Restless Empire – The Past, Present, and Future of Chinese Power

This is part of our special feature on Europe-China Relations.
Click here to read China Engaging Europe: An Interview with Odd Arne Westad.



At the beginning of the 21st century, China is moving ever closer to the center of international affairs. This course traces the country’s complex foreign relations over the past 250 years, identifying the forces that will determine its path in the decades to come. Since the height of the Qing Empire in the 18th century, China’s confrontation with foreign powers have caused its world view to fluctuate between feelings of dominance and subjugation, emulation and defiance. From the invasion of Burma in the 1760s to the Boxer Rebellion in the early 20th century and the rivalry with the United States in eastern Asia today, many of these encounters have left the Chinese with a sense of humiliation and resentment, and have inflamed their notions of justice, hierarchy, and China’s regional centrality. This course is essential for anyone wishing to understand the recent past and probable future of this dynamic and complex country.


Course readings 

The readings for the course can be accessed through Canvas. The following books are useful as general overviews, and it is recommended that students read them in full:

  •  Westad, Odd Arne. Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750. New York: Basic, 2012
  •  Shambaugh, David L. China Goes Global: The Partial Power. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013
  •  Christensen, Thomas J. The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power. New York: W.W Norton, 2015
  •  Rudolph, Jennifer and Michael Szonyi, Eds. The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018 

The first three volumes have been placed on hold at the HKS library. Additional copies of these are available at Widener and through Hollis. The fourth volume is pending hold at the HKS Library because of its recent publication date. When the volume is made available you will be notified on Canvas.

Assignments and grading 

There are two assignments for this class.

The first is a group exercise. Depending on the number of students in the class, we will form small groups who will work on policy problems connected with China’s rise. The output will generally have two forms. There will be a 10-minute briefing for the whole class, followed by discussion. In your briefing, you may use no more than four slides. The group will also prepare, for the instructor, a two-page memo (1.5 line-spaced) that summarizes and highlights the points made in the briefing. The memo is due on the day of the presentation.



Group 1: If war between China and the United States broke out tomorrow, what could China hope to achieve militarily?

Group 2: Who makes the decisions in Chinese foreign policy?

Group 3: What is most important for Sichuan’s future?

Group 4: What are China’s main political challenges for the future?

Group 5: What are China’s main economic challenges for the future?


The second assignment is an individually written six-page policy memo that outlines, analyzes, and makes a policy recommendation for a particular problem related to China’s current foreign policy. This may be written for the Chinese government or for a foreign government (including that of the United States). This paper is due 12pm (noon) on May 7, 2018.

The group exercise will count for one-third of the grade and the individual memo two-thirds but class participation will be taken into account when assessing the final grade for the course.

All written work for this course must be appropriately referenced. Students seeking guidance regarding proper citation and academic honesty should refer to the Harvard Kennedy School Academic Code. If you still have questions as to whether or not you have used citation properly, please speak with the instructors before turning in your written assignment.

The course may be audited, but only with written permission from the instructor. Harvard students from outside HKS may register for this course, with written permission, if space and time-tabling allows for it.


Overview of individual sessions and mandatory reading 
Topic 1 
Lecture: Why is China important? 

Within less than a generation, China has moved from the periphery of the international system to its center. It is likely that the country will be a dominant power in the 21st century and beyond. But China is not only important because of its geo-political weight. It is also essential because of its cultural and political significance for the larger eastern Asian region.


1. Westad, Odd Arne. Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750. New York: Basic Books, 2012. pp. 1-17

2. Jacques, Martin. When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. 2nd ed. London: Penguin, 2009. pp. 1-28

3. Allison, Graham, Blackwill, R., and Wyne, A., Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World. MIT Press, 2013. pp. 1-18


The power of the past 
Topic 2 
Lecture: The origins of the Chinese state 

Chinese culture originates in three great epochs: Han, Tang, and Song. Knowing a bit about them is important for understanding China today.

Seminar: The classics of Chinese strategy 


1. Schwartz, Benjamin I. China and Other Matters. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. pp. 114-124

2. “Three Strategies of Huang Shigong,” pp. 277-306; “Sun Zi: Art of War,” 145-186; “Questions and Replies between Tang Taizong and Li Weigong,” pp. 307-360, in Sawyer, Ralph D. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.

3. Confucius: Analects (excerpt)


Topic 3 

Lecture: China and its region 

China is at the core of a vast region, stretching from the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea to the Pacific and Indian oceans. China’s place within its region was defined during the Qing Empire, which ruled China from the early 17th to the early 20th century.

