Matters of Education

Learning Happens Everywhere

China in a Global Context

Original Publication Date: August 2008


As one of the first established cultures, the Chinese developed elaborate means of governance and education hundreds of years before the Common Era [Figures 18 and 19]. Based on a Confucian value system, the dynastic leaders established a system of rule reflecting an underlying philosophy that emphasized loyalty and particularistic relationships. Over the centuries of dynastic rule, even foreigners employed these methods. Perhaps the Mongols’ military prowess made for easy conquest in the 1200s [Figure 22] but it was the Confucian system that was effective at administering the large and geographically diverse empire.

Until the early 19th century, there was little that China wanted from the outside world, so foreign traders from Marco Polo [Figure 22] to the Boston Brahmins complied with local demands to get what China had– silk, tea, and porcelain –to name just a few. The introduction of opium into China in the early 19th century rapidly shifted this balance. The country quickly lost sovereignty over its own affairs, depleted its treasury of hard currency and became a debtor nation. Before this time, China had limited all foreigners to the southern port of Guangshou [Figures 3 and 7] but after suffering a series of military and diplomatic losses, was forced to open the entire country to Western traders. By the terms of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, China lost its extra-territorial rights whereby foreigners in the country were tried by their own people rather than by the Chinese. Now it was the Chinese who were deemed to be barbarians.

All internal cities were open to foreigners who made Beijing the center of international life [Figure 9]. China lost the right to collect its own tariffs and Christian missionaries flocked in bringing Western notions of civilization. By the late 19th century, China also lost physical possession of Korea, Viet Nam, and the Ryukyu islands [Figures 8 and 11]. These foreign incursions led to the decline of central authority, and the local country side was increasingly run by warlords who raised their own armies.

The dynastic period formally ended in 1911. Under the inspired leadership of Sun Yatsen, China looked to the future to regain its glorious past. He extolled the virtues of modernization and the need to gain support from the West. There was a persistent tension regarding the value of this assistance as Sun Yatsen’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists competed for control over the next four decades. Despite differing views on how best to bring China into the 20th century, they often worked together to fight a common enemy, particularly after Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 [Figures 13, 14 and 27]. An ongoing wariness of the strings attached to Western aid persisted. The Nationalists, or Kuomintang, lead by Chiang Kai Shek after the death of Sun Yatsen in 1924, promoted a Western style representative democracy and support for an economy based on industrial production. The Nationalists failed to gain widespread support among the Chinese people and their base was restricted to the small, urban middle class and intelligentsia [Figure 13]. Given that over 90% of China’s residents at that time were rural peasants, the Nationalists’ message seemed irrelevant and unresponsive to their problems. Local warlords ceded little power.

Once the Communists took complete control in 1949 under the leadership of Mao Zedong, China’s foreign relations followed a similar pattern. There was a great deal of tension with the West, particularly with the United States, over the status of Taiwan, now the home of the Nationalists [Figures 28 and 33]. The Cold War sentiments of this period created military and economic friction between the two as the United States strengthened its alliance with its World War Two enemy, Japan [map], as a means to counter Chinese power both militarily and economically. The United States tried to contain Chinese influence and prevent the spread of communism by confronting it in Korea and then Vietnam [Figure 34]. These efforts only strengthened the presence of China in the communist camp as the United States was a strong proponent that Taiwan, not the People’s Republic of China, would be the country to represent China at the United Nations.

The last thirty years in China have revealed an interesting combination of respect for the past with a definite excitement for the future. After Mao died in 1976, the new Party leadership appreciated the need for global interaction to improve the economic condition of the country. They opened both financial and diplomatic relations with the West. The enormous success of the development of a market economy in China has been fueled by Western investment, foreign trade and the development of relations with the nations of Africa and South America for both their raw materials and potential markets.


