“Destined for war? China, America and the Thucydides trap”

“As China’s self-regard has swollen, along with its newfound power, Japan has returned to the center of the Chinese gaze in the form of a bull’s-eye,”

Copyright The Financial Times March 30, 2017

As Trump and Xi prepare to meet, Gideon Rachman looks at the tests ahead for the world’s most important bilateral relationship
An excerpt follows. To read the entire piece, please click here.
“A big difference, however, may be that Xi’s vision of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” seems much more fully formed than that of the new US president. As the journalist and academic Howard French tells it in Everything Under the Heavens, China’s leader is essentially seeking to return his country to the position it has traditionally exercised in Asia — as the dominant regional power, to which other countries must defer or pay tribute. “For the better part of two millennia, the norm for China, from its own perspective, was a natural dominion over everything under heaven,” writes French. In practice, this meant “a vast and familiar swath of geography that consisted of nearby Central Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia”. This traditional Chinese aspiration had to be shelved for almost two centuries. From the mid-19th century, China was humbled by powerful outsiders — first European imperialists and then Japanese invaders. After the Communist victory in 1949, the country went through a period of economic and cultural isolation and relative poverty. By the late 1970s, when China reversed course and embraced capitalism and foreign investment, it had fallen far behind the “tiger economies” of east Asia. In its catch-up phase, China pursued friendly relations with its capitalist neighbours — including Japan, its old wartime foe. These Asian neighbours were important sources of expertise and foreign investment for a country that was desperate to make up for lost time. But French, like many observers, sees a change of mood and tone in China’s relationship with the outside world since Xi came to power in 2012. The primary target of Chinese muscle-flexing and ambition is not, in fact, the US — but Japan. “As China’s self-regard has swollen, along with its newfound power, Japan has returned to the center of the Chinese gaze in the form of a bull’s-eye,” writes French. Much Chinese resentment of Japan is focused on the Japanese invasion and occupation of the 1930s. But, as French makes clear, the roots of the resentment stretch deep into the 19th century. In one of the most compelling sections of this fluent and interesting book, French shows the importance of Japan’s annexation of the Ryukyu Islands in 1879. These islands retain their significance today, as they include Okinawa — the site of the largest US military base in east Asia. The current focus of territorial disputes between Japan and China is the much smaller set of islands known as the Senkakus to the Japanese and the Diaoyu to the Chinese. But reading French’s book, one cannot but wonder whether Chinese ambitions will also eventually encompass Okinawa.”

Is it too late to save Hong Kong from Beijing’s authoritarian grasp?

“They have very complicated attitudes to Hong Kong people – a complex,” said a man in his late 20s who works in corporate relations for a small manufacturer, explaining his support for tighter restrictions on tourism from the mainland. “They say that Hong Kong people are really just Chinese people, and nothing special. Hong Kong people in the 70s and 80s invested a lot of money in places like Shenzhen, and behaved like tycoons. They say you bought prostitutes there. Now we are rich, and it is the Hong Kong people’s turn to be our slaves. When Chinese people come to Hong Kong now, they like to act like they are operating in their colony. They don’t care what you think and are very free, because they have the Chinese government behind them, and the Chinese government controls everything.”

More than any economic statistics, it is this kind of psychological role-reversal that has unsettled people most. And that feeling is exacerbated by the assertive, even swaggering, manner of Xi Jinping. During his four years in power, Xi has established himself as the country’s most powerful leader in decades. Under his presidency, China’s own fledgling civil society has been under relentless attack. Lawyers working on human rights issues have been prosecuted and universities have been ordered to toe a rigid ideological line. In this climate, Hong Kong’s democracy movement has been depicted as a tool of the west, whose ultimate purpose is to subvert China and undermine its stability by encouraging liberalism on the mainland.

When Britain handed over control to China in 1997, Hong Kong was a beacon of freewheeling prosperity – but in recent years Beijing’s grip has tightened. Is there any hope for the city’s radical pro-democracy movement?

by

Early one morning in January, under the veil of darkness, a team of undercover police from China quietly entered Hong Kong’s Four Seasons hotel and made their way into a luxurious residential suite. After sweeping aside the billionaire occupant’s private contingent of female bodyguards, they shrouded the man’s head in a white sheet and bundled him off in a wheelchair.

