longer than the 27 years of Mao’s rule.
American supporters of engagement with China, including the architect of the policy, Henry Kissinger, agree and have expressed the hope that an increasingly prosperous China will move toward democracy and peaceful coexistence.
Those hopes, as James Mann argued in his 2007 book The China Fantasy, have not been and seem unlikely to be realized.
Other China scholars like Arthur Waldron and Gordon Chang have predicted that China’s Communist party rulers will be swept from power.
That nearly happened, many say, in June 1989, when protesters gathered in Tiananmen Square, the universally recognized center of the nation. But Deng sharply overruled those who urged propitiation and ordered the massacre of unknown numbers.
Repression seems to have worked. The Tianamen massacre came only 11 years after the beginning of Deng’s reforms. Since then another 24 years have passed, with the regime still in power.
But perhaps not secure in that power. In 2013 leading members of the Politburo recommended that underlings read Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution.
It’s an intriguing choice. Tocqueville, reflecting on the revolution that killed his fellow aristocrats and family members, argued that the uprising came only when the old regime undertook reform and conditions improved — the revolution of rising expectations.
And he argued that the revolution was largely destructive, increasing the centralization of the royalist regime. “The old order provided the Revolution with many of its methods; all the Revolution added to these was a savagery peculiar to itself.”
The relevance to China seems obvious. Regime members, like French aristocrats, no longer believe in their own ideology but cling to power. The Chinese people have come to expect rapidly rising living standards, and may abandon the regime if it doesn’t produce.
Regime elites must be careful, like Deng in 1989, or the rulers will lose everything and chaos will be unleashed on China.
China’s rulers have also been circulating a six-part TV documentary blaming the collapse of the Soviet Union on Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms and softness. Message: Avoid democracy or political freedom.
All this, writes the Wall Street Journal's Jeremy Page, is “part of an ideological campaign launched by China's new leader, Xi Jinping, to re-energize the party and enforce discipline among its members.”
Another part of that campaign was the prosecution of Chongqing party leader Bo Xilai and his wife for corruption and murder. China’s party leaders and crony capitalists have become ostentatiously and unpopularly rich. The prosecution was a warning to lie low.
If China’s leaders seem determined to block democracy internally, they have also been moving to rally nationalist feeling by aggressive moves against China’s neighbors.
The latest, last month, was the declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone covering islands claimed by China but held by Japan and South Korea.
China’s assertive stance has got its neighbors seeking closer ties and protection from the United States. Armed clashes — even war — seem possible.
China continues to grow. But democracy and peaceful coexistence may be farther away than ever.