Why China Behaves the Way it Does, and What to Do About It


America remains the world’s most powerful nation, but foreign crises appear to be a constant for the Biden administration. Although Russia and Ukraine have grabbed the spotlight, before that the crisis-du-jour was China and Taiwan. And Beijing will pose the greater challenge over the long term.

The “China problem” is complicated. At least the regime’s behavior is evident to all. Divining its intentions is far more difficult.

The People’s Republic of China mixes ideological, national, and practical motives. That makes addressing its behavior more difficult. Nevertheless, the PRC is not an unstoppable colossus set on global domination with America doomed to eternal submission. To paraphrase Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, there is a time when the age of Western liberalism may come crashing down, but it is not this day! This day we fight! And we do so more effectively the better we understand what we face.

Nationalism might be the most powerful force in the PRC today. Although the PRC is equated with China, for many people CHINA is something very different than whoever or whatever rules the mainland at any moment or another. Ethnic Chinese the world over celebrated Hong Kong’s retrocession to CHINA, not the PRC. The Chinese believe Taiwan is part of CHINA, not necessarily the PRC. So, too, are their territorial claims made throughout Asia-Pacific waters. The PRC might be the immediate beneficiary of Beijing’s attempted resource grab, but the issue is rooted in the weakness of CHINA during the “Century of Humiliation” before the Communists drove out the foreign oppressors.

History weighs heavily on the Chinese people and plays an integral role in this narrative. Hong Kong ended up a British colony because it was the spoils in the two Opium Wars, basically waged by London to force Imperial China to allow the sale of opium (and make additional commercial concessions). In the mid-19th century, British (primarily) and French troops looted and then destroyed the Summer Palace, the ruins of which are on display in Beijing. The episode still rankles in modern China.

Western concessions in China spread over time; in Shanghai the Bund, or waterfront, sports numerous 19th century European-style buildings which were part of the Western zone from which unauthorized Chinese were barred. In 1895 Japan defeated China in war and seized Taiwan. Moreover, the weak, ever-declining empire and chaotic successor governments were unable to pursue territorial claims in nearby waters. Many Chinese see the PRC’s current assertiveness as a long overdue effort to reclaim what was legitimately CHINA’s.

Like most countries, Beijing is quite concerned about security. The US is perhaps the most secure nation on earth, at least when it isn’t attempting to run the world. America enjoys vast oceans east and west and pacific neighbors north and south. Other than geopolitical pinpricks—the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Japan’s release of balloon bombs against the Northwest, occupation of some Aleutian Islands, and bombing of Pearl Harbor—the last war on American soil was the Civil War. The last conflict with a foreign nation, which Washington initiated, was the Mexican-American War.

In contrast, China has land boundaries with 14 countries and several close water-bound neighbors, most importantly Japan. Over the last century China has been at war with Japan, Russia, Korea, Vietnam, and India. Today the PRC appears more threatening than threatened, but like in Russia, people remember the vulnerabilities of the past and vow never to allow them to recur.

Equally, if not more important is internal security, upon which Beijing spends more than on traditional “defense.” The evolving empire faced sporadic revolts as well as invasions. Instability increased as the empire weakened. The most famous 19th century conflagration was the Boxer Rebellion, which triggered international intervention. Earlier resistance to imperial authority included the Taiping Rebellion, Nian Rebellion, Du Wenxiu Rebellion, and two Dungan Revolts. In 1911 the Xinhai Revolution against the monarchy erupted, leading to a weak republic and decades of conflict highlighted by warlords and Japan’s invasion. Some of these conflicts lasted years and cost tens of millions of lives.

Chinese don’t want a repeat performance, even for a theoretically good cause.

Economic growth also is a priority. China, both CHINA and the PRC suffered from immiserating poverty which lasted for centuries. Raising people out of poverty is a goal for its own sake, but especially to create a stronger nation state and to solidify political support for the current regime. The Chinese Communist Party was vulnerable to attack in 1989 because prosperity did not yet counterbalance tyranny. The PRC was developing more quickly but had started at a very low base.



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