Written by: Ken Wang
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes up, she will move the world.” Many foreign powers have oppressed China and exploited its people during the colonial period, especially during the Qing dynasty and the aftermath of the Opium Wars. Even shortly after the colonial period, despite the establishment of a democratically elected government led by President Sun Zhongshan, much of the country was ruled by warlords and was full of chaos from 1912 to the early 1930s.
From 1912 to 1949, China officially entered a republic period. During this time, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921 as the opposition party under the leadership of Mao Zedong to challenge the ruling Nationalist Party. The political bickering between the Nationalists and the Communists halted when the Japanese invaded Beijing on July 7th, 1937, which was during World War II in the Asian Theater, and the two parties realized they had to cooperate to fight the common enemy. The United States had diplomatic relations with the Nationalist Party and provided weapons and other aid to the government. After defeating the Japanese in 1945, the conflict before the war escalated and a three-year civil war broke out. Eventually, the US-backed Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan and remained a municipal province but still a part of China.
On Oct 1st, 1949, Chairman Mao declared independence and officially named the country the People’s Republic of China. For the first time, China was free from foreign oppression and took hold in the international arena. During the Cold War, China started to feel pressure from Western pro-democracy propaganda and provided military aid to other Communist regimes such as during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, both ending with US-military retreat.
During the early period of the Cold War, China had good relations with the Soviet Union. The two states had multilateral cooperation, including the development of nuclear bombs. With the U.S.’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan and Soviets succeeding in producing nuclear warheads, China understood the necessity and the power of nuclear weapons. Under Mao’s directive, China detonated its first atomic bomb in 1964 and its first hydrogen bomb in 1967, becoming a nuclear nation ever since.
In the late 1970s, under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, China adopted economic reforms and opened its borders for trade and international cooperation. Deng believed it was time for the party to focus on economic development instead of concentrating on the party’s ideologies. Deng’s economic reforms such as embracing foreign investments and lowering trade tariffs are by far the most important policies that contributed to China’s rise as an economic power.
Four decades since Deng’s economic reforms, China has become a global superpower just like the United States. Today, the People’s Republic of China is the second-largest economy in the world and has been the world’s largest export nation since 2009. China’s fast development of technologies and economics threatened the power monopoly the United States has enjoyed since 1945, which is why the U.S. has been suppressing the development of China on multiple fronts.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump declared the Trade War by raising tariffs and imposing quotas on Chinese imports. The fact is, the Trade War caused more pain than the gain to the U.S., especially with the government managing huge trade deficits. Arguably, to counter the economic pressure from the United States, Chairman Xi Jinping initiated the Belt and Road Initiative. This initiative invests in and/or grants loans for infrastructure projects in developing countries to expand China’s economic partnerships with other countries, as well as to make China more assertive.
China’s assertion and rise to power was a proportional response to the actions of the United States. By imposing tariffs, the United States essentially started another Cold War with China. Therefore, the Belt and Road Initiative is a clear statement to the rest of the world, especially to the United States: China has risen and it will no longer accept foreign oppression in any form.
Much like the Cold War after World War II, China’s rise challenges America’s political ideologies. Under the Chinese Communist Party, China is a one-party system and has an authoritarian regime. Since 1776, it has always been the United States’ mission to promote democracy around the world and support “free and fair” elections, even if it meant meddling with other countries’ affairs and blatantly violating other countries’ sovereignty. The rise of China simply demonstrates a non-democratic regime can become a world power.
In June 2020, the Trump Administration issued the “Suspension of Entry as Nonimmigrants of Certain Students and Researchers From the People’s Republic of China,” claiming that Chinese scholars and students use their visas to conduct intellectual property theft and spy for the Chinese Communist Party. The United States is clearly threatened by the fact that China acquired 5G technology before it did and decided to conduct a fruitless witch hunt. In July, the conflict escalated when the United States government abruptly shut down the Chinese embassy in Houston, in clear violation of international laws and norms. In retaliation, China closed the U.S. embassy located in Chengdu, Sichuan province.
In this 21st Century Cold War, the United States continuously and repeatedly provokes China with continuos diplomatic hostility. Why? The United States is scared that it may not be the most powerful nation in the world. The United States no longer has the geopolitical sway it once did during the Cold War. China has risen and become resistant to foreign influence and pressure. More importantly, China has been a nuclear power for almost seven decades and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council since the end of World War II. The shifting power dynamics between the U.S. and China has become increasingly clear: China will one day replace the United States’ role in the international arena as a superpower.
This inclination is even more obvious in the context of COVID-19 and post-pandemic world governance. China was the first country to be affected by the pandemic. Overnight, the government locked down Wuhan, where the first massive outbreak happened. The lockdown was extremely effective at stopping the spread of the disease; following Wuhan, a lockdown was effectively imposed nationwide. Students began taking online classes, parents started working from home, and airports were closed as well. Even after a year, cities still went under lockdown when necessary. Unfortunately, even with quick and proactive measures, nearly 5,000 lives were lost (up until December 10th, 2021). In comparison, the United States was deemed ready by the international community for the pandemic yet it has the highest number of deaths related to COVID-19.
China’s aggressive measures to get the pandemic under control should serve as a model for the rest of the world. Its actions effectively slowed down the spread of the virus and other countries could learn from it. At the very beginning, many countries had unfavorable views and blamed China for the pandemic, but now the reactions to China’s handling of the pandemic have become dramatically positive. What this does, in the post-pandemic world governance, is that it will give China an incredible amount of soft power in the international community. Sometimes, soft power is much more practical and useful than hard power (military or other forces).
China has been rising and it has been rising quickly in the 21st century in all aspects: technological, economic, in its COVID-19 response, etc. What Napoleon said has become a reality: China is no longer a sleeping giant and it does and will continue to move the world.