Are We the Manchus? Avoiding the Fate of China’s Qing Dynasty.
- John Q. Bolton
The ironies of history occur most pungently to those that don't believe in them.
- Christopher Hitchens
America in (relative) decline is a common refrain in national security circles, with many evoking Rome’ Collapse or Great Britain’s fading from the heights of its power. Rome disappeared while Britain managed its decline well, shedding territories while maintaining a relatively strong domestic consensus. The appropriateness of these comparisons is generally assumed. This article offers a different point of comparison: the decline and eventual collapse of China’s Qing Dynasty amidst internal fracturing, a failure to reform, and relentless external pressure from Western Powers.
Through the late 18th Century, the Qing Emperors ruled over the world’s largest and oldest contiguous state, which comprised roughly 25% of world economic output throughout the 1780s. Qing China ruled in the manner of previous Chinese dynasties, with a large, if stifling, bureaucracy staffed by well-educated, tested, administrators. Contact with foreigners was largely limited to trade interactions in Southern China. Within China proper, the authority of the emperor was unchallenged.
When most Americans think of an imperial court, they imagine something like Versailles, where Louis XIV corralled his nobles to keep them in check. The Chinese version was larger and more structured. While a Chinese nobility existed, the court eunuchs and appointed ministers coordinated most state affairs and local governance. Most had passed the notoriously-difficult Confucian exams. In accordance with Confucian principles, the thoroughly feudal Chinese system emphasized domestic tranquility and Confucian order. China viewed itself as culturally superior to barbarians, a premise taken for granted. As a linguistic embodiment of this superiority, in Chinese, China proper is zhong guo 中国, or “the middle state/country. The “Celestial Court “had the mandate of heaven and was presumed to rule everything under heaven (tian xia 天下), literally “under the sky.”
An oft-cited example of China’s arrogance and unwillingness to take the coming European threat seriously is the Macartney mission. Dispatched by Pitt the Younger in 1787, Macartney’s charge was to establish a British embassy in Beijing, convey Chinese envoys to Britain, and loosen trade restrictions. After six months at sea, Macartney waited another two months on the coast, awaiting permission to proceed to Beijing. Finally receiving permission after long negotiations on manner by which the British would demonstrate respect to the Emperor, Macartney would be disappointed. The Qing Emperor dismissed Macartney’s gifts of clocks, globes, scientific tools, and even a hot air balloon, out of hand: “Strange and costly objects do not interest me…as you can see, we possess all things.” Moreover, the British could not establish an embassy in Chinese because they could not possibly understand Chinese customs: “even if your Envoy were able to acquire the rudiments of our civilization, you could not possibly transplant our manners and customs to your alien soil. Therefore, however adept the [British envoy] might become, nothing would be gained thereby.”
Though Macartney failed, his mission was a harbinger of things to come. Unfortunately for the Chinese, Western “trinkets” also included cannons, firearms, and well-organized military forces that would shortly prove their utility. In a pattern repeated throughout the 19th Century, Western traders would initially be denied entry to Chinese ports. Thereafter, Chinese emissaries and military forces would square off against the foreigners, whose navies would bombard China’s coast and force concessions (China essentially had no navy) which included large portions of Fujian, Shanghai, Tianjin, and, of course, Hong Kong. Within these concessions Chinese law did not apply.
The humiliation was profound. In 1860, the British burned Beijing’s Summer Palace (which remains a ruin); by 1900 China had lost Taiwan to the Japanese and their capital had been occupied by an alliance of Western Powers. Though the foreign concessions did not directly impact most Chinese, foreign influence, including opium, destabilized the state as the Qing repeatedly proved unable to defend Chinese interests. Indeed, the Qing failure in the 2nd Opium War set the conditions for the Taiping Rebellion, perhaps the most devastating civil war in history. Equivalent in scope, carnage, and fervor to Europe’s 30 Years War, some 20 million Chinese died during the rebellion. Lacking authority and without influence beyond Beijing, the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1912, overthrown by a short-lived republic.
The true cause of the Qing decline was not technological or organizational inferiority; the government simply failed to comprehend the problem in scope and make an effective assessment of the consequences of a) failing to reform b) failing to develop an effective military force and c) continued concessions. Though the Qing had a cadre of bureaucrats capable of managing the state; by the middle of the 19th Century the Chinese Court understood that its military inferiority would only continue to encourage rapacious foreigners to increasingly infringe on Chinese sovereignty. To use a modern day pejorative, this “blob” was well-educated and Chinese statesmen like Wei Yuan ( 魏源) and Li Hongzhang (李鴻章) helped manage foreign concessions as best as they could. The Qing “blob” mitigated losses and prevented unforced errors, “playing an increasingly poor hand with considerable skill.” However, even able bureaucrats cannot not overcome fundamental structural flaws. The Qing administratively ability was limited by cultural inertia and dynastic leadership, which, especially under the Dowager Empress Cixi (慈禧太后, in power 1861-1908) limited modernization reforms. Unchallenged predominance, cemented the pretension of superiority, “accentuating the eventual humiliation.”
