China's Selective History

By John Lee

For the past week, prominent voices in Australia have urged Washington to get used to the reality of China imminently reclaiming its long-held status as the most powerful Asian country in the region ahead of the US.

Many strategists such as Hugh White and former prime minister Paul Keating, who launched White's The China Choice, are asking whether established regional powers can sensibly adjust to the restoration of Chinese economic and military power.

It is a fair and timely question. But at least as important an inquiry is whether the Chinese Communist Party can itself adjust to China's rise. And one crucial first step is to accept that its selective and self-serving version of Chinese history is itself a barrier against a more co-operative and stable future for the region.

The CCP has spent millions of dollars producing and disseminating an official history of the rise of the Qing dynasty and its fall (from 1644 to 1912), before the founding of the modern-day People's Republic of China from 1949 onwards under the party's leadership. At its core is the notion that a once great China was brought to its knees and humiliated by outside powers, first by the British in the mid 1800s and then by the Japanese from the late 1800s onwards.

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Many Chinese strategists argue that the US and its allies will do the same if China continues to rise. As the narrative goes, a strong and proud party is the only thing preventing outsiders from undermining and carving up the 5000-year-old civilisation-state.

The assault of the Qing dynasty by outside powers is historical fact, even if the country's weakness from 1949 onwards was almost all self-inflicted during the Mao Zedong years.

But the notion that there has been one enduring and permanent China struggling against avaricious outsiders across several millennia is a mischievous misrepresentation of history.

The reality is that what we now call China was forged through 2000 battles across 5000 years. To demonstrate the point, the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which was founded by a Han Chinese rebel leader, was constantly attacked and eventually defeated by the ethnically distinct Manchus from the north, the result being the establishing of the Qing dynasty in 1644.

By the time the Qing dynasty fell in 1912, the dynasty was an additional four million square kilometres or almost twice the size of the landmass bequeathed to it by the Ming emperors.

The argument that China is unchanging and its dynasties never expansionist is nonsense. Like all imperial dynasties, expansion was a bloody, constant, opportunistic and ruthless affair.


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John Lee is the Michael Hintze fellow and adjunct associate professor at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney and a non-resident senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.

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