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Christian Biblical Studies
CHINA: TOO LATE TO THE DANCE?
By W. Resume
It is fashionable for the media to breathlessly toss around the expression, ‘the next superpower’, with reference to China. The term dates to at least 1944, when it was applied to the British Empire, the United States of America, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). With the dismantlement of the British Empire, the definition embraced the Soviet Union and the U.S., measured by reference to the number of nuclear armaments possessed by each nation (many times more than those held by other acknowledged nuclear powers, Britain, France and China), and the political clout each exercised via proxies and alliances – their respective spheres of influence.
Notwithstanding its achievements in space (Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin – the first man in earth-orbit), the Soviet Union had by the 1960s become a hollowed-out society, with rampant poverty and a medieval, regressive attachment to political repression, exemplified by the concrete and barbed-wire barrier, the Berlin Wall. Since, then of course, the mighty USSR has ‘shrunk’ into Russia, a nation smaller in power and political terms, though at over six million square miles and ranging across nine time zones, it is geographically larger than any other country.
This leaves the U.S., which does fit the definition of ‘superpower’ more aptly than the USSR did or ever could have. Even in this second decade of the twenty-first century, the empire of the United States remains implicitly the definition of ‘superpower’, a description which implies global reach in more than mere military or political terms.
The Three-Legged Stool
To be a true superpower a nation must possess at least these three characteristics:
The USSR did not meeting these basic requirements, lacking as it did the Economic-Financial and Cultural components. The mark of a true superpower is its ability to reshape the essential characteristics and identity of all other nations with which it comes into contact.
China is unlikely to attain this level.
Creating the Modern World
The foundations of our modern industrial-political order began to be laid in the late 1700s, first by Great Britain and reinforced subsequently by Germany and the United States. With its global reach on the military and economic fronts during the 1800s and early 1900s, and buttressed by its commanding lead in the Industrial Revolution, Britain was the military and economic superpower of its day. Through a series of progressive social reforms, urbanisation, its central position in world banking (including the pre-eminence of Sterling as the main reserve currency), the transplanting of democratic parliaments around the world, and its scientific innovations, Great Britain came to define the modern liberal and free-trading state. The country’s rich heritage, expressed through the three L’s – Law, Literature and Language – carried the influence of this island-nation far beyond its shores, its iconic status reverberating around the world long after the nation’s military and economic dominance began its decline between 1918 and 1945.
The U.S. has built upon these legal, social, and commercial traditions and carried them further, cementing English as the principal language of commerce, international law, technology, and the film industry, and installing it as the chief second language around the world. From the introduction of the railway into the U.S. (much of it financed in the early years by Britain), to the trade in cotton, agricultural products, and heavy machinery, America became rich from its trade with the former ‘mother country’. Despite their competitive spirit, the close ties between the two nations – political, philosophical, academic, cultural, and military – ensured that the modern world would develop predominantly along Anglo-American and capitalistic lines. It is within this matrix that China has blossomed.
Still, assuming for the sake of argument that in the next 10-15 years China becomes the world’s dominant military power and that its national wealth will exceed that of all other countries, it is unlikely that the rest of us will be routinely speaking or writing Mandarin, reading Chinese literature, or streaming mainly Chinese films. Even now, a large percentage of the goods which come from China are manufactured at the behest and under the control of foreign companies (American, British, German, Canadian), a development which has further ‘westernised’ China to greater degree than Chinese influence has ‘orientalised’ the client nations.
Perhaps the biggest single factor weighing against China’s rise to true superpower status is this: its opportunity may have arrived too late. We live in a world that from an industrial, financial and economic aspect has matured. Britain in the nineteenth century forged ahead across technological and industrial frontiers which were new and untested, and it benefited from the advantage of an early start. The power, prosperity and influence of the U.S., and its own rise to empire, flowed in large measure from the advantages derived from Britain’s dominant military, financial and cultural position.
[An aside: The religious ties between Britain and the U.S. were forged by the Protestantism which underpinned the legal and liberal culture held in common by the two nations. This historic thread accounts for the prominent place initially accorded in the laws and culture of each nation to the Bible (especially the King James Version), and the laying down of the deep roots of evangelical Christianity.]
No Future In Predictions
From the standpoint of Bible students schooled in dispensational theology, the present stage of history poses vexing questions. For, according to expectations based on chronology, we ought not to be at this juncture in which we are discussing the phenomenon of the rise of China, whose place in the sun ought to have passed long ago.
As late as 1901, Pastor Charles Taze Russell, that normally clear-eyed teacher on biblical matters, wrote:
. . . there is scarcely time enough to permit a panic and period of general prostration and then another period of prosperity and inflation and another panic, etc., by the time which we think the Scriptures indicate as the time for the great cataclysm of trouble; by which the present institutions of Christendom are all to go down in anarchistic chaos. The culmination of the trouble in October, 1914, is clearly marked in the Scriptures; and we are bound therefore to expect a beginning of that severe trouble not later than 1910; – with severe spasms between now and then.
