China in a global context over half a century: Peter Harris reviews China's place in the world during its transformation from an isolated and internally divided state to the strong, independent and self-assured power of today.

Author:Harris, Peter

In the past half century China has gone from being an isolated country in the throes of Maoist self-destruction to being a regional and even global player of growing authority. During this time it saw out its first major alliance, with the Soviet Union, and engaged in various kinds of accommodation with the United States before achieving its current state of self-confident independence. In coming to terms with Washington in the early 1970s China took one of the most dramatic turns of events in the 20th century, a step that was designed to offset a military threat from the erstwhile Soviet ally.


A week is a long time in politics. Half a century in Chinese politics is both an eternity and a blink of the eye.

In this article, and in the second part to be published in the next issue of this journal, I want to consider China's place in the world during the past 50 years. I will describe the evolution of China's global role from a time when Beijing was ending its alliance with Moscow, through a period when it came close to forging a second major alliance, this time with Washington, to the China of today, strong, independent and self-assured.

Much of what follows will be about China and America, and I make no apology for that. The United States is still the greatest power in the world, and through the passing years it has been successively China's most important enemy, near-ally and not-so-friendly adversary. The relationship between China and the United States, which the Chinese now want to portray as 'a new type of great power relations', to use their phrase, is also a vital one for all of us in New Zealand, for on it depends the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region, including those of New Zealand.

China's rapid evolution into a major power is often considered primarily with regard to its domestic developments. But it has also taken place in dramatically changing international circumstances. Understanding Chinas evolving global role can help us understand why China's external relations have assumed the form they take today. It can also help us understand the outlook of China's current leadership. Nearly all China's most senior leaders are now in their sixties, and shaped their view of the world from China's experiences during the last half-century, just as many Western leaders have done the same with China. Broadly speaking, the same is likely to apply to the new leadership that emerges in China later this year (2017), when the Communist Party is due to hold its next Congress, the nineteenth since it began in 1921.

Control reasserted

Fifty years ago China was isolated and riven internally by bitter in-fighting and unrest. The Cultural Revolution, launched by Chairman Mao Zedong as a way of reasserting his own control and his own vision of how China should become communist, was entering its most destructive phase. All China's ambassadors but one were being called home, and there was virtually no contact between Beijing and the outside world. This included Washington DC, which still recognised the Guomindang government under Mao's old enemy Chiang Kai-shek in Taipei.

Elsewhere China's foreign policy efforts had come to little. Chairman Mao had tried to develop the idea of an intermediate zone between the two great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. He had once illustrated the idea to an American visitor with a row of teacups--America at one end, Russia at the other, 'with matches and cigarette packages crowded in between to show the space between them. But by 1966 he had made little headway, particularly among China's few friends in Asia. In Indonesia, in particular, hundreds of thousands of members of the huge, China-friendly Communist Party were being massacred after the anti-Sukarno coup there.

Most importantly, the Peoples Republic of Chinas 30-year alliance with the Soviet Union, its main external commitment, and to date its only one, had fallen to pieces. Signed by Mao and Stalin in Moscow in 1950, at one point the alliance was going to remake history. Soviet-style communism as revised by Stalin, who was after all communism's first great revisionist, was to be adopted by China, so that the great mass of people on the Eurasian continent would give concrete reality to the Utopian ideas of two German emigres.

But from its early days the alliance came apart on differences of ideology, personalities and power politics. Stalin's successors Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev developed a cautious, on and off, modus vivendi with the United States and its capitalist allies, and Chinese leaders grew distrustful of them. As their distrust grew, so did their rhetoric. In 1957 Mao shocked his communist allies by declaring at a conference that 'if worse comes to worst and half of mankind dies, the other half will remain, while imperialism will be razed to...

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