The New York Times today notes the growing cult of Zheng He in China, the 15th-century mariner who led gigantic fleets across the Pacific and Indian oceans in the Ming Dynasty’s brief but impressive expansion of naval prowess. Statues are going up of the eunuch admiral (who happened to be a Muslim—a fact presumably not emphasized by China’s rulers), and a group of young Kenyans who claim Chinese ancestry due to an apocryphal Ming-era shipwreck on the East African coast have been invited to Beijing for ceremonies. The Times is quick to point out the obvious contemporary political context for this new personality cult:
Arguably for the first time since his final voyage in 1433, China is vying to become a major maritime power. Beijing has upgraded its navy with Russian-built Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyers, Kilo-class diesel submarines and a new nuclear submarine equipped to carry intercontinental ballistic missiles. It has flirted with the idea of building an aircraft carrier, according to conflicting reports in state media.
Sustained double-digit increases in defense spending have helped make China one of the largest military powers in the world, though still well behind the United States. China says it aims only to defend itself. But others are skeptical. “Since no nation threatens China, one wonders: why this growing investment?” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked recently in a speech on China’s buildup during a visit to Singapore last month.
The Chinese media are certainly full of homages to Zheng He. The People’s Daily notes that July 11 has been appointed national Navigation Day in honor of Zheng He. Xinhua July 15 notes the theory of a retired British naval officer that Zheng He discovered America, reaching the New World in 1421. The Chinapage.com page on Zheng He notes that not only did he sail the ocean blue generations before Columbus, but his ships were much, much bigger.
We have recently noted China’s renewed naval ambitions, and Beijing’s quest for oil security to fuel its industrialization and military expansion. Given this, and the Pentagon’s own stated policy aim to “prevent the emergence of a new rival,” a case can be made that the need to contain Chinese ambitions has more to do with why the US is in Iraq—sitting on top of one-half of the unrivaled Persian Gulf oil reserves, and perfectly positioned to police the other half—than the reasons stated either by Bush (the now completely-discredited WMD threat) or his critics (oil company profits, protecting Israel).
See our last post on China.