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China’s Foreign Policy: Opium Wars and Tiananmen Protests Essay


One of the most notable aspects of today’s geopolitical realities in the world is that fact that, as time goes on; China grows increasingly more powerful, in the military, economic, and political senses of this word, which in turn causes much concern in the West. After all, the process does pose an undeniable threat to the ability of Western countries to continue enjoying an undisputed dominance in the world.

The fact that this threat is being actualised, as we speak, can be illustrated, in regards to what happened to be the essence of China’s current foreign policy. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length, while promoting the idea that the manner, in which China acts in the arena of international politics, is reflective of two historical experiences that this country has had in the past – the so-called Opium Wars (1839-1860) and the Tiananmen Square protests (1989). The reason for this is that, in the eyes of China’s leaders, both of the mentioned events leave no doubt about the legitimacy of the specifically Realist theory of international relations (IR).

Today, China’s foreign policy can be best described as being closely affiliated with the main principle of the Realist paradigm of IR. According to it, regardless of what happens to be the officially adopted political/social ideology in a particular country, this country never ceases to be preoccupied with ensuring its ‘place under the Sun’, as its main priority. What it means is that the actual international agenda of just about any country on this planet is being solely concerned with: a) political/economic expansion, b) maintenance of a political stability within, c) competition with other states.1 The main indications that, while conceptualising its geopolitical stance, China remains thoroughly observant of this specific provision are as follows:

China continues to provide increasing amounts of economic/financial aid to the Third and Second World countries, while investing in these countries’ infrastructural projects. According to Heinemeyer, “China has lent more money to other developing countries over the past two years (2010-2011) than the World Bank… Loans of at least $110 billion were signed, in contrast to the World Bank with around $100 billion”.2 It is understood, of course, that China does not act in such a manner, because of some philanthropic considerations, on its part, but because it helps this country to expand the range of its economic influence in the world, which in turn is expected to empower China geopolitically.

Since the year 2004, China began establishing the so-called Confucian Institutes, throughout the world, the number of which is now estimated to account for 480. Officially, the purpose of these institutes is to popularise Chinese culture and to help people in other countries to learn Mandarin. As Szczudlik-Tatar noted, “The (Confucian) Institutes operate under the auspices of the Ministry of Education… The objective of the Institutes is to promote the teaching of Chinese abroad. The Institutes also operate as foreign centres for the HSK exam (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi), a Chinese equivalent of the TOEFL test”.3 However, due to being the integral part of how China goes about exercising its ‘soft power’, these Institutes use the pretence of ‘promoting Chinese culture’ as a cover for what happened to be the actual purpose of their establishment – to win the potential ‘agents of influence’ in those countries that China considers important to its long-term strategic interests.4

China grows increasingly alienated from the West (http://www.staradvertiser.com/news/breaking/20150302_China_state_media_seen_steppingup_antiWestern_rhetoric.html?id=294658981 ), while using its membership in the U.N. Security Council to criticise the sheer hypocrisy of Western countries, within the context of how they deploy the pretext of ‘defending democracy’ to violate international law in the most blatant manner.

The fact that this is indeed the case, can be illustrated, in regards to China’s decision to join the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group, made out of those world’s countries that openly oppose the geopolitical agenda of the U.S. and its European allies.5 As of recently, China disapproved the U.S. involvement in the conflict in Syria on the side of the ‘fighters for democracy’ (who later formed the bulk of ISIS), and America’s intention to supply weapons to Ukraine, so that this country would be able to continue to subjecting its own cities in the East to the artillery bombardment.

China does not allow the functioning of the Western-based ‘non-governmental organisations’ (specialised in promoting ‘democracy’) on its territory, while rightly considering them to be the integral part of how Western countries go about undermining the integrity of the competing nations from within.6 As the involvement of Western-based NGOs in the making of ‘orange’ revolutions indicates, these organisations are indeed nothing but the agents of Western states – in full accordance with the provisions of the Realist theory of PR. (NGOs have been repeatedly caught financing ‘democratic movements’ in a number of countries. The result of the consequential ‘democratic revolutions’ in these countries has always been death and chaos. Ukraine is the most recent example http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/05/chronology-of-the-ukrainian-coup/ I write about the Chinese point of view on the issue – not about what Americans believe this point of view should be).