Xiao Jianhua was one of China’s richest businessmen. He had built his fortune over the past two decades through deals involving the cream of China’s political elite, reportedly including close relatives of the president, Xi Jinping. Because of China’s opaque political culture, one can only speculate about the reasons for Xiao’s abduction, but it seems that he had taken careful steps to protect himself. Not only was he residing and conducting his business outside of China, his country of birth, he had a diplomatic passport from Antigua and Barbuda and had adopted Canadian citizenship, perhaps thinking that this might offer him some extra degree of legal or diplomatic protection.

Hong Kong fields its own police, border control and immigration services, each theoretically separate from China’s own vast security apparatus. But when authorities in Beijing decided to come and get Xiao, none of that mattered. Since then, Hong Kong authorities have not dared to publicly protest Xiao’s arrest, nor has China offered any explanation.

The incident was yet another blow to the idea that Hong Kong has control over its own affairs. Just a year earlier, five publishers and booksellers had been secretly whisked away to China for interrogation. From unknown places of detention, where most of them remain, some were forced to make crude televised confessions. Like Xiao’s abduction, this incident remains shrouded in secrecy, but many believe that the five men were targeted for selling lurid books about rivalries and corruption at the highest level of Chinese politics. Such books were particularly popular with visitors from the mainland, who could never find such uncensored material back home. One of the publisher’s books purported to reveal details of President Xi’s secret love life.

For many Hong Kong residents, the abductions were reminders of the sheer flimsiness of the agreement negotiated between Britain and Beijing when China regained sovereignty of the city in 1997. Indeed, Xiao’s abduction had been preceded by an even bigger blow to the promise of self-rule in Hong Kong. In November, a pair of young, telegenic candidates, who had just won election to the city’s Legislative Council, were denied their seats. LegCo, as it is widely known in Hong Kong, is a semi-democratic, 70-member body that makes laws, approves budgets and can hold the city’s governor to account. No one disputed that the two candidates, who represented a new pro-independence political group named Youngspiration, had prevailed at the polls. The pretext offered to reject them was that they had refused to specifically pledge allegiance to China during their oath-taking ceremonies, instead using the phrase “the Hong Kong nation”. (Establishment politicians also complained that they had referred to China with the derogatory term “Shina”, a word once favoured by Japanese imperialists.)

Hong Kong politicians defy China as they are sworn in

Hong Kong’s staunchly pro-Beijing chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, first sought a court injunction to prevent the Youngspiration candidates from taking their seats. This was a worrying move – but then Leung did something unprecedented and, for many locals, far more disturbing. Eliminating any discretion Hong Kong’s independent courts might have had in the matter, Leung put the issue before Beijing, inviting a leading committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress to rule on the dispute. The pair were duly disqualified from office.

Since the handover, Beijing had rarely intervened in Hong Kong politics so bluntly, and anger over this turn of events quickly spread, especially among younger people. The mood remains tense. On the day after I arrived in Hong Kong in January, a delegation of pro-democracy activists flew to Taiwan, led by the city’s most prominent opposition leader, 20-year-old Joshua Wong. At the Hong Kong airport, just before departure, and then in Taiwan, crowds of pro-China demonstrators jostled Wong’s delegation and showered them with threats and insults. Many commentators described the demonstrators as rent-a-mobs pulled together by organised crime groups acting on behalf of Beijing. The mobs were there to send the message that no one from Hong Kong who preaches separation from China is beyond Beijing’s reach.

If that was indeed the intention, the message seems to have been received. But that is not all that was delivered. I have been visiting Hong Kong since the late 1990s, and after more than a week of scheduled interviews and spontaneous encounters with people of many different walks of life and political persuasions, what I found was an unmistakable, shared sense of foreboding among the people of the city. In formal interviews and over meals in crowded, neighbourhood restaurants, the fear people expressed was that their home – one of Asia’s freest and most cosmopolitan cities – is locked on a collision course with the authoritarian system that governs China.

The freedoms and democratic culture that make Hong Kong so special might not survive. As one prominent lawyer put it to me: “If there is a solution to Hong Kong’s predicament, surely no one has imagined it yet.”


For years, Hong Kong residents have looked forward to 2017, the 20th anniversary of the British departure, as a milestone in their political evolution. According to promises made by Beijing, this was meant to be a moment when they would take a critical step toward direct universal suffrage, under the city’s mini-constitution.

