The Terracotta Warriors in Xian. Photo: iStock

“Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake up the world.”

Nearly two centuries ago, with those famous words, Napoleon Bonaparte warned the world, particularly the West, about the potential of China. Despite this early warning, many Westerners, especially Americans, have chosen to ignore Napoleon’s words. Today they are finding it hard to adjust to the current realities that a country that three decades back was way below their economic league has now by orders of magnitude risen to challenge their status quo and aspire to lead them.

That’s mainly due to the complete ignorance and lack of acknowledgment among Western policymakers about Chinese history and its role in the current rise. For most of the last 5,000 years, China was the world’s center of wealth, culture, technology, and power backed by strong empires. The 19th and 20th centuries were a brief aberration.

Of the 13 Chinese dynasties during that 5,000-year period, most were ruled by Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin and Han, and all of them focused on creating a more unified and stronger China. These long dynastic periods provided much-needed stability and ability to maintain the previous legacy.

But it’s also true that for most of its history, China has struggled to overcome a number of difficulties produced by geographical constraints and a different ethnic class of thought that have kept it from global pre-eminence.

While the West gained maximum prosperity after it unambiguously supported a liberal order in the aftermath of World War II, much of the current rise in Chinese ethos for the modern Chinese dream or Chinese world order is the result of one man’s legacy and vision. His name was Qin Shi Huang. 

Turning the idea of China into reality

The two greatest symbols of Chinese historical achievement are the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Army. Both were created by one of the most polarizing figures in Chinese history.

Qin Shi Huang is a pivotal figure in Chinese history and the most controversial. He was the king of the Qin during the Warring States Period. He defeated the other six states of China in a ruthless war and then became the first emperor of a unified China in 221 BC.

After unifying China, he split the country into 36 regions and then passed a series of major reforms that further unified the country, such as a new Chinese script, a new currency, and a new system of weights and measures.

He fully developed the Chinese civil-service examination system, a meritocratic system that attracted talents from all over China, where even youth from the poorest families could theoretically join the ranks of the educated elite by succeeding in the examination.

After connecting China culturally, economically and politically through one language, one coin and one system, he moved on to connect China physically. He undertook many gigantic construction projects such as the Great Wall to protect his cities from attackers from the northern region. It was the first of such infrastructure projects in the world, which was a marvel in its complexity and resource utilization.

The second key project was the Ling Canal, which linked the Xiang River and Li Jiang River. It was a huge deal at that time, as it allowed water transportation between north and south China. The prime reason behind the building of the canal was to transport supplies to the army and throughout China and thus help its expansion into southwest Asia.

He built a massive road system connecting major parts of China and a mausoleum guarded by a life-sized Terracotta Army at the cost of common lives. He made many important contributions that benefited his realm and left a lasting mark on subsequent Chinese history and a benchmark for future Chinese emperors.

Despite all these achievements, he is not exactly remembered as a benevolent ruler who cared for the people. Instead, he has often been viewed as a tyrannical and authoritarian ruler by later generations.

Qin Shi Huang governed all Chinese states with a single philosophy known as legalism. He outlawed and burned many books as well as burying some scholars alive who questioned his ideologies. He was paranoid, particularly of scholars and intellectuals, whom he considered burdens on society.

But even today, his legacy plays an important role in the stability and prosperity and motivation for driving the Chinese rejuvenation. Modern Chinese leaders take inspiration from his vision and brutality to pitch their political candidacy in the name of the betterment of the Chinese people.

But there is one leader in particular who is almost following in the footsteps of Qin Shi Huang, and that is Xi Jinping. 

‘Reincarnation’ of Qin Shi Huang

When Xi Jinping was chosen as the successor of Chinese president Hu Jintao, the world at large wondered what kind of leadership style he would exhibit. One of the best ways to judge a leader’s style is to look at his past, his upbringing and surroundings, that makes his character. If a person has gone through much hardship, then it’s more likely that he is going to make bold decisions irrespective of the consequences.

Xi spent the majority of his childhood in the countryside of Shaanxi facing hardship and working as a shepherd, unlike other princelings of China who had a pretty luxurious life. It is not a mere coincidence that Xian, the capital city of Shaanxi, was closely associated with Qin Shi Huang, as it constituted the capital city of the Qin dynasty and the famous Terracotta Army. So it is no surprise that Xi’s style of leadership shows a lot of resemblance to Qin Shi Huang’s.

In 2017, he provided a glimpse of how China would be under his reign. For the first time in the history of the Communist Party of China, the idea of collective leadership was dropped and Xi was unanimously chosen as president for a lifetime.

That was followed by establishment and promotion of “Xi Jinping thought,” which mainly focused on three things: international relations based upon fairness, justice and without military alliance; second, replacing traditional Western thinking with Chinese values and a more decisive leadership role in international affairs; and last, that China’s foreign policy should safeguard Chinese sovereignty, security, and development interests.

It was loosely based on Qin’s legalism beliefs, where the state can’t be answerable to people irrespective of the consequences of a decision. More so, Xi sees no place for political experimentation or liberal values in China, civil society, and universal human rights.

Just like the first emperor, Xi is displaying a superpower’s ambition through gigantic projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, upgrade of Chinese cities into smart cities through 5G (fifth-generation telecom) and artificial intelligence, and pulling more countries into the ambit of the Chinese financial system.

Only a few years ago, many American observers had the view that China would accept the liberal international order and take the role of second fiddle. But its current actions in the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and at the Indian borders, show a different picture. China wants to expand its regional role by first putting pressure on other parties to accept its hegemony and at the same time gearing up to challenge America’s global leadership in the future.

The one thing worth noticing about Xi is that he no longer just wants to rule China. 

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Ravi Kant

Ravi Kant is a financial writer with a deep passion for technology and economics, and also covers international politics and cybersecurity. He has wide experience in the financial world and some of his analysis has been published in leading magazines such as Mogul News and The Indian Economist. He tweets @Rk_humour.