China: The Paradox and Contradictions of a Tributary Empire

Despite appearances, current Chinese power is an amalgam of two contradictory models. In turn, each of them has internal contradictions. If this hypothesis is correct, we can cast doubt on the sustainability of such power in the medium and long terms.

The present geopolitical constellation is characterized by three findings. Western Europe is indecisive; the United States are in an apparent retreat; Chinese vigor is allegedly unstoppable. However, this is just one side of the tortilla. The other side appears when the tortilla is flipped over, which is what we do before serving it. This happens because history is not inexorable; rather it is full of surprises. The future cannot be predicted with the certainty of an exact science. With this in mind, I devote this article to a superpower in the making, the powerful Chinese power.

I begin with a parable. It is the story of a fictitious event that allows us to transmit a message with moral content through an analogy, a comparison, or a similitude. 

From all of Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories, the shortest refers to China. We can reproduce it entirely.

On Exactitude in Science[1]

 (Short story—complete text)

Jorge Luis Borges

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.

The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography

Suárez Miranda, Viajes de Varones Prudentes (Voyages for Prudent Men), Libro Cuarto, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658.

The End


In the very long Chinese history, there have been thirteen dynasties. They founded different successive empires. Similar to the Egyptian chronology, with their “kingdoms” intertwined with intermediate periods, dynastic China faced various challenges that led to chaotic periods and changes in power[2]. Empires were of variable duration, from the shortest (15 years) to the longest (600 years). They all collapsed.

With just one brief exception, no empire sought to extend its dominions in the seas. When it was done, China built a great fleet that was launched to the ocean under the command of the famous admiral Zheng He (1371-1433), that could have easily eclipsed Cristobal Colon’s fleet. However, the Emperor, afraid of losing his territorial power base, cancelled it. The fleet was more a prestigious initiative than a commercial enterprise but it could have become a dangerous and dispersive factor for the imperial center.

In all these empires, the central power controlled and strangled the development of a commercial bourgeoisie, unlike what happened in the west. Development was achieved through strict state monopolies (the most evident being the salt monopoly). Confucianism was always hostile with any glimpse of capitalism. The center suffocated every attempt at dispersion. Coup d’états and invasions inaugurated new empires, that reproduced their predecessors. With the same fluctuations: first a strong centralism, then the fall and anarchy. Sometimes, the fall of an empire gave way to bloody civil wars, before returning to page zero.

We can characterize the hundredth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (that today is celebrated in the People’s Republic with much fanfare and dissimulation of a history more chaotic than the official one) as the establishment of another dynasty, but this time with nouvelle characteristics and two successive phases. The first one was the establishment of the Popular Republic under Mao Zedong’s splint. The second one was the modernizing renewal under the auspices of Deng Xiaoping, whose current powerful successor is president Xi Jinping.

The last phase combined two models of power and development. The first one is “democratic centralism” established before in Russia by Lenin’s heirs in what became the Soviet Union. The second one is state capitalism in the regime that followed Mao’s. This combination produced a spectacular growth, which resulted today in an economy superior to all others and brought consequently the projection of such power urbi et orbi, that is in almost the entire planet.

Great paradox: both models were not a Chinese invention; rather they were born in the center of the west, that is: capitalism and Marxism. The Chinese novelty was its combination. However, the combination in turn entails a large contradiction. I will explain it.

Capitalism, masterfully narrated and analyzed by Marx, is a dynamic system (and contradictory in itself) that tends to expand insatiably in search for investments and markets. It dominates the surroundings and changes culture by transforming the world of work and the world of consumption. By nature, it is a centrifugal process that alters all those social systems it invades. On the other side, communism (Marxism’s heir) is a centripetal process that tries to organize the entire society from a power center and with a single party that directs everything and controls every inch thoroughly. It has its own internal contradictions as total control is a utopia that when materialized it produces the result imagined by Borges with his totalitarian map. It transforms culture into discipline, control, and unitarian thought. It is the most extended and exaggerated expression of Michel Foucault’s thesis in his famous book Discipline and Punish: The birth of the Prison (Random House, 1977). Control is total and fragile at the same time (the Chinese leadership fears the recurrence of the almighty collapse of the Soviet totalitarianism. The USSR tragedy feeds their paranoia)[3].

We can summarize saying that the current Chinese empire is an amalgam of these two contradictory models and that each of them contains internal contradictions as well. If this hypothesis is true, we can cast doubt on its sustainability in the medium and long terms.

In geopolitical terms, Chinese imperialism is different from western imperialist neoliberalism. Fundamentally, it aims at transforming the other systems only in terms of Chinese needs of supplies and develops them asymmetrically by transforming other countries into modernized suppliers of strategic materials and subsidiary markets, with strategic port and military bases to guarantee those supplies[4]. It is the case of the so-called Belt and Road Initiative. It does not proselytize (it has little cultural projection on western countries and Islamic ones as well) but rather it establishes infrastructures of a new dependence[5]. We can characterize it as a tributary empire[6].

In the final analysis, the viability of the tribute empire depends on the resolution of its internal contradiction between centralism and dispersion. Seen from the wider historical perspective of various thousands of years in what was the Celestial Empire, the oscillation between these two poles is the new version of the everlasting Chinese imperial cycle, but this time magnified and accelerated by the technological and economic steroids of XXI century. The center exaggerates its control but at the same time stimulates and accelerates a capitalist development that leads it to its eventual destruction.

I will like to finish with another analogy. For those who love advanced cars, the Chinese dynamic resembles the performance of a fast Ferrari—but without brakes.

[1] . In Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley.

[2] . For a short chronology of dynastic China, see Yang, Xiaoneng, ed. New Perspectives on China’s Past: Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

[3] For a western but smart perspective, see

[4] . Sometimes, it controls entire territories outside its borders. In recent decades, China acquired 68 million hectares outside its frontiers.

[5] . Curiously, the old “dependence theory” developed by social scientists from Latin America, today is applied to China.

[6] . In the west, partially similar cases were the British investments in trains in India and Argentina during XIX century. See the classical study done by Raúl Scalabrini Ortiz, Historia de los ferrocarriles argentinos and also

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