Instead, when the city’s next elections are held on 26 March, rather than ushering in a more democratic era for Hong Kong, they will be conducted under the old terms, leading many people to fear a return of the protests and confrontation that have marked the last three years.

Relations between Hong Kong and the mainland haven’t always been like this. At the time of the handover in 1997, the anxiety that many of Hong Kong’s 6.5 million residents felt about the future under the Chinese Communist party was offset, in part, by a strong surge of pride. It is true that thousands of locals emigrated, or sought second passports as a hedge against the uncertainty of this new era. But many others believed that as people on the mainland grew wealthier, political liberalisation would follow. Rather than Hong Kong being remade as China, China would come to look ever more like Hong Kong. For people of this persuasion, there had never been a better occasion to reaffirm one’s Chineseness.

It helped, of course, that the most vital things had not been left to chance. Britain’s final act of decolonisation, which had been negotiated for decades, appeared to cede control over the city not so much to the Chinese state as to the people of Hong Kong themselves. Under an arrangement with Beijing that became known as “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong would be allowed to govern itself for 50 years with minimal Chinese interference. (Even then, however, there were local critics who bemoaned what they saw as a design flaw, or original sin, even: the people of Hong Kong were given no role in negotiating the new terms.)

Hong Kong was so valuable to Beijing’s state planners that optimists convinced themselves the Chinese Communist party would not risk tampering with it in any fundamental way. The city had been the first source of capitalist investment for China – booster fuel during its initial economic takeoff in the early 1980s. Through the 1990s and into the next decade, Hong Kong remained an all-important source of investment, as well as a conduit through which China hungrily absorbed western technology and management techniques. Western-style institutions, such as the city’s impartial courts, transparent financial markets and free press, moreover, made Hong Kong a halfway house for China’s own nascent global companies. It was the ideal place to set up international operations, giving them the extra credibility they needed to win over skittish foreign investors.

One other factor helped reassure Hong Kongers who felt anxious about their future. To many observers, “one country, two systems” seemed partly designed to appeal to the 23 million people of Taiwan, a self-governed democracy off the coast of the Chinese mainland. Bringing Taiwan into the fold of a unified China had been a sacred goal for the Communist party ever since 1949, when Mao defeated China’s Nationalist government, which fled to the island. Now, political commentators throughout the region speculated that if Hong Kong was seen to be prospering as a liberal society under Chinese sovereignty, then perhaps the people of Taiwan might also be gradually won over to the idea of uniting with the mainland under a similar arrangement.

During its early years of implementation, many international observers gave “one country, two systems” good odds to succeed. For some, it even looked like a true “shuang ying” (win-win), one of the most cherished stock phrases of Chinese diplomacy. When one factored in Taiwan, it looked like it could even become a win-win-win: something that all three societies might eventually come to embrace.

man on waterfront in Hong Kong
‘It feels like everything is stacked against you’ … many young people in Hong Kong are pessimistic about the future. Photograph: Bobby Yip/Reuters

Today, though, in the 20th year after the handover, this Sino-British arrangement is charitably described as limping along on life support. Many believe it is in danger of collapsing altogether, even as a pretence. As China has grown richer and more powerful, it has also become less patient and less willing to sacrifice control. In Hong Kong, meanwhile, the idea of “one country, two systems” has been riven by the sudden upsurge of enthusiasm for autonomy. Beijing has found itself confronted by increasingly disaffected and radicalised youths, who are as unwilling to compromise over democracy and civil liberties as China is itself.

For its part, Britain – Hong Kong’s old colonial master – has been reluctant to publicly criticise Beijing, as it eagerly courts Chinese business and investment. Chris Patten, the Conservative peer and last colonial governor of the city, recently said: “I feel very strongly that we let down the parents of this generation of democracy activists. I think it would be a tragedy if we let down these kids as well.”

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Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heavens, reviewed: The last empire

For Canada, managing relations with an expansionist and impatient China will not be easy. French’s closing words seem particularly apt for us. He notes, reasonably enough, that China has much to contribute and deserves to be treated as an equal. That’s not a problem. It’s the next part of French’s formula that Ottawa so often either avoids or gets wrong. It is also important, he says, to approach China with “understated but resolute firmness.”

Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heavens, reviewed: The last empire

  • Title Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shapes China’s Push for Global Power
  • Author Howard W. French
  • Genre Non-Fiction
  • Publisher Knopf
  • Pages 330
  • Price $36.95

Donald Trump isn’t the only global leader with wall-building ambitions. China’s President, Xi Jinping, recently called on his officials to encircle restive Xinjiang province, home to China’s Muslim Uyghur population, with a “Great Wall of steel.”

Trump’s Great Wall can be dismissed as an opportunistic policy gambit, but Xi’s wall-building impulse has deeper roots. The default symbol for the United States is the Statue of Liberty, which famously welcomes the huddled masses. China’s most notable structure, the Great Wall, was built to keep the masses out, particularly those with dynastic ambitions.

For China’s mandarins, trouble typically arrives in the form of the twin calamities captured in the gloomy couplet, “Nei luan, wai huan”: chaos at home and invasion from abroad.

Avoiding these linked perils remains a priority for Xi, a preoccupation that shapes his foreign and domestic policy. Xi presides over the world’s last surviving empire, a country that has devoured ethnic rivals such as the Uyghurs and Tibetans whole, and that treats neighbouring states as vassals to be kept in line. All non-Han “Others” are expected to understand and appreciate the concept of tian xia, or “everything under heaven,” the rather ambitious zone of influence that China has traditionally attributed to itself.

Living up to this imposing mandate means that China is forever managing others, walling them in or fending them off, hoping to pacify them with the offer of membership in a China-dominated order.

In his new book, appropriately titled Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Shapes China’s Push for Global Power, former New York Times journalist Howard W. French makes it clear China’s sense of national superiority is of more than historical significance. While China’s power has waxed and waned, its sense of being the Middle Kingdom has remained constant. So, too, has its inclination to manage those who lie outside the centre. Living up to its awesome self-image has required China to dispatch fleets and armies, and to develop a highly sophisticated diplomatic stagecraft of flattery and intimidation. For centuries, exercising this mandate of heaven has meant relentless efforts to manage and cajole, to pacify and control.

Nothing is quite what it seems. The generous offer of inclusion in a Chinese world masks a condescending disregard for partially sinicized neighbours, such as the Vietnamese and Tibetans, and contempt for the barbarians beyond. The offer of a peaceful place in a Chinese world is inevitably backed up by the sword.

French’s account, not surprisingly, runs counter to the official Chinese narrative. Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch who led a Chinese armada to Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and the east coast of Africa, is lauded in China as an unconventional explorer. Unlike his Western counterparts, whose voyages were marked by greed, violence and conquest, Zheng, the story goes, was an ambassador of Chinese benevolence. The reality, as French reminds us, is that Zheng’s massive ships were actually troop carriers, whose menacing arrival conveyed a distinctly different message about the nature of the Chinese deal on offer.

Modern China continues to proclaim this theme of benevolent internationalism, something French challenges with numerous examples. The most chilling is his account of the Chinese navy’s 1988 massacre of flag-waving Vietnamese troops on the disputed Johnson Reef in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese protest is captured on a grainy YouTube video that is suddenly interrupted by Chinese naval gunfire. When the smoke clears, the Vietnamese are, shockingly, gone. It’s worth noting this happened just a year before the Chinese military perpetrated another massacre, this time of student protesters in Tiananmen Square. Nei luan, wai huan.

China is clearly in the midst of a new period of exuberance and expansion, and, as French makes clear, this inevitably involves friction with the two powers, Japan and the United States, that have come to dominate its neighbourhood over the past 200 years.

In recent decades, Japan, seduced by the lure of the China market and by the friendly pragmatism of previous (and needier) Chinese leaders, played down territorial disputes as it helped to rebuild China. The tables have since turned. All things Japanese are now demonized by China, which evokes past Japanese aggression as it steadily encroaches on the rocky outcroppings that mark the beginning of the Japanese archipelago.

Even more worrisome is China’s growing rivalry with its most formidable adversary, the United States. China is rapidly acquiring the weapons and technology to make it highly risky for the U.S. Navy to operate in the western Pacific, an ambition furthered by China’s construction of military airstrips on artificial islands in the South China Sea. French ominously quotes another Chinese aphorism: “When two emperors appear simultaneously, one must be destroyed.”

