China’s modern imperialism: foreign dominance or internal insecurity?

Imperialism has always existed in human history, since the idea of territorial expansion/migration is attested since the second millennia BC, as seen in the great colonial period in archaic Greek history and possibly beyond.

Its practice, however, has undergone big transformations in accordance to the shifts in political ideology, from early Greek colonies to the Roman Empire, the Christian crusades in the late Medieval period, the discovery of America and the subsequent European transmigration to the Third World, the modern colonial period and the establishment of European Empires, the Western and Soviet blocs during the Cold War, and now the modern day where imperialism has been argued to be obsolete since the period of decolonisation in the second half of last century which saw the break-up of numerous European Empires and the establishment of new republics in the name of political autonomy and self-determination.

Yet imperialism in the form of covert influence still exists, as it is undeniable that certain superpowers exert a huge influence on other countries economically and politically, even if they are not technically their satellite states. The modern imperialistic efforts are no longer overt territorial or militant expeditions but covert economic and political influence, and in this sense much can be gleaned from recent international politics.

Despite being a dynamic capitalist state with an exponentially growing economy that is fast becoming the world’s biggest market, China also has an authoritarian government which permits limited political freedom and very limited freedom of expression, which is a severe blotch on its international human right record. Domestically, China is renown for its crackdown on political dissenters which has seen new levels of activity in the current tenure of President Xi who has vowed to battle corruption and political dissent by taking a hard line on all those who trespass his definition of acceptable behavior in the name of national security and stability.

All this is accepted – though hardly acceptable – by most people who study China’s domestic policy, and there is probably little that one can do about it from the outside. Last year (2017), however, there were two incidents which indicated new levels of repression and aggression by China’s central government, namely its ban on politically sensitive material from foreign media such as the Cambridge University Press (CUP) and Apple. This drew a lot of criticism and controversy from the West since it indicated a certain degree of foreign aggression from China to influence and perhaps control foreign media. More controversial is the willingness from certain pre-eminent western media companies to consent to China’s censorship, which shows a degree of authority commanded by China in the West, one which has not been well-received by Western academics, officials and experts.

From China’s perspective, there are good and bad things about all this. The positive is that the West clearly seem to recognise and respect China’s wishes and are willing to consent to their undemocratic ways even in face of widespread criticism and condemnation. All this makes sense financially, since it would be foolish for the western media not to take advantage of China’s huge market, the economic benefits of which may far outweigh all negatives combined. It also indicates internal stability for China since it minimises the risk of political dissent, which, in the view of the governing officials, requires an authoritarian ban – or severe curtailment – on freedom of expression.

However, all this does not necessarily mean that China’s prestige in the world is on the rise, since there is another side to the coin which may yield an alternative interpretation. China’s insistence on censorship from foreign media seems to be an act of self-defence rather than an imperialistic attempt to extend its external sphere of influence, since it is not the case that China is trying to impose its own censorship on the rest of world and prohibit the rest of the world from bad-mouthing its current and past behaviour. Rather, it is solely interested in its own levels of domestic stability and is wary of how foreign influence might put some wrong ideas into its people that might cause internal instability. All this spells fear and self-doubt more than confidence and authority. Their censorship on foreign media, therefore, should perhaps be better analysed as a pre-emptive act of self-protection rather than an imperialistic act of aggression, and from this perspective China suddenly seems much weaker than one might initially think.

China is clearly riddled with many potential internal conflicts, as seen in its desperate attempts to censure all politically sensitive material either from within or from abroad. All this also significantly reduces any amount of respect that China seems to possess in the West, since the western media companies in question here (CUP/Apple) may be merely trying to take advantage of China’s enormous market and exploit it as much as possible, even by way of consenting to its wishes (for a while). This is not a sign of imperialistic growth from China’s part, since its influence is not spreading outwards but rather inwards in combating its own self-insecurities. The idea that China’s is becoming the world’s number one imperialist superpower can therefore be argued to be a myth.

Ever since China’s remarkable rise on the international arena in the last quarter of the 20th century, renaissance to some, taking into account China’s dynastic past some patches of which were glorious and unparalleled anywhere in the West, people have closely analysed China’s infrastructure and potential as a world superpower, and while many have been impressed by its modern development, sceptics have not been lacking who have argued that despite its huge, unlimited economic – and hence political – potential, it will never be a world leader since it is incapable of spreading its traditional ideals; Confucianism etc, to the rest of the world, as is essential for imperialist growth. The two incidents of Western consent to China’s censorship are revealing in this respect, since their superficial acts of deference to China’s iron fist rule do not necessarily indicate respect but rather corporate greed, which makes China not a figure of international authority but rather a goldmine for widespread foreign exploitation, little improvement from its late dynastic and early nationalist days at the beginning of the 20th century (Opium War etc). China will always be a key player in world economic and politics, given its size and population, but unless it changes its way and becomes a country that is cultural-politically attractive and hence a leader in world culture, it will never become a world leader, the way that Western Europe led the world in the early modern era and the US have since in the past century.


Langley Henry

Langley Henry is a postdoctorate Research fellow in political science at St John’s College, University of Cambridge after having done his undergraduate (Politics, Philosophy, Economics (PPE)) and postgraduate (Political Science and History of Western Thought) degrees (B.A., M.Sc., DPhil) at Balliol College, University of Oxford. He is the author of several essays that have been published in peer-reviewed journals and is now working on publishing his Oxford doctoral thesis as a monograph with Oxford University Press. Other than his academic work, he is a keen blogger and has written on contemporary and historical political topics as well as on western contemporary music.


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