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 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 such as 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 Tiananmen 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 Old Regime and the Revolution."
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