French suggests the current period of Chinese expansionism is particularly dangerous not just because it involves a clash between two nuclear-armed powers, but also because China’s leaders are in a race against time. The window on their ambitions for regional and broader domination is closing. China’s slowing economy means less money for military modernization. Worse for China is the fact its population will likely peak by 2025, while the United States will continue to enjoy a steadily increasing population, and resulting economic growth, for a long time to come. Much of this U.S. population growth will be powered by immigration. Trump may wish to rethink his wall.

All of this matters for Canadians. Any armed clash between the United States, our closest ally, and China would be devastating. Even if conflict is avoided, we can expect China’s larger ambitions and anxieties will influence the way it manages relations with Canada. The carrots and sticks are familiar.

Trade is one potential motivator. Even though it flows in China’s favour, its partners, Canada included, are all-too-easily persuaded that permission to do business is a benefit conferred only on those who agree to play by China’s rules. And access to China’s leaders is so carefully meted out and stage-managed that it becomes an objective in itself. Leaders refuse to kowtow at their peril. Recall that former prime minister Stephen Harper was widely castigated for declining to attend the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which took place only months after ugly scenes of unrest and repression in Tibet.

For Canada, managing relations with an expansionist and impatient China will not be easy. French’s closing words seem particularly apt for us. He notes, reasonably enough, that China has much to contribute and deserves to be treated as an equal. That’s not a problem. It’s the next part of French’s formula that Ottawa so often either avoids or gets wrong. It is also important, he says, to approach China with “understated but resolute firmness.”

That’s another way of saying that, like China, we need to align our international strategy with a hard-nosed reading of national interest. Let’s hope Ottawa’s mandarins are paying attention.

David Mulroney is the author of Middle Power, Middle Kingdom: What Canadians Need to Know about China in the 21st Century, and is president of the University of St. Michael’s College. He was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012.

‘Bombard the Headquarters’ The twin pillars of Mao’s campaign were uprooting supposed reactionaries and the promotion of sycophancy.

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

Looking back on the three years that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has been in power, it is tempting to say that his tenure has been leading, almost ineluctably, to revived memories of and comparisons to the moment 50 years ago when China embarked on the decade we remember as the Cultural Revolution.

Month after month has brought news from China of the unrelenting ways in which Mr. Xi has concentrated power in his own hands. This began early in his tenure, when state propagandists encouraged worshipful references to him as “Xi Dada,” or “grandpa Xi,” while elevating his glamorous wife, Peng Liyuan, to the status of national role model. In April, Mr. Xi, who was already president, chairman of the Communist Party and head of the country’s Central Military Commission, showed up in camouflage fatigues at a meeting with top military leaders, revealing yet another title: head of China’s Joint Battle Command Center.

Finally, just days before the anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution, which fell on May 25, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was the scene of a theatrical extravaganza that combined revived radical rhetoric from that era with twinned images of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping. Developments like these have made many Chinese and foreign observers ask whether China under Mr. Xi is edging toward a revival of Mao-like rule.

But to read Frank Dikötter’s “The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976” is to understand how far Mr. Xi’s China—however worrisome recent trends—is from Mao’s radical, despotic regime.

Most accounts of this era begin in May 1966, when dissidents at Peking University displayed so-called big-character posters denouncing the university’s leadership as “Khrushchev-type revisionist elements.” Mao responded by urging the young radicals to “bombard the headquarters” of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, Mr. Dikötter commences his story four years earlier, when Mao began maneuvering to restore his prestige and power after the shattering failure of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, in which his plan to rapidly accelerate China’s economy ended in the starvation of tens of millions of his compatriots. Mao’s new campaign was built on two main pillars: the promotion of leftist ideas, which would require uprooting supposed reactionaries seeded throughout the party; and the promotion of sycophancy, which was ultimately fanned to a white heat.

THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION

By Frank Dikötter

Bloomsbury, 396 pages. $32

According to Mr. Dikötter, this two-pronged approach began with a 1962 speech by Lin Biao,a power-hungry military commander who would soon rise to become the chairman’s designated successor. (In 1971, Lin was himself destroyed amid vicious political infighting, dying in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia as he fled his country.) Lin set the standard for the deification of Mao, declaring him infallible: “The thoughts of Chairman Mao are always correct. . . . He is never out of touch with reality.” Lin, who had the idea of printing millions of copies of a compendium of Mao’s thoughts, which became known as the “Little Red Book,” was only getting started.

