Thinking Long Term

The Middle Kingdom’s view of itself and the outside world

The mantra of Chinese educational institutes and media is that the nation’s history makes it special, and that the people of China are heirs to a civilization more ancient and more noble than any other in the world. And the Chinese people believe it. The country’s ancient heritage is a source of great pride to Chinese people, and a fundamental reason why they see their nation’s place in the world as superior to all others.

In his book Mao’s China and the Cold War, Cornell University Prof. Jian Chen discusses China’s self-given nickname: “I believe that ‘Central Kingdom’ is a more accurate translation for ‘Zhong Guo’ (China) than ‘Middle Kingdom.’ The term ‘Middle Kingdom’ does not imply that China is superior to other peoples and nations around it—China just happens to be located in the middle geographically; the term ‘Central Kingdom,’ however, implies that China is superior to any other people and nation ‘under the heaven’ and that it thus occupies a ‘central’ position in the known universe.”

Recent years have seen Beijing install more than 500 Confucius Institutes globally. The aim of these facilities is promoting what the “Central Kingdom” views as China’s cultural superiority.

Some Western analysts have concluded that China no longer has ambitions of militarily conquering the world because it has not attacked any other country in three decades, since it launched an offensive against Vietnam in 1979. But what are three paltry decades to a 5,000-year-old empire?

This shortsighted Western thinking reflects a fundamental difference between the East and the West: Western civilizations seem to relegate the importance of history to a lower position each year. Staggeringly reckless national borrowing habits and naive foreign policies provide evidence proving that American leaders in particular don’t look even one generation into their future or past when making decisions.

The mentality of Eastern nations is different. They zoom out. They broaden their perspective to see a significantly longer stretch of the timeline, both past and future. Asia doesn’t forget what has unfolded in past centuries as the West is apt to do, and an affront that occurred 100 years ago is still a fresh wound for grudge-harboring China.

China’s move to liberalize its economy was fueled by long-term goals—and “long term” means something different to China and other Asian powers than to the five-year-plan nations of the Western world.

A growing number of Chinese intellectuals openly acknowledge that their nation is working to realize its ancient dreams of global hegemony. Mark Leonard, executive director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in his article “China’s New Intelligentsia” about this trend: “Their long-term goal is to see China return to great-power status” (Prospect, March 28, 2008). He explained that one factor fueling the desire of China’s “neocons” for their nation’s dominance is the study of ancient Chinese philosophy. Leonard quoted Yan Xuetong, a member of Beijing’s leading military think tank, as saying, “Recently I read all these books by ancient Chinese scholars and discovered that these guys are smart—their ideas are much more relevant than most modern international relations theory.”

Leonard explained that China’s decision to join the global economy and international bodies was fueled by its slow and steady goal of strengthening them, restraining the U.S., and creating an environment in which the Central Kingdom could grow strong. In the long term, Beijing aims to establish a new global order in the image of China. Beijing is laboring at present to create pockets of this new alternative reality (as in the 47 African nations with whom China currently has significant ties) in which Chinese ideologies, rather than Western ones, dominate.

China’s long-term perspective in its foreign policy and goals of hegemony can be summarized by the words of the country’s most famous philosopher, Confucius: “It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.”