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Henningsen: Return Of China

For five hundred years, beginning in the 10th century, China was the world’s greatest economic power: trading across the southwest Pacific and the Indian Ocean, into the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.To celebrate its grandeur, in 1405 China commissioned the first of seven huge naval expeditions to range throughout the southwest Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

Called “Grand Treasure Fleets”, these were colossal goodwill missions: more than 300 ships – the largest 400 feet long and 180 wide – crewed by almost 30,000 men. They demonstrated China’s magnificence by distributing beautiful gifts, seeking in return only symbolic forms of “tribute”, token acknowledgments of the superiority of Chinese civilization. “Tribute” came largely in the form of exotic curiosities – most famously an African giraffe, which entered the Forbidden City six hundred years ago last September.

In 1433 China abruptly stopped voyaging. Even for the world’s wealthiest nation, distributing glittering gifts was an expensive proposition. Growing domestic concerns won out over costly overseas demonstrations of China’s splendor.

But memories lingered.

When Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498, locals ridiculed European offerings of cheap trinkets in return for valuable spices. They remembered the Chinese fondly.

As European exploitation grew, China turned inward. But it remained the world’s largest manufacturer until the early 19th century, when industrialization accelerated the rise of the West; hastening China’s economic and political decline.

But in the last quarter-century China roared back and now boasts the world’s fastest-growing large economy. With its new wealth China again seeks to display its magnificence through assertive efforts to extend power and influence beyond its borders. This modern outreach is less narcissistic and more economically self-interested than that of six centuries ago, which makes it even more worthy of attention.

As journalist Howard French notes in his recent book, China’s Second Continent, the major target is Africa. Places like Zambia, Mozambique, Namibia, and Senegal host over one million Chinese immigrants spearheading China’s “Win/Win” policy, which supposedly promises Africans employment and profit from Chinese contracts to exploit natural resources and build new infrastructure. Although Africans usually get the short end of this deal, the fact remains that China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, leaving the US in the dust.

It’s not news that China is back. The news is where.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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