Chinese Supremacy and Hegemony – A Story of Aspiration and Revival

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Parvedge Haider

“China does not see itself as a rising, but a returning power…. It does not view the prospect of a strong China exercising influence in economic, cultural, political and military affairs as an unnatural challenge to world order – but rather as a return to a normal state of affairs.” — Henry Kissinger, 2012[1].

In the present world context China could establish its supremacy over the West in different aspects. It did not happen overnight. Although China had hundred years of national humiliation, the period of intervention and subjugation by the Western powers, Russia and Japan in between 1839 and 1949, it has a long history of an ancient civilization. It was ruled by imperial dynasties for more than 2000 years. The Chinese desire of being counted as a global power is predicated by President Xi Jinping’s ambitions and his quest to raise the national stakes for international legitimacy. Xi has made a major paradigm shift in defining China’s power. Xi’s policy is not returning China to its introvert divine status of Tian Xia[2] but setting his sights on making China a functional pivot in which literally ‘all roads lead to Beijing’[3] is a prime factor. Many critics opine that the progress pattern of China is directing as global hegemonic power. Gradual development of China in every aspect is becoming a matter of threat for the Western control international geopolitics, capitalistic economics and soft culture.

China has been the source of many innovations, scientific discoveries and inventions. This includes papermaking, compass, gunpowder and printing. It (China) experienced a history involving mechanics, hydraulics and mathematics applied to horology, metallurgy, astronomy, agriculture, engineering, music theory, craftsmanship, naval architecture and warfare; even during the Warring States period[4], the inhabitants had advanced metallurgic technology, including the blast furnace and cupola furnace.

Photo-1: China old map

China developed it’s civilize power within itself. Throughout its 4,000 year history, Chinese civilization was not hindered by external wars of territorial expansion and colonial exploits. It was an introverted civilization, contented with endorsing its cultural vanity as if it is a supreme power mandated from heaven.

Besides this history of pride, China had to undergo a Century of Humiliation by the Western powers, Russia and Japan in between 1839 and 1949[5]. The British East India Company wanted to open up a new avenue of their trade in China at the end of eighteenth century. But Chinese king was not agreed. Qianlong Emperor replied to King George III of Great Britain, on his offer in 1792, ‘’Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.’’[6]

Photo-2: The British offer to Chinese King for opening trade

Although Chinese King denied the offer of British East India Company, there was limited acceptance of trade in China as the Canton System. The Canton System (1757–1842) served as a means for China to control trade with the West within its own country by focusing all trade on the southern port of Canton (now Guangzhou). The Chinese authorized a local group, ’Cohong’ to deal with the foreigners in exchange of some percentage of commission which was not liked by the British[7]. Moreover, the British had to deal silver coins as a part of exchanging economic currency. The British made a unique idea to deal the matter; they brought opium from India and sold those to the Chinese markets. Gradually, almost ten million people became addicted by opium. It had an adverse impact on the overall economy of China.

Photo-3: Business of the Western Countries in China

Opium was banned by the Chinese ruler many times but illegal trade took place. The British wanted tea from China, but they did not have anything to sell back to China. In 1839, Chinese official ceased the opium stocks at Canton. The Britain responded very aggressively. At that time China was not well equipped with its naval power. The British Navy defeated the Chinese using technologically superior ships and weapons. It was a great shock to Imperial China by the defeat of an outdated Chinese navy/army[8].

Photo-4: First Opium War 1839-1842
Photo-5: First Opium War 1839-1842

After losing in First Opium War, China had to sign the Treaty of Nanking in 1842[9]. According to that treaty, Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain, five treaty ports were established for legal Opium trade, Cohong monopoly was removed and China had to pay 21 million dollars to Britain as war reparations. The failure of the treaty to satisfy the British goals of improved trade and diplomatic relations led to the Second Opium War (1856–60). In the supplementary Treaty of the Bogue, the Qing Empire also recognized Britain as an equal to China and gave British subjects extraterritorial privileges in treaty ports. In 1844, the United States and France concluded similar treaties with China, the Treaty of Wanghia and Treaty of Whampoa, respectively. Later on, there was Sino-French War (1884–1885) and another defeat of China in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) by Japan.

Photo-6: The Unequal treaties

China was forced to make various concessions of sovereignty besides the military defeats. They had to pay large amounts of reparations, open up ports for trade, foreign “spheres of influence”, leased or ceded territories, outer Manchuria and parts of outer Northwest to the Russian Empire, Jiaozhou Bay to Germany, Hong Kong to Great Britain, Zhanjiang to France, Taiwan and Dalian to Japan.

Photo-7: The Chinese Empire were being grabbed by the West
Photo-8: The leaders of the West had been discussing of their shares

In 1899, the Rural Chinese from Northern regions (around Peking) rose up in rebellion against the foreign interventions and Christian missionaries. They sought to restore Qing power, but it was unsuccessful as the Eight-Nation Alliance of the West suppressed their uprising.

Photo-9: The leaders of the Eight Nation

After the defeat of this uprising, there was execution of government officials who had supported the movement; provisions for foreign troops were stationed in Beijing, 450 million teals of silver as war indemnity and more than the government’s annual tax revenue had to be paid[10]. However, the Chinese nationalists started regaining their movement. With the rise of Chinese nationalism and anti-imperialism in the 1920s, both the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China used a concept to characterize the Chinese experience of losing sovereignty between roughly 1840 to 1950. The term “unequal treaty” became associated with the concept of China’s “century of humiliation”, specially the concessions to foreign powers and the loss of tariff autonomy through the treaty ports.

