Modern China has always posed a perplexing question for the West. From the Western perspective, China is a closed society, whose greatest symbol is a wall designed to keep invaders out. However, rather than using its isolation to protect and nourish its people, the Chinese government has ruthlessly suppressed political freedom, and all but stamped out cultural expression. Why, one wonders, would China go through such lengths to defend itself, when on the other hand it seems to want to destroy the very thing worth preserving?
The debate about China in the West has been largely speculative and intensely ideological over the last half century. Speculation arose because of the West’s relative ignorance of Chinese civilization, its traditions and aims. However, because it was aligned with the Soviet Union during the cold war, the West believed that China was an expansionist empire that threatened to thwart democratic progress in Asia. So much so in fact that the United States fought proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam hoping to halt the spread of communism. A closer look at China in the post-cold war years reveals a much different picture: it reveals a country facing inward to develop the brains, heart and courage to make the most of the modern world.
While China’s inexorable economic advance over the past two decades has made it now a force to be reckoned with, doubts about its true strength have remained prevalent. Despite evidence to the contrary, Westerner’s assumed that China’s economy would not really thrive unless it began to adopt Western-style democracy, observe international human rights conventions, and develop the technological proficiency to begin producing specialized, non-commodity goods.
All of this has proven to be false. Not only has China built a world-leading economy on the back of steel, paper, textiles and lumber, it has been able to effectively manage an empire that contains almost a fifth of the entire world’s population. This feat has been largely underappreciated in the West; but its centralized government, draconian regulations on population growth, and state-managed economy were able to impose some degree of order and standardization in a relatively short period of time, on an absolutely astounding scale. It has now become clear that the Chinese communist party, despite its many weaknesses, is far from naïve. Its decision to crack down on cultural expression, religion and human rights was tactical rather than ideological.