Seminar: Chinese world orders 


1. Westad, Odd Arne. Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750. New York: Basic Books, 2012. ch 1 & 2

2. Rowe, William T. China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. pp. 63-89

3. Elliott, Mark C. Emperor Qianlong: Son of Heaven, Man of the World. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. pp. 125-142

4. Wang Fuzhi. “Historical Trends.” Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol. 2 (2nd ed). New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

5. Yi Hangno. “Sinify the Western Barbarians.” Edited excerpt from Sourcebook of Korean Civilization. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1997. pp158-159


Topic 4

Lecture: The Chinese Communist Party 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed in the early 20th century and took power in 1949. Mao Zedong led the CCP for forty years, and his thinking created some of the fundamentals for Chinese world views today.

Seminar: The CCP in power 


1. Westad, Odd Arne. Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750. New York: Basic Books, 2012. Ch 8 & 9.

2. Mao Zedong. “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan.” March 1927

January, 2018

3. Discussion between N. S. Khrushchev and Mao Zedong, October 02, 1959, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Volkogonov Collection, Wilson Center.



Topic 5

Lecture: China’s age of reform 

Mao Zedong’s rule united the country, but failed in terms of economic development. After Mao’s death in 1976, the new leader Deng Xiaoping opened up for the transformation of the Chinese economy from a state-led to a market-led form of production and enterprise. It was the greatest economic transformation the world has ever seen.

Seminar: How did China break through? 


1. Westad, Odd Arne. “The Great Transformation: China in the Long 1970s.” Ferguson, Niall, et al, eds., The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective. Choice Reviews Online, 2011.

2. Vogel, Ezra. Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. The Belknap Press Harvard University Press, 2011. pp. 217-248

3. Köll, Elisabeth. The Rong Family: A Chinese Business History. Harvard Business School case. 2010.

4. CCP Politburo Standing Committee Meeting transcript, 6 June 1989, from Tiananmen Papers. New York: Public Affairs, 2001. pp. 420-425


Chinese power today 

Topic 6 

Lecture: The sources of economic growth 

For thirty years (from 1980 to 2010) the Chinese economy continued to grow very rapidly, in what amounts to the biggest economic and social revolution of modern times. What were the main causes of this growth? What role did the Chinese state play in it? And what kind of economy does China have today?

Seminar: Does China have a capitalist economy? 


1. Nee, Victor and Opper, Sonja. Capitalism from Below. Harvard University Press, 2012. pp. 41-71

2. Steinfeld, Edward. Playing Our Game: Why China’s Economic Rise Doesn’t Threaten the West. Oxford University Press, 2010. pp. 1-19

3. Westad, Odd Arne. Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750. New York: Basic Books, 2012. Ch 10.

4. Osnos, Evan. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. pp. 60-75



Topic 7

Lecture: China’s military power 

In 1979 fought an inconclusive war against its former ally Vietnam. The results of the war convinced the Chinese leadership that its military was backward and broken. Since then, China has expanded its military power in a revolutionary manner, spending more percentage-wise on building its capabilities than any other major power. Still, most experts argue that China’s military reach is far inferior to that of the United States, even in Asia.

Seminar: Can China challenge US power in eastern Asia? 


1. Shambaugh, David. China Goes Global: The Partial Power. Oxford University Press, 2013. pp. 269-306

2. Chase, Michael S. et al. China’s Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2015.

3. Haddick, Robert. Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014. pp. 77-100


Topic 8

Lecture: China’s foreign policy today 

As its power has grown, China’s involvement in international affairs has also expanded. The country today defines its interests as being global, even though its active policies are main reserved for its own region. Meanwhile, many experts claim that Chinese national security decisionmaking is under-developed for the purposes it is supposed to serve.

Seminar: Who decides China’s foreign policy? 


1. Wang Jisi. “China’s Search for a Grand Strategy: A Rising Great Power Finds its Way.Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2011. pp1-12

2. Buzan, Barry. “The Logic and Contradictions of ‘Peaceful Rise/ Development’ as China’s Grand Strategy”. The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2014. pp 381-420.

3. Yan Xuetong, “From Keeping a Low Profile to Striving for Achievement,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2014. pp 153-84.

4. Shambaugh, David. China Goes Global: 


Topic 9 

Lecture: The domestic variables 

Over the past generation China has moved from a tightly controlled Leninist dictatorship to a much more open society, which the Communist Party struggles to keep control over. A number of key commentators argue that China’s main problems are domestic, and that many of them are connected with poor governance. In addition, the CCP’s policies for controlling ethnic minorities seem to have failed.