After all, as practice indicates, these organisations were heavily involved in the making of the earlier mentioned ‘orange’ revolutions, which China perceives as the main proof that the West (specifically the U.S.) does meddle in the internal affairs of other countries – contrary to the main provisions of international law. (The main convention this law was established by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. According to it, countries are not allowed to meddle in the internal affairs of each other – even under the excuse of protecting people’s ‘democratic freedoms’).

Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate to suggest that China’s current foreign policies reflect the Chinese governmental officials’ awareness of the fact that the dynamics in the arena of international politics are defined by the never-ending competition between the world’s most powerful countries for territory and natural resources. Even though, as time goes on, this competition continues to adopt different forms; it nevertheless remains just as fierce. Thus, China’s foreign agenda aims to prevent Western nations from being able to succeed in turning China into the subject of exploitation, on one hand, and to create the objective preconditions for the country’s sphere of national interests in different parts of the world to continue expanding.7 In its turn, this is expected to increase China’s chances to win in what would be the eventual ‘open phase’ of this country’s continuing confrontation with the West.

One of the main reasons why China’s foreign policy remains thoroughly observant of the main conventions of the Realist outlook on what international relations are all about, is that this country’s leaders understand perfectly well what can be deemed the actual lesson of the earlier mentioned ‘Opium wars’, fought against China by Britain, France and the U.S. in the 19th century.

The outbreak of these wars was triggered by the fact that, throughout the 1830s, Chinese authorities strived to limit the amounts of opium, sold in China by the East India Company (British), while rightfully perceiving the opium-trade in question as such that represented an acute danger to China’s continual existence, as an independent country. After all, as of 1835, opium constituted three fourths of all import-products, brought to this country on an annual basis. As of this year, the number of Chinese opium-addicts was estimated to account for two million, which in turn meant that China was rapidly becoming a nation of drug-addicts, in the literal sense of this word.8

The British, however, considered China’s move utterly hostile, which in turn provided them with the excuse to use military force, as the way of ensuring that there are no obstacles on the way of opium finding its way to China. This marked the beginning of the first ‘Opium war’, during the course of which, the British did succeed in forcing the Chinese to allow the East India Company to continue selling drugs in China. The outcome of the second ‘Opium war’, was not favourable to China, as well – it is not only that this country was forced to revise its anti-drug policy and to pay monetary compensation, but it also ended up having some of its territories (such as Hong Kong) seized by Britain. What is particularly notable, in this respect, is that while pursuing their less than admirable agenda in China, Western countries continued to proclaim that the concerned aggression was utterly beneficial to the Chinese, because it provided them with the chance to learn about the ideals of ‘democracy’.9

Nevertheless, even though, while attacking China, the West did deploy the rhetoric of democracy/progress, the ‘Opium wars’ stand out illustrative of the geopolitical viciousness of Western countries – at least, as the opinion of people in China is being concerned. As Vassilev pointed out, “A blatant act of naked ‘shock and awe’ aggression, the Opium wars became a cataclysmic event that not only shook the foundations of the Manchu dynastic rule and saddled the conquered nation with large indemnity payments, but also marked the beginning of China’s century-long subjugation and slavish servitude to imperialistic Western powers”.10 Therefore, it will be thoroughly appropriate to suggest that the essence of China’s current foreign policy can be partially explained, in regards to the mentioned ‘Opium wars’, as such that taught China that the West cannot be trusted.

Another historical event that continues to affect China’s international stance, as we know it, can be regarded the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Even though, in the West these protests are commonly praised as evidence of the people’s desire for democracy, the Chinese outlook on what should be considered the actual significance of this event, is different. In essence, it can be formulated as follows: the agents of foreign influence orchestrated the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, in order to prevent China from growing ever more powerful.

In this respect, many parallels are being drawn between the event in question, on one hand, and the so-called ‘orange’ revolutions (such as the ones that took place in Lybia, Egypt and Syria)11 of more recent times. (I had to explain the effect of the discussed historical events on China’s foreign policy. The mentioned above is CHINA’S OFFICIAL POSITION of the significance of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. It is not my opinion – THIS IS WHAT CHINA DECLARES OFFICIALLY. How hard can it be to understand?).

