EVERYTHING UNDER THE HEAVENS:
How the Past Helps Shape China’s
Push for Global Power
by Howard W. French
Paperback: 352 pages
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
Teachers are greatly respected in traditional Chinese society. Confucius, for example, the most influential political thinker in China’s long history, was a teacher. Teachers are responsible for the transmission of values and the distillation of the essence of what it is to be Chinese.
Howard French has a coherent organising principle for his book – that despite almost 70 years of Communist rule, China hasn’t changed very much in its political values and strategic orientation. Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Kuomintang and President of the Republic of China on Taiwan, had much the same aims as Xi Jingping, China’s current leader: to rescue China from humiliation at the hands of the foreign devils.
The main principle upon which China based its interaction with the Asian region (with the exclusion of Japan) was based on the concept of tian sha, or “all under heaven”. This is often translated as “commonwealth”. The translation is a good one, because China’s traditional relationship with the Asian region resembles the relationship between the United Kingdom and the members of the former British Empire.
The relationship between China and its tributary states was based on a common written language and a common philosophy of governance, based on Confucianism. China seldom used force to impose its will upon its tributary states, because it was well known that no nation – apart from Japan – could stand up to China’s army and navy, should the Middle Kingdom wish to employ them.
The level of activity between China and the region varied. Cheng Ho, the eunuch admiral, led a great fleet of ocean-going junks to distant parts of the Indian Ocean in the 15th century, mainly to extract tribute from the littoral kingdoms, but China later retreated into isolation.
French’s main point is well made – that the geostrategic imperatives dictating Chinese policy towards the Asian region have not changed for thousands of years. The famous “nine dash line”, by which China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its territory, is a highly questionable land grab. But in Chinese eyes it is an assertion of strategic necessity, buttressed by historical usage. If the United States and its allies do not assert the right of free passage through the South China Sea, the Chinese will have won by default. If America is seen to be weakening, the littoral states will tilt towards China.
The lack of consistency in U.S. policy under President Donald Trump and the marginalisation of the Department of State in decision-making have forced littoral states such as Singapore to undertake a precarious balancing act between Beijing and Washington. The September 2017 trip by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Beijing had all the hallmarks of a tributary state leader kowtowing to the Emperor.
Beijing’s China-centric worldview will only be further reinforced under Xi Jingping, who has proved conclusively that he is the strongest communist leader since Deng Xiaoping. Worth noting, however, is that Deng was known as “paramount leader”. His power base was in the Central Military Commission; whereas Xi is President of the People’s Republic of China, Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Xi’s thorough purge of opponents and dissident elements within the CCP has given him supreme power, making him more of a proto emperor than anyone since Mao. In organisational terms, his post in the CCP is far more important than his Presidency, which is more of a formality to assist in diplomatic protocol.
China’s resumption of its role as a great power began as China’s economy grew. When Mao died, China had a GDP per head of $US163, making it one of the world’s poorest countries. Deng ended the mass lunacy of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the march towards prosperity began. But China is not rich. In ageing Japan, a surprising number of elderly people work, but unlike China’s elderly, the Japanese are fashionably dressed. China, it is often said, is growing old without getting rich.
This is a useful book. It has a few minor errors, such as appointing Malcolm Fraser Prime Minister of New Zealand. It is beyond the bounds of possibility that China will change fundamentally; it hasn’t changed for 5,000 years. We would do well to remember that.