Japan invaded Manchuria of China in 1931 and occupied it till 1945. Another large scale invasion was occurred in 1937 during 2nd Sino-Japanese War. Horrific atrocities were committed by Japan on China’s civil population. However, after the Second World War Japanese defeat created an opportunity for China to be one of the Big Four in the victorious Allies in 1945. In 1949, Mao declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

The possible reasons for which China had to suffer for hundred years are as follows:

  • No Industrial revolution
  • An ‘Inwards culture’ – Philosophy, Administration ,Bureaucracy
  • Chinese did not believe in exploration
  • Maritime power was not developed
  • ‘Closed’ market economy
  • Long list of weak rulers

After the World War 2, The Soviet Union assisted China a lot. In 1945, USSR assisted the Communist Party to take control of China. In 1949, People Republic of China (PRC) was established with the blessings of USSR. In 1950, Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance was created. USSR also provided huge technical and financial help to the new communist republic.

Despite the strong bonding between PRC and USSR, the situation got changed after the death of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin in 1953. The next leader of USSR Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was responsible for the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union that concerned Mao very seriously. Like Stalin, Mao used to project individual charisma during his power. In 1956, China criticized the USSR’s handling of Hungarian uprising. In 1959, USSR was not happy with Mao’s ‘Great leap forward’. In 1960s, China considered nuclear test treaties between USSR and USA, as ‘surrender’. The stand of Khrushchev created distinct distance between China and USSR; even in 1962, diplomatic relationship between the two countries was broken off and both the countries got involved in a war in 1969.  The Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China had a disputed border and fought a brief war.

Photo-10: Mao and Khrushchev

By initiating a limited attack, flexing some muscle, and killing a few Soviets, China sought to forcibly demonstrate that it could not be bullied, and that a future Soviet attack would be fiercely resisted. Mao wanted to teach Moscow a “bitter lesson’’. China started talks with USA and effort was taken to bring the mutual relationship normalized. USA president Richard Nixon visited China in 1972.

Since opening up to foreign trade and investment and implementing free-market reforms in 1979, China has been among the world’s fastest-growing economies, with real annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaging 9.5% through 2018, a pace described by the World Bank as “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.”[11] Prior to 1979, China, under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong, maintained a centrally planned, or command, economy. A large share of the country’s economic output was directed and controlled by the state, which set production goals, controlled prices, and allocated resources throughout most of the economy. According to Chinese government statistics, China’s real GDP grew at an average annual rate of 6.7% from 1953 to 1978, although the accuracy of these data has been questioned by many analysts, some of whom contend that during this period. Economist Angus Maddison puts China’s actual average annual real GDP growth during this period at about 4.4%. In addition, China’s economy suffered significant economic downturns during the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong, including during the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962 (which led to a massive famine and reportedly the deaths of up to 45 million people). Beginning in 1979, China launched several economic reforms. The central government initiated price and ownership incentives for the farmers, which enabled them to sell a portion of their crops on the free market. In addition, the government established four special economic zones along the coast for the purpose of attracting foreign investment, boosting exports, and importing high technology products into China. Additional reforms, which followed in stages, sought to decentralize economic policymaking in several sectors.

Present President Xi believes in pragmatic building of China’s global power. Taking the cue from Marxist ideology, Xi wants to demonstrate the commanding role of human power. Xi’s new China translates into conquering distance, managing spatial entities, controlling nature, and shaping an international order. In the process, the Xi regime hopes to challenge other foreign democratic regimes specially in the West. Xi’s operational power of metamorphosis is a synthesis of China’s civilizational geopolitical culture with the current tools of digitization, electronic engineering, and infrastructural development. Xi’s most adventurous and risky initiatives, debunking China’s peaceful rise, are his territorial claims of border areas in Nepal, India, Southeast Asia, the South China Sea and the Japan Sea. Time will tell whether these territorial ambitions will bear fruit or undermine China’s global hegemonic objectives. Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, has evoked his country’s “humiliation” at the hands of British imperialists. The Chinese authorities often use the phrase “century of humiliation” to remind people how far China has come when highlighting important achievements. As China rose to become the second-largest economy in the world, the authorities are looking into the future of national rejuvenation, i.e. making China great again. Beijing has set its sight on achieving two “centenary goals.” By 2021, a century after the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, the goal is to have a moderately prosperous society. The other goal is to build, by 2049, a century after the founding of the People’s Republic – a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious.


Parvedge Haider
Researcher, CHT and Regional Politics
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[1] Roderick Macdonald, Southeast Asia and the ASEAN Economic Community,
[2] Tianxia is a Chinese term for an ancient Chinese cultural concept that denoted either the entire geographical world or the metaphysical realm of mortals, and later became associated with political sovereignty.
[3] All roads lead to Beijing,
[4] The Warring States Period (475–221 BC) was an era of division in ancient China.
[5]Alison Kaufman, the ‘Century of Humiliation,’ then and now: Changing Chinese Perceptions Of the International Order, .
[6] Emperor Qian Long’s Letter to King George III, 1793,
[7] Ronald Findlay and Kevin H. O’Rourke, Power and Plenty, page 291.
[8] First Opium War 1839-1842, .
[9] Treaty of Nanjing (Nanking), 1842,
[10] Chinese students in US can be agents of peace,,known%20as%20the%20Boxer%20Indemnity.
[11] China’s Economic Rise: History, Trends, Challenges, and Implications for the United States,,Since%20opening%20up%20to%20foreign%20trade%20and%20investment%20and%20implementing,sustained%20expansion%20by%20a%20major .
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