While believing that China was lagging behind the USSR on the way of ‘democratisation’, protesters demanded to ban the Communist Party, to privatise the economy, to abandon the Socialist form of governing, and the most important – they called for the country’s federalisation.12

If these demands were to be met, it would have been just the matter of time, before China would have been destroyed from within. The example of what happened to the USSR in 1991 leaves only a few doubts, as to the full legitimacy of this suggestion. After all, the earlier mentioned democracy-promoting initiatives were well consistent with how the Soviet first and last President Gorbachev proceeded with ‘modernising’ the USSR.

This substantiates the validity of the suggestion that the foremost reason why the Chinese government was able to succeed, while reforming the country’s economy, is that those governmental officials who were in charge of the process, never had any illusions, as to what would be the actual implications of ‘democratisation’. The Chinese official newspapers of the time used to reflect upon the actual significance of the 1989 protests in following manner, “If we are tolerant or conniving with this turmoil and let it go unchecked… Then the improvement of the economic environment and the rectification of the economic order, construction, and development; the control over prices; the improvement of our living standards… will all become empty hopes”.13

Therefore, the Chinese government’s decision to use a military force, in order to disperse protesters, appears fully appropriate – at least from the government’s official perspective. It is understood, of course, that this decision resulted in a number of casualties among protesters. At the same time, however, it allowed China to remain on the path of a continual progress. In its turn, this made it possible for the 21st century’s China to acquire the status of the world’s second most powerful and economically advanced country. (It may be ‘Chinese propaganda’, as you referred to it, but again – this is CHINA’S OFFICIAL POSITION of the significance of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The country’s foreign policy reflects this position. What can I do about it?).

In the eyes of China’s leaders, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 proved the validity of the idea that, just as it happened to be the case during the ‘Opium wars’, the West continues to use the pretext of ‘promoting democracy’, as the instrument of undermining the economic/social well-being of its main geopolitical competitors. It is understood, of course, that this could not result in anything else but in establishing the objective preconditions for China’s foreign policy to be observant of the earlier mentioned conceptual provisions of the Realist theory of IR.

The reasons for this is that, in light of what can be considered the actual significance of the ‘Opium wars’ and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, it is quite clear that China continues to be perceived by Western countries, as such that threatens their geopolitical hegemony. This, of course, naturally presupposes that, while engaging with China in the arena of international politics, they will inevitably seek to weaken this country. As China’s top-officials see it, the best way to address this situation is paying the West with the same token of respect.

I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in defence of the idea that the ‘Opium wars’ and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests are directly related to what happened to be the qualitative aspects of how China goes about positioning itself in the arena of international politics, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, the discursive legacy of both of these events continues to exert much influence on the very philosophy of what happened to be the country’s current IR-policies.

This simply could not be otherwise, because the events in question did help China’s leaders to realise that it is namely the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle, which defines the essence of IR more than anything else does. The country’s foreign policy is likely to remain explicitly ‘realist’ into the future, as well. This eventual development appears to be predetermined by the fact that, as of today, the world becomes increasingly ‘multipolar’, which in turn implies that the existing antagonisms between different countries will continue becoming intensified.

References

Bailey, Warren and Lan Truong. “Opium and Empire: Some Evidence from Colonial-Era Asian Stock and Commodity Markets.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 32, no. 2 (2001): 173-193. Web.

Bickers, Robert. “Chinese Burns: Britain in China 1842-1900.” History Today 50, no. 8 (2000): 10-17. Web.

Grieco, Joseph. “Anarchy and the Limits of Cooperation: A realist Critique of the Newest Liberal Institutionalism.” International Organization 42, no. 3 (1988): 485-507. Web.

Heinemeyer, Martin. “Where is China Heading? An Analysis of China’s Foreign Policy and how it affects the Western world.” European View 1, no.10 (2011): 95–105. Web.

Landry, Tristan. “The Colour Revolutions in the Rearview Mirror: Closer than they Appear.” Canadian Slavonic Papers 53, no. 1 (2011): 1-24. Web.