As Mr. Dikötter’s subtitle implies, his history aims to give new emphasis to the voices and experiences of ordinary Chinese during this period in order to better understand a bewilderingly chaotic political era. What emerges most strongly from the book, however, is a deepened sense of the elite politics of the period, as the higher reaches of the Communist Party, senior military commanders and even provincial leaders were kept guessing about their obscurantist leader’s ever-changing whims, which Mao expressed with abstruse aphorisms and pseudo-Marxist gibberish. Throughout the book, especially its first half, what predominates is the ceaseless rise and fall of members of the nomenklatura as they parry charges of being closet rightists and seek to stay in Mao’s good graces. These figures include people at the very top of the hierarchy, such as Zhou Enlai, Mao’s longest-serving lieutenant; the twice-purged Deng Xiaoping; Liu Shaoqi, who was purged as president and died in prison; and Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who survived it all only to be arrested after the chairman’s death and imprisoned for her role as ringleader of the chaos.

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Will there be war?

At the heart of Cliff’s book is an assessment of who would win if a war broke out between the US and China in this region. The US has been a guarantor of Taiwan’s security for a long time, and has defence treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines that Washington has been working to strengthen, under what the Obama administration has called a ‘rebalance’ of American strength towards Asia. Beijing has denounced these efforts, claiming they are aimed at containment of China. Cliff assumes, as the European analyst Jonathan Holslag does in China’s Coming War with Asia, that as China’s strength continues to grow, so does the possibility of conflict with the US, the dominant power in the Western Pacific since the Second World War.

Copyright The London Review of Books

A review of the following titles:

  • China and Global Nuclear Order: From Estrangement to Active Engagement by Nicola Horsburgh
    Oxford, 256 pp, £55.00, February 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 870611 3
  • BUYChina’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities byRoger Cliff
    Cambridge, 378 pp, £21.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 107 50295 6
  • BUYChina’s Coming War with Asia by Jonathan Holslag
    Polity, 176 pp, £14.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 7456 8825 1

On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong stood on top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace to proclaim the victory of his revolution, and told the world that the long-suffering Chinese people had finally ‘stood up’. After decades of tremendous violence and turmoil, China was going to relaunch itself into the arduous and disorienting task of embracing modernity. This project had begun in the late 19th century, near the end of the thousands-year-long imperial era under the Qing dynasty, and continued at the start of the republican period in the early 20th century. But it was cut short by chaotic warlordism, followed by Japan’s vicious attempted conquest of China and finally by brutal infighting between Communists and Nationalists. It was Mao’s armies’ outmanoeuvring of the forces of his longtime rival, Chiang Kai-Shek, that landed him triumphantly in Tiananmen Square that day in 1949. What set China apart from almost every other people whose lands were subjugated by European imperialism, then thrown into chaos by the turmoil that followed its collapse, is that through all the violence the nation suffered, one ambition remained constant: to restore to China what those who aspired to lead it believed was its civilisational birthright and heritage – a position of pre-eminence in world affairs.

Self-belief of this sort has always been a feature of Chinese thinking. But during Mao’s early years in power, the notion that China could make progress only by adopting imported ideas was still a relatively new and radical concept. As recently as the late 18th century, China was still displaying utter disdain for the ideas and innovations coming from Europe. When George Macartney, Britain’s first envoy to China, arrived at the head of a delegation in 1793, the Qing Emperor Qianlong refused his request to establish a permanent embassy in Beijing. Qianlong also spurned Macartney’s gifts, which had been carefully selected to demonstrate British progress and greatness. ‘Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders,’ Qianlong wrote. ‘Therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.’ There are few better examples of how pride precedes a fall. Among Macartney’s gifts were several brass cannons capable of firing seven shots a minute – an astounding feat at that time. Britain even proposed to export them to China, but the Qing declined. A half-century later, Britain would return to the country with cannons blazing, humiliating China and its technologically backward armies in the first Opium War.

The country that Mao inherited was poor and economically devastated. Its situation compared to the major powers was arguably worse than it had been when the Europeans made their scramble for China a hundred years earlier. Mao knew this and had no intention of repeating the errors of Qianlong – this was no time for false pride. Beijing aligned itself closely with the USSR, believing that Marxism-Leninism offered the best chance of reordering Chinese society and allowing it rapidly to make up lost ground in economic and geopolitical power. Barely two months after taking power he made a pilgrimage by train to Moscow, spending two months holed up in a dacha awaiting infrequent audiences with Stalin in order to plead his case for assistance on an unheard-of scale. Mao asked for factories of all sorts to be dismantled and shipped off to China; he wanted the Soviets to accept huge numbers of Chinese students into their universities and technical institutes; and he requested that the Soviets send thousands of advisers to China to help oversee the country’s economic take-off.

