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Professor discusses state of China

Abi Hoverman | Thursday, November 17, 2011

Despite fears of China’s growing strength, it is unlikely that China will ever become a large expansionist state, Assistant Professor of Political Science Victoria Tin-bor Hui said.

In her presentation at the Hesburgh Center on Thursday, Hui said she looked to China’s past as evidence of non-growth.

“History shows it’s not in [China’s] DNA to expand,” Hui said.

Her research reveals that even at peaks of its power, China has never made huge territorial conquests, and she predicts China will grow peacefully instead of threateningly.

“China has never sought expansion in history and therefore will never seek it,” she said.

China contains multiple regions and nations that have not always been unified. Chinese dynasties have conquered and then retreated from peripheral areas to the West as these dynasties grew and declined. This created a cycle of alternating periods of unified and divided China, she said.

“Unity is not the norm. It’s the opposite. Peripheral and interior unity has only been the case for the last 81 years,” she said.

Hui added that the desire for emperors to “rule everything under heaven” and to expand was always offset by power balancing forces in Asia.

“Every unified dynasty wanted to expand to the periphery,” she said. 

The huge expenses of war often forced China to stop expansion and retreat. Mobilizing human and material resources, manufacturing weapons and conscripting and paying troops added to logistical difficulties, like moving supplies, food and troops to the edges of the empire. As the territory stretched, these costs only grew, naturally stunting the expansion, she said.

“Distance makes it difficult to project power,” she said.

Additionally, the costs of maintaining new territories only grew as China’s territory expanded.  The expense of occupation and the suppression of revolts meant the more China grew, the less money China had to expand further, she said. This often led to an over-stretch of resources, and China eventually ran out of money and pulled back.

“Every conquest was a drain on the central treasury … Over time, they would run into budget deficits,” Hui said.

Hui said several reasons account for the past 81 years of a unified China, including international loans, revenue from European exports of resources like tea and ceramics and other nations labeling China as a unified state.

“International recognition mattered as much as internal control,” she said.

China’s history of non-expansion past its peripheral regions shows China is, by its nature, not going to aggressively acquire territory in the future, she said.

Despite this thesis, Hui acknowledged that current foreign policy of modern China still leaves the possibility of China expanding and falsifying her assessment of its future.

“When we look at the logics, two systems [the desire to conquest and the balancing of forces] working against each other … makes it almost impossible to make a solid prediction,” she said. “The future will not be dictated by what happened 2,000 years ago, it will be decided by what we do today and tomorrow.”