Ma, Qiusha. “The Governance of NGOs in China since 1978: How Much Autonomy?” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 31, no. 3 (2002): 305-328. Web.

Muravchik, Joshua. “After the Fall: 1989, Twenty Years on.” World Affairs 172, no. 1 (2009): 52-63. Web.

Ogden, Suzanne. China’s Search for Democracy: The Student and Mass Movement of 1989. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1992. Web.

Sorensen, Camilla. “Is China Becoming More Aggressive? A Neoclassical Realist Analysis.” Asian Perspective 37, no. 3 (2013): 363-385. Web.

Szczudlik-Tatar, Justyna. “Soft Power in China’s Foreign Policy.” The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs 19, no. 3 (2010): 45-68. Web.

Vassilev, Rossen. “China’s Opium Wars: Britain as the World’s First Narco-State.” New Politics 13, no. 1 (2010): 75-80. Web.

Yildirim, Tevfik. “The Rise of the Brics in International Relations, Comparative Politics and Law.” European Political Science: EPS 13, no. 4 (2014): 365-369. Web.

Zhao, Suisheng. “Chinese Foreign Policy as a Rising Power to Find its Rightful Place.” Perceptions 18, no. 1 (2013): 101-128. Web.

Footnotes

1 Joseph Grieco. “Anarchy and the Limits of Cooperation: A Realist Critique of the Newest Liberal Institutionalism.” International Organization 42, no. 3 (1988): 488.

2 Martin Heinemeyer. “Where is China Heading? An Analysis of China’s Foreign Policy and how it affects the Western world.” European View 1, no.10 (2011): 97.

3 Justyna Szczudlik-Tatar. “Soft Power in China’s Foreign Policy.” The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs 19, no. 3 (2010): 49.

4 Camilla Sorensen. “Is China Becoming More Aggressive? A Neoclassical Realist Analysis.” Asian Perspective 37, no. 3 (2013): 373.

5 Tevfik Yildirim. “The Rise of the Brics in International Relations, Comparative Politics and Law.” European Political Science 13, no. 4 (2014): 365-369.

6 Qiusha Ma. “The Governance of NGOs in China since 1978: How Much Autonomy?” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 31, no. 3 (2002): 310.

7 Suisheng Zhao. “Chinese Foreign Policy as a Rising Power to Find its Rightful Place.” Perceptions 18, no. 1 (2013): 103.

8 Robert Bickers. “Chinese Burns: Britain in China 1842-1900.” History Today 50, no. 8 (2000): 11.

9 Warren Bailey and Lan Truong. “Opium and Empire: Some Evidence from Colonial-Era Asian Stock and Commodity Markets.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 32, no. 2 (2001): 175.

10 Rossen Vassilev. “China’s Opium Wars: Britain as the World’s First Narco-State.” New Politics 13, no. 1 (2010): 77.

11 Tristan Landry. “The Colour Revolutions in the Rearview Mirror: Closer than they Appear.” Canadian Slavonic Papers 53, no. 1 (2011): 4.

12 Joshua Muravchik. “After the Fall: 1989, Twenty Years on.” World Affairs 172, no. 1 (2009): 53.

13 Suzanne Ogden. China’s Search for Democracy: The Student and Mass Movement of 1989 (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1992): 117.

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IvyPanda. (2020, June 7). China’s Foreign Policy: Opium Wars and Tiananmen Protests. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/chinas-foreign-policy-opium-wars-and-tiananmen-protests/

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"China’s Foreign Policy: Opium Wars and Tiananmen Protests." IvyPanda, 7 June 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/chinas-foreign-policy-opium-wars-and-tiananmen-protests/.

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IvyPanda. "China’s Foreign Policy: Opium Wars and Tiananmen Protests." June 7, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/chinas-foreign-policy-opium-wars-and-tiananmen-protests/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "China’s Foreign Policy: Opium Wars and Tiananmen Protests." June 7, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/chinas-foreign-policy-opium-wars-and-tiananmen-protests/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'China’s Foreign Policy: Opium Wars and Tiananmen Protests'. 7 June.

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