In October 1999, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) celebrated its 50th birthday. But for the Chinese, 50 years may not mean that much—for while the PRC was officially established after China’s 1949 Communist revolution, China has the oldest continuous surviving civilization in the world. Archaeologists have found evidence of Neolithic man in China as far back as 3400 B.C., although historians often mark the beginning of Chinese civilization at the founding of the Shang dynasty in 1766 B.C.
The pride the Chinese take in their ancient civilization probably accounts for some of the tensions in U.S.-China relations. As former secretary of state Henry Kissinger explains, “China is a great country with a 5,000 year history. We’re a great country with a 200 year history. . . . The Chinese believe that they staggered through 4800 of their 5000 years without significant advice from the United States, so it is not self-evident to them that they must follow all our prescriptions.”
China’s initial relations with the West were characterized largely by humiliation at the hands of more technologically advanced European nations. After little contact between East and West throughout the Middle Ages, British traders in the 18th century began preying on the high numbers of opium addicts that were present in Chinese society at the time. The traders sold opium to Chinese addicts for money, and then used that money to purchase Chinese goods. China attempted to ban the importation of opium in 1839 and 1856, but Great Britain and other European nations forcefully opposed the bans. The result was the Opium Wars, which China lost decisively. “Since that fateful encounter,” writes history professor Bruce Cumings, “China’s central leaders have swayed this way and that in search of a principle for involvement with the West, a way to grow strong while retaining national dignity, to become modern while remaining distinctively Chinese.”
In the twentieth century, China underwent two revolutions in its attempts to modernize. The first was in 1912, when peasant uprisings culminated in the end of more than two millennia of imperial rule. A weak republic ruled China until its second revolution in 1949, when Communist leader Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China.
Coming at the start of America’s cold war with the Soviet Union, China’s Communist revolution resulted in a suspension of U.S.-China relations for the next twenty years. Not until 1972, when President Richard Nixon visited China’s capital city of Beijing, were relations between the two nations reestablished. Nixon’s “opening” of China was only possible because conflicts between China and the Soviet Union led U.S. leaders to view China as something other than a potential enemy.
Even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, the cold war still casts a shadow over U.S.-China relations. The ideological conflicts between communism and capitalism dominate many Americans’ views of China. Americans often protest the lack of free elections, free speech, and other human rights in China. They also condemn the PRC government’s control over the Chinese economy and call for more free enterprise.
These calls for greater economic freedom, at least, are being answered. China has been instituting substantial freemarket reforms since 1978, and as of 2001 boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. This has led to speculation that, sometime in the first quarter of the twentyfirst century, China may rival or even surpass the United States as the world’s leading economic superpower. David Shambaugh, coauthor of the The China Reader, predicts that China and the United States “are likely to be the two dominant world powers during the twenty-first century.”
The prospect of China becoming a serious rival to the United States has made it one of the most important areas in U.S. foreign policy. Again, with the legacy of the cold war, some observers believe that conflict between China and the United States is inevitable. The 1997 book The Coming Conflict with China describes China as a “long-term adversary.” The prospect of China as an enemy is especially worrisome given China’s enormous population—approximately 20 percent of all humans on the planet are Chinese. But others are more optimistic: “No doubt China will be a nationalistic superpower that looks after its own interests first,” write Daniel Burstein and Arne de Keijzer, authors of Big Dragon: China’s Future, but they maintain that “China will be a challenge, but it needn’t become a threat.”
After two centuries of lagging behind the West in terms of industry, economy, and technology, a more modern—and thus more powerful—China is rapidly emerging. The authors in China: Opposing Viewpoints examine China’s rising power and what it may mean for the United States as well as for the international community in the following chapters: What Are the Most Serious Problems Facing China? What Is the State of Democracy and Human Rights in China? Does China Pose a Threat to the United States? What Principles Should Guide U.S. Foreign Policy Toward China? These chapters debate the myriad factors that U.S. leaders must consider as they face the daunting task of determining U.S. policy on China. As former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has written, “China is too big to be ignored, too old to be slighted, too weak to be appeased, and too ambitious to be taken for granted.”
Did this raise a question for you?