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China: tribute where tribute is due

By Rowan Callick - posted Wednesday, 13 January 2021

In 2012, Australia's federal government led by Prime Minister Julia Gillard released a White Paper on "Australia in the Asian Century." This included a list of ambitious but worthwhile targets for Asia-engagement by 2025, none of which now appears attainable except for reaching national income of about A$73,000 per person.

But this is not causing the concern that ordinarily it might, since it was also in 2012 that a ripple started in east Asia that has turned into a tsunami of tension and change in the region – over-riding the strategic planning not only of Australia but of every other significant state.

For it was then, that Xi Jinping – viewed widely as a predictable, moderate, consensus-and-continuity candidate – was appointed general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.


The Great Man theory of history pursued especially effectively by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century reached its apogee with the well-justified 1940s focus on Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt, Tojo, Chiang and Mao. But the focus on such single and singular figures (always male) largely leached away in recent decades, replaced by a greater focus on ideology, on macro-economic analysis, on sociological and demographic trends, and on strategic chess or go boards.

China has, however, been changed utterly in the last 8 years - including through the restructuring of national governance, the party's transformation and seizure of all areas of public life, the shift from internationally biding its time and hiding its light to playing a core role economically, militarily and strategically around the world including through the visionary Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Undoubtedly, the chief driver of these changes has been the remorseless energy and determination of one man – Xi – that started as soon as he took power as general secretary.

He knew what he wanted to achieve, and has relentlessly pursued ever since: the apotheosis of the party, through the "rejuvenation" of China. Underlining his determination to run the country in a starkly different way, he has published a three-volume collection of writings and speeches on The Governance of China.

The BRI operates as a modern, sophisticated variant of the tribute system through which imperial China related to its region – which has throughout history always proven a complex challenge, including today when the People's Republic of China has 14 land borders.

The system involved trade, diplomacy, military defence, and personal connections between ruling families. In return for acknowledging China's predominant role in the region – made ritually manifest through the annual kowtows of tributary envoys to the emperor - other countries were granted what Beijing portrayed as trading privileges and a stable environment under its overarching security shield.


Modern countries – in history, rarely in the same shape – that became, for extended periods, Chinese tribute states included Brunei, Cambodia, Japan, Korea (both North and South), Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines, Ryukyu (the kingdom comprising islands including Okinawa, annexed in 1879 by Japan), Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet (today of course a Chinese region) and Vietnam.

Their histories help explain both their caution and suspicion about China today, and their reluctance to challenge Beijing openly. For instance, few if any of the above, except for the country that is by far the most powerful, Japan, dare to vote consistently at the UN or its agencies against PRC interests on issues that Beijing deems important.

But Xi's program to dominate east Asia – of course, as he views it, benevolently and in the region's best interests – and thence to leverage from this base in the world's economic powerhouse to assume greater global influence, is constrained by the inconvenient contrast in governance with the PRC itself.

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About the Author

Rowan Callick is an industry fellow at Griffith University’s Asia Institute and has been a China Correspondent for the Australian Financial Review and twice for The Australian, and has written three books on contemporary China, published in both English and Chinese.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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