Seminar: The key challenges of one Chinese province 


1. Central Committee of the Communist Party of China’s General Office. “Document 9: Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” 2013.

2. Pew Research Report. “Environmental Concerns on the Rise in China.” September 19, 2013.

3. McGregor, Richard. The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers. Harper Collins, 2010. pp. 1-33

4. Greve, Louisa. “The Troubled Periphery: China at the Tipping Point?” Journal of Democracy, vol. 24, no. 1 (2013): 73–78.

5. Saich, Tony. “What Does Xi Jinping Dream About?” Ash Center Occasional Papers Series, Aug. 2017.


The future of Chinese power 

Topic 10 (March 27, 29) 

Lecture: Three scenarios for China’s future 

While China’s power has grown significantly over the past generation, it is not given that its growth will continue. But it is also possible that we under-estimate China’s potential for growth and, especially, its proclivity for change. What are conceivable scenarios for China’s future over the next twenty years?

Seminar: The coming collapse of China? 


1. Shambaugh, David. “The Coming Chinese Crack-Up,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 3, 2015.

2. Hung, Ho-Fung, Arthur Kroeber, Howard French and Suisheng Zhao. “When Will China’s Government Collapse?” Foreign Policy, Mar. 13, 2015.

3. Beardson, Timothy. Stumbling Giant: The Threats to China’s Future. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014, pp. 398-435.

4. “Why The Communist Party Will Not Fall from Power,” in Pieke, Frank N., Knowing China: A Twenty-First Century Guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp. 15-49.

5. Quah, Danny. The Simple Arithmetic of China’s Growth Slowdown. The Brookings Institution, February 18, 2015.

6. Brookings post-Congress reports

Topic 11

Lecture: China’s future economies 

China today is first and foremost an economic power. How is its economy likely to develop? Is China today facing a middle-income trap? How will demographic change influence China’s growth? And what about regional variations within China itself?


Seminar: China 2030 


1. China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative Society. The World Bank, 2013.

2. Xi Jinping’s Report to the 19th Communist Party Congress, October 2017

3. Reading TBD from The China Questions, forthcoming publication from the Fairbank Center

4. Fan, Shenggen et al., eds. The Oxford Companion to the Economics of China. Articles by Cox, Simon; Fogel, Robert W. / Grotte, Nathaniel; Perkins, Dwight. pp. 59-74.


Topic 12 

Lecture: China in Asia 

Over the next decade, China’s main orientation in terms of foreign policy objectives will be towards its own region. This means mainly east and southeast Asia, but also Russia and India. What is the potential for conflict or integration in China’s relationship with its neighbors?

Seminar: When North Korea Collapses 


1. White, Hugh. “Is China Making a Big Mistake about Japan?” The Interpreter. August 13, 2014.

2. Bennett, Bruce W. Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2013.

3. Kaplan, Robert D. Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. Random House, 2014. pp. 32-50

4. Johnston, Alastair Iain. “Is Chinese Nationalism Rising?: Evidence from Beijing.” International Security 41, no. 3 (2016): 7–43.

5. Mendoza, Ronald U. et al., “Revealed Comparative Advantage, International Production Chain and the Evolving ASEAN-China Trade Linkages.” Journal of Asian Development Study. Vol. 4 (1), March 2015.


Topic 13 (Presented as a double class on April 17)

Lecture: The United States and China 

The United States, in Chinese, is MeiGuo, or ‘the beautiful country’. And Americans admire Chinese industriousness and skill over those of all other nations. The economies of the two countries are today closely linked. But Chinese and US policies towards each other have fluctuated wildly in the past and are likely to do so in the future. What is the most likely scenario for US China policy ten years from now?

Seminar: US policy towards China – a briefing for the US president 


1. Shi Yinhong, “The United States, East Asia, and Chinese ‘Triumphalism’’, in Lee, Y. W. and Son, K. eds., China’s Rise and Regional Integration in East Asia: Hegemony or Community?. Routledge, 2014. pp 40-53.

2. Mearsheimer, John. “The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia.” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 3, no. 4 (December 21, 2010): 381–96.

3. Rudd, Kevin. US-China 21: The Future of US-China Relations under Xi Jinping. Belfer Center, 2015.

4. Blackwill, Robert D. and Tellis, Ashley J. “Revising US Grand Strategy toward China.” Council Special Report No. 72. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2015.


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