The beginning of Chinese Exceptionalism

  • Internal realist and external liberal orientation

In the contemporary world, a clear transition of power – at least in economic terms – can be observed with China being at the receiving end. Consequently, China intends to project a benign image of its power around the globe. It is conceivable that great power comes with great responsibility – and to fulfil this prerequisite of being a great power – China is using its cultural, diplomatic, social, political and economic powers in many dimensions. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its two components One Belt One Road (OBOR) and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) can be argued to be the manifestations of Chinese benevolence. Similarly, Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIDB) and its enormous investments throughout the world can be seen as Chinese attempts to project a bona-fide image.

China has had an uninterrupted civilisation of almost five thousand years and is a historic great power. After the Communist Revolution led by Mao Zedong and his Communist Party of China (CPC) – Beijing saw a new era in its history. The very creation of China was a result of long and bloody war of independence just like America. Mao and his followers fought an unprecedented war as it was fought by General George Washington and his Continental Army; however, Washington fought it from 1775 till 1783 with French assistance but unlike Washington, Mao fought for more than three decades till 1949 mostly relying on indigenous resources.

The acquisition or perhaps annexation of Tibet by Chinese Red Army was the earliest demonstration of the exceptional character of Chinese nation. Similarly, the East Turkestan was established by Uighur Muslims and subsequently subdued by the Reds. Chinese expansion in the South and West was more or less the same as American Westward-Southward expansion.

The Sino-Soviet Split in the 1960s was the true manifestation of Chinese Exceptionalism. Chinese Communist leaders actually distinguished themselves from Soviet version of Communism – apparently on the account of the global leadership of the Communist International. Similarly, the decade long Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was an attempt by Chinese nation to exhibit its superior moral and cultural foundations in relation to the world – especially the Western world.

It can be averred that great powers are inherently obsessed with power projection around the globe; however, regardless of the nature of this projection – great powers intend to keep a benign and benevolent lid on it

China has many exceptional attributes since its political system and religious foundations, just like America, are exceptional and distinct; so is its history. The epicentre of Chinese Exceptionalism is the Communist Party of China and its unique position in Chinese politics. The CPC maintains the identity of the ‘vanguard party’ as it was argued by Marx and Engels while it remains the symbol of the proletariat. The survival of the Chinese state and existence of the CPC are synonyms. Moreover, Chinese Exceptionalism can only be observable and maintainable while CPC remains in power.

CPC reiterated the word ‘harmony’ in its literature for many decades. However, harmony is the linchpin of Confucius thoughts; nevertheless, the word ‘harmony’ was used dominantly. Quite recently, CPC has re-introduced terms such as ‘Confucius thoughts’ in its communication and literature. The rhetoric of ‘connectivity’ has its roots in Confucius’ thoughts such as harmony and it is the master narrative of China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.

Arguably, every state travels through four basic phases of existence from its independence, namely; i) survivability, ii) sustainability, iii) partnership, and iv) leadership. Apparently, China is on its way somewhere between partnership and leadership – since America has asked China many times to use the latter’s influence in resolving the North Korean issue. Moreover, America can be seen clearly being on the back foot in relation to China in the economic sector. While, it is just a matter of time before Beijing may translate its economic power in to offensive military capabilities – as it was argued by John Mearsheimer in his book ‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics’ (2001).

Ostensibly, American Exceptionalism is fading and subsequently ending. Daniel Bell, an American, in his article ‘The End of American Exceptionalism’ authored at the end of the Vietnam War and the humiliating defeat inflicted by Communists – argued and equated American defeat with the demise of its exceptional characteristics. Similarly, Andrew J. Bacevich, an American Realist, in his book ‘The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism’ (2008) emphasised on the limits and overstretch of US military forces which brought an end to the Liberal idea of American Exceptionalism.

It can be averred that great powers are inherently obsessed with power projection around the globe; however, regardless of the nature of this projection – great powers intend to keep a benign and benevolent lid on it. The most important attribute of Exceptionalism with Chinese characteristics is its internal realist and external liberal orientation e.g. the Tiananmen Square Protests of June 1989 and the subsequent crackdown. Chinese global engagements and investments including BRI while connecting the world especially in terms of economy are the genuine strands of Chinese Exceptionalism. However, it remains uncertain that when and how China is likely to employ its military muscles in order to spread ‘Chinese Values’ to the dark and bright corners of the world.