As tensions rise between the United States and China in the South China and East China Seas, many Western observers fear that China may claim a restored hegemony in the region, one rooted in either China’s Maoist or Confucian imperial past. Yet despite those historic periods of Chinese glory and dominance, a question remains: does the People’s Republic of China have what it takes to be a hegemon in the 21st century?
Over the past 30 years, China has built the most successful capitalist economy in history — led and managed, paradoxically, by a communist party. Since embarking on major economic reforms in 1978, Beijing has emerged as a new superpower. But global economic success or even overwhelming material power does not automatically qualify a country to become a hegemon. A successful hegemon is a civilizer state, representing a persuasive model for a way of life that others want to adopt, share, and participate in.
In the past, China was accustomed to playing the role. Chinese history is the story of the Middle Kingdom, from the rise of the Han in 200 BCE through a cascade of different dynasties — the Tang, Song, Yuan, the glorious Ming, and finally the Qing Dynasty — all the way up to the start of the Republic in 1912.
In 1949, the Communist revolution transformed China into a different kind of civilizer state, terrifying Westerners who were already worried that Maoist hegemony in the non-West might encircle “the cities of the world” with communist power. By the late 1960s, Maoist slogans were heard in protests throughout the West, whether by radical American students who occupied their universities, or by protesting Parisian strikers who, in May 1968, almost overthrew the French government.
But after the terrible costs of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and commune experiment — 30 million Chinese dead — became known, and after the disastrous Cultural Revolution that soon followed, Maoism lost its capacity to mobilize popular support, either in China or abroad.
Since Mao’s death in 1976, the Chinese Communist Party has built its claim to legitimacy on an opportunistic combination of promises to provide the Chinese people with growing economic prosperity, political stability, and nationalism — all in a moral vacuum characterized by rampant corruption, mass protests, growing income inequality, and serious environmental degradation.
Material power may be sufficient to force compliance from other nations, but hegemony requires something more.
In his important new book Chinese Hegemony: Grand Strategy and International Institutions in East Asian History, Feng Zhang argues that in addition to material power, Chinese imperial hegemony has required “the additional component of international authority,” a hierarchical relationship of deference by China’s neighbors to China’s cultural and moral leadership. Chinese President Xi Jinping now tries to use both Maoism and Confucianism to provide the cultural and ethical soul for his concept of the “Chinese Dream” and his attempt to achieve a “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” But neither Maoism nor Confucianism seems to work in the 21st century.
So far, few other nations are eager to accept the global leadership of a nationalistic dictatorship run by the Chinese Communist Party. China lacks the ethical basis — the moral and cultural foundation — to be a hegemon.
Moreover, China is surrounded by independent nations that see themselves as equally sovereign, despite their relative economic and military inferiority. Supported by contemporary international principles of universality, egalitarianism, and rule of law, China’s neighbors — especially India and Japan — resist any modern-day Chinese claim to hegemony, no matter whether it is clothed in Maoist or Middle Kingdom garb.
Overwhelming material power may be sufficient to force temporary compliance from other nations, but hegemony requires something more: a moral beacon that attracts the support of others, not just compels them to comply.
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Peter Van Ness is a visiting fellow in the department of international relations at the Bell School, Australian National University.
Cover photo courtesy of Jean Wang