Terrill, Ross. The New Chinese Empire – And What it Means For the United States
China’s claims to sovereignty over Taiwan are illegitimate on their face, as is the government of the People’s Republic of China. At least that is a major portion of Ross Terrill’s argument in The New Chinese Empire – And What it Means for the United States. Terrill also argues that the current regime in China is substantially a new Imperial dynasty, that China is an expansionist state, and that the old Chinese concept of the Central Kingdom combines with Marxist doctrine to create a sense of entitlement among Chinese leaders, and that China has failed to create a modern nation-state. These stances are bound to make The New Chinese Empire a favorite of Taiwanese separatists, anti-Communist conservatives, and liberals who criticize the Communist regime in Beijing.
In dismissing the validity of China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan, Terrill addresses three issues: historical claims, physical control, and governmental legitimacy. Historically, Terrill writes that no Chinese Empire before the Qing considered Taiwan part of China, and even during the Qing Dynasty, which gained control of Taiwan in 1884, possession of Taiwan was so unimportant that they allowed the Dutch to occupy the island, and then allowed an expansionist Japan to make it into a colony. Terrill also claims that early Chinese Communist Party leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai considered Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam independent states that needed assistance in overthrowing Japanese rule. China’s modern claim to sovereignty over Taiwan is then based on only two things: a 1943 agreement between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Chiang Kai-shek that control of Taiwan would revert to China after the war with Japan, and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government’s claim to rightful rule over both the Mainland and Taiwan.
For those whose major interest is in promoting free trade and free people in the traditional liberal democratic mode, this is a seductive argument – it recognizes the independence of a democratically elected government that in the past twenty years moved to establish many of the freedoms modern Americans take for granted. However, Terrill’s argument that claims of sovereignty should devolve from historical tradition is dangerous if taken too far, as it could invalidate the borders of many of the nations in modern Europe – including France, Germany, and Poland – by invalidating the delicate negotiations after World War II that ensure a reasonably equitable peace. At the other extreme, it recognizes that small groups of dissidents have the right to secede from their parent nation if they disagree with that nation’s government. This is a recipe for chaos if put into actual practice, and hides the potential for thousands of little Chechnyas around the world. The issue of Taiwan’s relations with China is complex, and Terrill makes it more so through his arguments in The New Chinese Empire.
Terrill’s claim that the Communist government of China is wholly illegitimate is also explosive. In this case, he tosses aside his earlier argument that ownership of an area contributes to sovereignty over it, in favor of the idea that because the Chinese Communist Party and its officials were never elected to office, the CCP’s rule over China is an illegitimate one. Terrill also argues that by turning away from Marxism while keeping Leninism, Deng Xiaoping and others have eliminated half of their justification for single-party rule of China. In making this claim, not only does Terrill imply that the only legitimate governments are liberal democracies, but he ignores the millions of Chinese that supported the Chinese Communist Revolution during the 1940s, as well as the fact that a population of one billion Chinese continues to live under the CCPs rule without any serious attempts to overthrow it. He could argue that the people of China are so oppressed as to be unable to overthrow their government, but continued rule by the CCP implies a certain amount of acquiescence on the part of the PRC’s people. Terrill’s apparent stance that the only legitimate governments are liberal democracies, is also and indirect attack on the few remaining monarchies, like Saudi Arabia and Jordan. While the government of Saudi Arabia may be repressive, its legitimacy as the government of the majority of the Arabian Peninsula is rarely questioned.
Terrill somewhat damages his claim that the CCP’s rule of China is illegitimate by then claiming that CCP governance of China is a continuation of the Imperial method, and that China’s Communist rulers are a dynasty of Red Emperors. He comes to this conclusion by showing that the contradictions of Marxist-Leninist philosophy and those of the Confucian-Legalist methods of the Imperial period are functionally equivalent. His basic argument is that the Legalist / Leninist rulers rule through strict enforcement of rules that keep society under control, and pursue governmental power as its own end. The Marxist / Confucian theory adds a moral component, which instructs individuals in behavior and also provides government with a purpose other than the simple accumulation of power.
The CCP represents, Terrill believes, an Imperial Red Dynasty by demonstrating that both the Emperors of China’s past and the leaders of the modern Chinese Communist Party believed that China was the sole repository of civilization, and that the barbarian other should come to it for guidance and leadership. In modern times this manifests as China’s insistence that it be treated as a world power, and that other nations come to it with hat in hand when negotiating treaties. Other authors see this behavior partially as China’s continued internalization of it old “Central Kingdom” belief, combined with the belief that other nations preyed on a weak China during the early modern era. Where Chen Jian calls this a “Chinese victim mentality”, which is a weakness for other nations to work around, Terrill writes that it is a manifestation of China’s continued Imperial attitude that is dressed in Marxist dialogue and flavored with the humiliation of China over the past one hundred fifty years. If Terrill’s claim that China’s leaders currently believe that all lands that were ever part of Imperial China, regardless of when, or for how long, should be part of modern China is accepted, the idea that the People’s Republic of China is merely the modern incarnation of Imperial China is not a huge stretch.
Although The New Chinese Empire makes some interesting arguments, and presents modern China in the context of its Imperial past, it feels more like an attack on the government of the PRC than a work that attempts to explain why relations with modern China operate in the fashion they do. This may be due to Ross Terrill’s negative experiences at the hands of the Communist government. His arrest and expulsion from China in 1992 for associating with a dissident who was arrested the same night led him to write The New Chinese Empire to show that the workings of modern China devolved direct from that of Imperial China. While he claims to do this in order to allow Westerners to better understand and deal with modern China, the tone of his work is not merely descriptive, but attacking or offended. The feeling that he is waging an assault on the government of the People’s Republic may cause even those whose inclination is to agree with his arguments to wonder about his objectivity.