Following the Qing Collapse in 1912, China entered a 40-year long period of on and off civil war in which the failures of the past 100 years set the conditions for famine, warlord rule, disastrous flooding, China’s occupation by Japan, and the eventual Communist Revolution in 1949. This history hangs large over modern China and China’s relations with the United States. “Do Not Forget National Humiliation” (勿忘国耻), the notion of Chinese exploitation by Western Powers, is prevalent throughout China. This cultural facet is just as foundational as “American Exceptionalism” is to Americans. National Humiliation combines with other fundamental Chinese characteristics such as their own notions of exceptionalism to make China distrusting of foreign states and institutions, especially those developed by the United States. It is also increasingly used to inspire nationalist fervor (and support for the Communist Party).
Of course, purpose of this essay is not to lambast American standing nor forecast a Qing Empire-like collapse. Rather my hope is to provide a historical example of way a failure to adapt can precipitate a state’s decline. As stated at the beginning of the article, predictions of US decline are a cottage industry. In the 1970's the country was reeling from the multiple shocks of Vietnam, Watergate, and the oil crisis. At the time, the “Unipolar Moment” of the 1990s would have seemed impossible. However, the situation now is fundamentally different. Debt, public confidence, global competitors, challenges to the existing world order, competence of American institutions, are all in the red. Likewise, the global leadership assumed to belong to America either due to power, goodwill, or leadership of institutions has largely evaporated.
Nonetheless, America retains a robust capacity for innovation. Presidents viewed as weak or lame ducks achieved major success, ranging from Carter’s airline deregulation and the Camp David Accords to Truman’s shrewd management of the nascent Cold War. The American National Security “blob,” like the Qing Confucian administrators, retains a capacity for sound analysis and implementation if properly mobilized.
What is badly needed is a re-assessment America’s strengths and role in the world. Grand strategy is too often a buzzword, meant to evoke images of planners gathered over a world map like so many Napoleonic Generals or some plan an administration announces and follows through without error or modification. When strategies are discussed, they are overwhelmingly military-focused, often around concepts rather than concrete policies and too often without considerations for adversary interests or characteristics, or even cost feasibility. Military equipment does not equate to a strategy (or even a policy). A clear-eyed assessment of China and Russia would likely not view them as necessarily “revisionist” but rather states acting according to their best interests and, at times, counter to the United States’. In an anarchic world, China and Russia do not see the advantage in behaving by rules largely set by the United States, especially considering their cultural heritage of invasion or exploitation. These states will continue to take advantage of existing systems while attempting to supplant them with their own, within a sphere of influence.
Countering Russian and Chinese influence will require deft statesmanship. According to Johns Hopkins Security Studies Professor Mara Karlin, the United States must abandon “Dreams of decimating ideological adversaries and remaking regions according to our wishes.” Adding to Karlin’s argument I would propose doing “less with less.” American policy should focus on achieving practical success with limited means. The wildly ambitious ideas Karlin dismisses need to be replaced by the hard, boring work of diplomatic statecraft, focused on small wins rather than dreams of a “big deal” or likewise weapon system or doctrine that will ameliorate conflict.
However, the common end of American strategic reviews is generally, “do more with less” with little fundamental change to policy (2017’s National Security Strategy may be the exception).” Doing more with less presumes the ability to do more and only a marginal decrease in capabilities (or influence). In light of reduced military footprints worldwide and COVID-19 deficits, the US Military should not count of continued $800 billion budgets, regardless of which party is in power. Critically, the country should not rely on the military to be the dominant factor in the nation’s grand strategy.
Additionally, Strategic Reassessment must begin with the realization that, in the words of Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Hass, “foreign policy starts at home.” America’s ability to set conditions, generate, and project power and influence are the result of domestic consensus, relative tranquility, and economic (including infrastructure) capacity. Absent these factors, the nation will lack an ability to influence events, regardless of where it sits as leader of so many international bodies.
The Qing Empire collapsed due to internal failures aggravated by foreign influence. Despite a competent administrative regime, they failed to accurately assess threats and adjust strategy and structure as required. Similar aggregate threats face the United States today; these threats require a likewise approach Rather than strictly for us on what the country can do, a focus on what we can be, will help generate those sources of power. America cannot assume dominance as a birthright —our generation and use of non-military power must be re-learned so it may be re-earned.