Here's an essay question for you. When future generations look back on our times, what do you think they'll remember as its major event?
1. the end of the Cold War;
2. September 11 and its aftermath; or
3. the rise of China.
A bit subjective I know, but a great way to kill time on a long car ride. A few months back I was participating in a workshop where the featured guest made an impassioned argument for answer C. The collapse of the Soviet Empire and the start of America's so-called "War on Terror" will be small potatoes when viewed next to the current shift in global capitalist wealth from the Atlantic-centered trade system—which revolves largely in an American orbit—to an emerging Pacific trade system where China is the principle actor.
I'm still not sure if I buy the argument but it's admittedly an intriguing premise, especially if you're familiar with an economics textbook or read the newspaper on a semi-regular basis. China is positioned much like the United States was at the turn of the last century. It controls much of the world's manufacturing-core and acts increasingly as the capitalist-system's primary creditor. That doesn't necessarily mean that we're on the edge of some new world order, but it is pretty significant.
If you'd like to learn more about China's emergence as a great power, a nice place to start is Lorenz Lüthi's The Sino-Soviet Split. The book examines the period before China's rapprochement with the Nixon administration, focusing on the power struggle between Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev at the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Drawing on archival sources and published material from China, the former Soviet Union, Poland, former East Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Italy, and the United States, the author provides one of the strongest overviews of foreign policy behind the Iron Curtain currently available in English. The Sino-Soviet Split is thorough and detailed, and it deserves to be read alongside such works as Vladamir Zubok's A Failed Empire, Chen Jian's Mao's China and the Cold War, and Odd Arne Westad's The Global Cold War.
Lüthi grapples with several overlapping themes in The Sino-Soviet Split. The first is causality. Like Odd Arne Westad and Chen Jian, the author suggests that ideology was one of the principle sources of conflict in the Cold War — it drove decision-making within the communist bloc through the 1950s. For Lüthi, alternative interpretations of Marxism sat at the center of political tension between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Simply stated, Nikita Khrushchev pushed away from Stalinist governing principles at the same moment Mao Zedong embraced the Soviet dictator's model of development. This divergence laid the foundation for a host of recriminations between the two countries. Disagreements which began on the polemic level—Soviet officials frequently criticized Chinese behavior as ignorant and Mao often denounced Khrushchev as a revisionist—escalated over the course of ten years into a series of border clashes, trade quarrels, and diplomatic hostilities. By the mid-1960s, despite the opportunities presented by America's war in Vietnam, the military partnership between the two communist giants was irreparably broken.
Lüthi frames this story around a second theme — the importance of "great men." Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev dominated the Sino-Soviet relationship. Despite the general dearth of Chinese and Soviet government sources, the author successfully captures their mutual disdain for each other and shows how they projected their vision of communism at the international level. On the surface their game was lopsided — "Khrushchev was heading a superpower with increasing commitments around the world, while Mao was running a regional power that was progressively getting poorer and more isolated" (12). Mao managed these shortcomings, however, through the force of his own personality. A ruthless dictator and shrewd politician, he used second-wave decolonization and Khrushchev's missteps to garner influence incommensurate with his country's socio-economic standing. According to Lüthi, Mao's efforts highlight the inadequacy of the existing political science literature on alliance cohesion. The Sino-Soviet partnership faltered not because of power balances or economic production; it broke because of ideological difference and individual agency.
Finally, Lüthi's story illustrates the interrelationship between domestic affairs and international relations. Khrushchev and Mao were both hampered and empowered by events and power struggles at home. The second Taiwan Straits crisis, for instance, was born not from China's latent quest for territorial expansion but from Mao's calculated drive to manufacture consensus at home on the eve of the Great Leap Forward. When the Chinese dictator's influence faltered in the wake of his program's failures, the broader Sino-Soviet relationship entered a temporary rapprochement, only to be fractured again by Mao's reemergence in the mid-1960s. Khrushchev's fall after the Cuban Missile Crisis gave the Chinese leader a strategic opening to justify the purge of his party's "revisionists" — a term quickly expanded to apply to all of Mao's domestic rivals. According to Lüthi, conflict between China and the Soviet Union always existed as part of a larger, more complex power struggle at home.
What does all this tell us about China at the beginning of the twenty-first century? I'll offer two tentative observations. First, communism as an operational ideology simply didn't work. One of the stunning revelations of Lüthi's work is the degree to which Soviet officials understood their system's flaws in the mid-1950s. In some ways, Mao's rigid and vocal support of Stalinism undercut the U.S.S.R.'s ability to champion domestic reform — rather than dealing imaginatively with development questions, Moscow locked itself in a bitter rhetorical fight over the definition of "genuine" communism. It seems plausible that future historians will look at China's eventual turn toward market policies under Deng Xiaoping as a major turning point in the Cold War, perhaps on par with the collapse of Soviet power in East Europe.
Second, Mao was not an agent of China's best-interest. Lüthi navigates this question with tact, but the dictator was an ideologue who undermined his country's long-term development for personal gain. A host of Beijing officials were ready to move their country beyond Stalinism in the wake of the Great Leap Forward. Mao killed them not because he believed in his policies but because he wanted more power. It's been said many times, but the miracle of modern China isn't simply its subsequent success within the capitalist system, but the fact that it survived the Cultural Revolution at all. You might not think of China's rise as the major story of our times yet, but consider the question again in another five years. It—along with our world—might look very different.