Although Tibet and the Olympics dominate current press coverage of China, it is the stories of tainted products, economic policy and support for Sudan that speak to China’s real power. China can exert its will and get away with nefarious behavior because of its economic might. As long as China remains among the few countries that can finance the US debt, there is little real ability and not much more will to challenge its position and policies. While the era of colonial empires is past, it is quite possible for one nation to exert enormous influence. China’s power as a producer and consumer of goods causes the rest of the world to ignore its political system, to lament domestic repression yet still buy its products, to finance its industry, and to support its hosting of international athletic competitions.


China’s current leadership successfully generated renewed feelings of nationalism among its people. After a century of humiliation and then 30 years of political experimentation that led to great loss for many, the last three decades have witnessed enormous growth and success. Now nationalism is based on positive results and the ability of the repressive political regime of the ruling Communist Party to promote its version of events. With the decline of socialism as its framing ideology, nationalism has become the state religion.

Under this guise of nationalism, China has enhanced its military, citing the needs of national security. Although China has a smaller military budget than the United States does, its standing army of over two million troops make it the world’s largest, albeit a fraction of the country’s total population 1.3 billion.

In general, China has abandoned its communist principles in the pursuit of economic growth. Despite historic enmity with both Taiwan and Japan [Figure 33], China willingly trades with both. These two countries have shifted their stance as well, so important is China’s economic success to their own. In the recent presidential election in Taiwan, both candidates spoke of the importance of establishing stronger ties with the mainland, an abandonment of the separatism promoted for decades.


For the first years after the Communists assumed power, the Soviet Union was China’s primary ally [Figure 34]. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the two countries began to interact more as equals. China also reached out to other countries in the area. Fifty years later, China is the most powerful country in the region [Figure 33], whose economic clout and military might cause many to turn a blind eye to egregious political repression at home or encroachment on the interests of others. Its dominance of ports, sea lanes and trading routes make competition difficult. Both India and Japan have stepped aside rather than confront the growing giant directly. India may allow Tibetan refuges to reside in its country but forbids them to protest against China. China also supports those states whose human rights records are scarcely better than its own. Sri Lanka [Figure 36] has domestic terrorists, the Tamil Tigers, supported by the Chinese. The country also has 22 mile bridges, connecting highways and power plants built by the Chinese.


China’s burgeoning economy had led to strong connections with the resource rich nations of Africa and South America. Its demand for raw materials is increasing and China displays few qualms about its means of acquiring them. It is rapidly replacing the United States as the area’s most important external influence and brings genuine economic change to these nations. It also supports those leaders whose political approach seems to mirror its own. China supports Robert Mugabe’s forces in Zimbabwe [Figure 37], despite their apparent loss in the recent election, and has tried to supply arms to this faction. Chinese support for the Sudanese government in Khartoum, widely understood to have begun and now continues the bloodbath in Darfur, stems from its deep involvement in the development of the Sudanese petroleum industry. China has also used threats of a Security Council veto to block United Nation’s actions against Sudan. China’s claim that it is pursuing quiet diplomacy seems insincere as it supplies millions of dollars of arms each year to Sudan’s government.


The issues surrounding Tibet reflect many of the broader trends of China’s foreign relations. To many Chinese people, however, it might be odd to even consider this region’s desire for increased autonomy in the context of foreign relations, so certain are they of Tibet’s status as an uncontested part of China. Most contemporary maps do not even identify Tibet as a distinct entity or even a specific region within China [Figure 29]. Many maps from the 19th century however, clearly delineate Tibet [Figures 1, 4 and 11]. Its placement in an article about China’s foreign affairs is important because of the ways in which other nations have responded to China’s behavior in this arena, as well the Party’s use of the controversy to promote its own agenda.

To their own people, Communist Party leaders place Tibetan protests for more control over their affairs within the context of nationalism. China maintains that Tibet has been an integral part of its country since the middle of the 18th century. When the empire collapsed in early 20th century, the area, like much of the country, was not under the authority of the central government in Beijing, but when the Communists took over in 1949, they succeeded in reuniting all parts of the country. Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama was exiled shortly thereafter. He and several thousand of his followers sought refuge in India, which allows their presence but forbids any political activism or calls for Tibetan independence. The Chinese defend their brutal suppression of recent agitation in Tibet as merely the means to maintain a unified China.

