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,...
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