Views from the Watch Tower (September 1, 1901; Zion’s Watch Tower, Allegheny, USA), 292, 293.
The full end of the times of the Gentiles . . . will be reached in A.D. 1914; . . . that date will be the farthest limit of the rule of imperfect men. . . . [A]t that date the Kingdom of God . . . will obtain full, universal control, and that it will then be “set up,” or firmly established, in the earth, on the ruins of present institutions.
The Time is at Hand (1914; Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society, Brooklyn, USA), 77.
Russell’s prediction that 1914 would mark the beginning of the ‘time of trouble’ of Matt. 24:21 was uncannily accurate as to the first year of the First World War (the ‘Great War’). That clash of nations set off a chain reaction of catastrophic events which shaped the world we live in, and we should not underestimate its significance.
However, the importance of the war of 1914-1918 has been eclipsed to a large extent by the Second World War, a wider-ranging conflict, one closer to historical memory and more accessible through a plethora of film, sound, and eyewitness accounts; and also, in part, because the U.S. played a far larger role in the latter conflict than it had in the FWW. Indeed, the SWW and its aftermath stimulated the growth of the U.S. to the position it holds today.
These are developments which no one could have foreseen. To be fair to Russell, he did hedge his prediction. Speaking at a Bible Students convention in 1911 he said:
We are expecting in October, 1914, that a great change will be due. Now, how quickly will it come? Whether on the stroke of the clock or not we do not know. We believe that it will land upon humanity by that time. Perhaps some of it will come before that, but we believe it will be stayed off until that time. Now, dear friends, what if it does not? We are just as well off as the rest. That is what the Bible states. If it does not state that to you, we have no quarrel. And if it does not come we will not try to bring it about. But, on the contrary, we will try to practice peace and holiness withal. We are children of peace and peacemakers, not strife breeders. But we believe the Bible teaches October, 1914, as the time. If that is incorrect for a year, or five, or one hundred years, no matter, it is coming some time, whether we have it right or not. [Emphasis added.]
From transcript of Convention Report Sermons, 292.
In October 1916, when the Great War was over two years old, and before the U.S. had joined in, Russell wrote:
We could not, of course, know in 1889 [when The Time Is At Hand was first published], whether the date 1914, so clearly marked in the Bible as the end of the Gentile lease of power or permission to rule the world, would mean that they would be fully out of power at that time, or whether, their lease expiring, their eviction would begin. The latter we perceive to be the Lord’s program; and promptly in August, 1914, the Gentile kingdoms referred to in the prophecy began the present great struggle, which, according to the Bible, will culminate in the complete overthrow of all human government, opening the way for the full establishment of the Kingdom of God’s dear Son.
The Time is at Hand (Paul S.L. Johnson, ed; Philadelphia, USA, 1935), vi (Foreword).
However, Russell’s belief that Christ’s kingdom on earth would be set up soon after, proved inaccurate. Subsequent dates offered by others on the winding up of earth’s affairs have also self-evidently fallen on stony ground. Now, over a hundred years beyond 1914, most Bible students have curbed their appetite for predictions.
The disappointment felt by the ‘watchers’ of prophetic events should not be underestimated. It has weakened the faith of many. God’s promises and prophecies are sure, but they do not necessarily lend themselves to being distilled and defined according to our own limited views of time. It is evident that the fullness of historical time was not ripe in 1914; that the sins of Christendom or mankind in general were not as severe as they would yet become – or else we would not still be here now, waiting.
Failed predictions usually result from insufficient or misinterpreted data. One cannot simply extrapolate a result based on incomplete contemporary trends. Current events of any period have a way of overwhelming sober judgement, a perspective that can only be adjusted by looking back on them from a distance. However, we ought not to doubt the certainty of biblical prophecy – though we cannot know when or how these events will unfold.
Israel: The True Barometer
We do well to keep our eyes peeled for the one event which must reliably occur before Christ’s kingdom on earth is installed: the concerted attack on Israel, prophesied in Zech. 14:1-3. This event is of paramount consideration. But when will it occur – five, ten, fifteen years from now? And how might it come about? Given the involvement in the history of the Jewish nation, first by Great Britain, and since the 1960’s by the U.S., it is not unreasonable to expect an acrimonious and fatal shift in the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. This might be triggered by an alteration in America’s political or ideological stance toward Israel, or by an emasculation of American power, a weakness exploited by foreign powers, such as those introduced by the aforementioned rise of China. The Most High God rules in the affairs of men, setting up one nation and putting down another. It may be that the U.S. will be the last one of earth’s empires or superpowers.
Perhaps, to quote Dickens, we are in the ‘worst of times and the best of times’. At the very least, they will prove interesting.