From the outset, however, Mao had something more ambitious in mind than creating modern industries and generating economic growth. Having ‘liberated’ China at the beginning of the nuclear age, there was one Western gadget he coveted more than any other: the bomb. Though it conspicuously lacked this ultimate symbol of great power status, China fought the US to a standstill on the Korean peninsula and began to project its ambitions into other parts of the world. During this period, Mao publicly affected disdain for weapons of mass destruction, arguing that against the immensity of China they counted for little. ‘The atom bomb is a paper tiger … it looks terrible but in fact it is not … the outcome of war is decided by the people, not … weapons,’ he said in the late 1940s, as Nicola Horsburgh recounts in China and Global Nuclear Order. Privately, though, atomic weapons were an early obsession of his, so much so that his eagerness to acquire an arsenal of his own drove a wedge between Beijing and Moscow and was one of the factors that led to the termination of their alliance in the early 1960s. In 1949, Liu Shaoqi was sent to Moscow, where he sought and was denied access to Soviet nuclear facilities. By 1954, however, Moscow had acquiesced, enabling China rapidly to master the nuclear fuel cycle. The following year, the two countries signed the Sino-Soviet Atomic Co-operation Treaty, which led to the creation of 39 atomic research centres in China. But by 1957, there were signs of trouble in the relationship. A new technical accord signed that year seemed to promise that the USSR would supply China with a blueprint for an atomic weapon, or even a prototype – but in the end no device was provided. Horsburgh says that Moscow had demanded joint military control, a loss of sovereignty that Mao rejected as intolerable.

By the late 1950s, after several years of an unrestrained arms race, Moscow and Washington had begun to take their nuclear competition seriously. The US had installed tactical atomic weapons at bases in Taiwan, South Korea, Guam and Hawaii, and had hinted at the possibility of their use during crises in Indochina in 1954 and over Taiwan in 1955. When Mao confronted Taiwan over the small, Taiwanese-controlled islands of Quemoy and Matsu in 1958, risking war with the US, Moscow got spooked by its ally’s seeming recklessness – some in Moscow began asking whether Mao was crazy. Unlike the USSR, China also insisted on supporting wars of national liberation in other parts of the world – a principle that Mao regarded as sacrosanct.

China’s frustration at the Soviets’ foot-dragging over the sharing of atomic weapons technology, combined with Mao’s disapproval of Khrushchev’s posthumous attack on Stalin and his cult of personality in the secret speech of 1956, destroyed any remaining allegiance to the USSR. In Mao’s view, Khrushchev was legitimising challengers to his own rule. The Soviets were denounced as ‘revisionists’, which in this instance meant that they were willing to make accommodations with the US in order to avoid war. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which Beijing read as Soviet capitulation, this had become the mainstream view in China.

In June 1959, Khrushchev abrogated the USSR’s two-year-old treaty with Beijing, declaring that no nuclear weapon prototype would be provided to China after all because of his country’s commitment to the recently negotiated Partial Test Ban Treaty with the US. A year later, Moscow withdrew all of its nearly three thousand technical advisers from China. Until this point, Beijing had stuck closely to Moscow’s line on atomic weapons, endorsing Soviet calls for arms control, even disarmament. Speaking in Geneva in 1954, for example, Mao’s number two, Zhou Enlai, said: ‘The arms race must be halted, universal disarmament be carried out and atomic and hydrogen weapons and weapons of mass destruction be prohibited.’

When Soviet assistance was cut off, and the relationship between the two communist powers became increasingly hostile, China’s position on nuclear weapons changed. Mao’s administration took to arguing that arms control was a scam designed to perpetuate the global hegemony of the two rival superpowers, the US and the USSR. It also began to claim that the spread of nuclear weapons beyond this cartel could have a stabilising influence, and for a time promoted what it called ‘socialist proliferation’. Horsburgh quotes Zhou Enlai: ‘If all countries have nuclear weapons,’ he said in 1961, ‘the possibility of nuclear wars would decrease.’

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