As China controls much if not all of the media in its own country, the Party leadership has used and often exaggerated the protests in Tibet, claiming to be a victim of those who wish to separate from the ‘mother country’. Furthermore, Western support of the Tibetan cause has only strengthened Chinese claims of their vulnerability. Protests against the Olympic torch as it passed through France generated anti-French sentiment in China leading to calls to boycott French stores. Activism on behalf of Tibetan independence, however, has had a tough time, especially when matched against the much superior Chinese propaganda machine that paints the Tibetans as disloyal and ungrateful members of a nation that has only taken care to respect them. The facts are different but most Chinese only know the version promoted in textbooks and other cultural outlets.

The government also places the Tibetan protests and Western support for Tibetan rights against the backdrop of long-standing resentment against foreign incursion into internal Chinese affairs. Beijing exploits these sentiments. The result is a fair amount of anger at Western countries for their misguided support of the Tibetans and some annoyance at their own government for not responding more harshly to the protests of these ungrateful separatists. Both views are based on a simplistic, biased, and inaccurate view of Chinese history. The official version promoted by the government highlights the ease of assimilation of foreigners over many millennia without acknowledging the force and limitations resulting from Chinese policies and attitudes. So when genuine conflict arises, the Chinese people do not have a sufficient depth of understanding to appreciate the validity of both sides in the struggle.

Ethnic tensions exist in China. Tibetans are deemed inferior to the Han Chinese that comprise 92% of the population. There is a long history of repression and subjugation of the former by the latter. While ethnic discrimination is not legal in China, power and privilege are overwhelming with the Han. This insistence that the Tibetans are merely separatists trying to divide the country has been well received by those to whom this nationalist sentiment has been promoted and reinforced by great economic gains. So, rather than see the Dalai Lama as a religious figure trying to protect his people, he is a ‘splitist’ who seeks to divide China.


China is not able to operate without restrictions, a situation resulting from its own success and the failure of others. Rising inflation and decreased demand from the United States has affected economic growth as have higher production costs of energy sources and labor. Rising domestic demand has led to an increase of imports and a drop in the trade surplus. As a result, both the United States and European Union have urged China to ease trade barriers and currency controls to allow them to sell more inexpensively in the Chinese domestic market. African nations have also registered their own protest, forbidding the transport of arms to Mugabe’s faction in Zimbabwe from South African ports [Figure 37].

China did withdraw the shipment in this case, largely because if its desire to maintain a positive image on the eve of the Olympics which begins in Beijing in August. The country is eager to showcase its unbelievable success and growth but one cannot help wondering once this motivation expires, what forces the Chinese will unleash and what or who will be able to check its enormous might.


  1. How is China’s current foreign policy a result of both the country’s past and present?
  2. What real power do the other nations of the world have regarding China?
  3. How is nationalism both a practical and an ideological force in contemporary China?
  4. What are the limits to China’s power? How do sensibilities that differ from other nations affect its interaction with other nations?


In Print


Beck, Roger, et al. World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston: McDougal Littell, 2003.

Brower, Daniel. The World in the Twentieth Century. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999.

Phillips, Richard T. China Since 1911. New York: St. Martin’s Pres, 1996.

Schoppa, R. Keither. Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.


Dugger, Celia. “China May Give Up Attempt to Send Arms to Zimbabwe.” The New York Times. April, 23, 2008.

Osnos, Evan. “Crazy English.” The New Yorker. April 28, 2008.

Sengupta, Somini. “Take Aid From China and Take a Pass on Human Rights.” The New York Times. March 9, 2008.

____________   “In India, Balancing Refugee Care and Relations with China.” The New York Times. March 19, 2008.

“The New Colonialists.” The Economist. March 13, 2008.