China and the apocalypse: How the West reinvents the end of history

Oct 23, 2023
Gary Sigley in China. 2023

After China entered the period of “reform and openness” in the 1980s, Western liberalism, embracing a form of ‘apocalyptic modernity’, adhered to the fantasy that China “would become like us.” What it meant in fact was that China “would become like us but be subservient to us”. If China was not going to “become like us [and be subservient to us]” it had to be put in its place. It is time to call this out.

With regard to China and its place in the international context, certain narratives and belief systems have deep roots. I’m not suggesting that every policy decision or policy maker is informed by the liberal eschatology that I shall outline below. What I am suggesting is that as mindful observers it is important that we be prepared to identify these people, institutions and governments and call them out.

The Hebrew Bible relates the story of how Daniel during his captivity in Babylon interpreted a prophetic dream of Nebuchadnezzar II of a statue that from head to toe is composed of gold, silver, bronze, and a mixture of iron and clay. The statue is destroyed by a stone which becomes a mountain “filling the whole world”, in other words the “eternal Kingdom of God”.

In the Early Modern Period – about the same time Columbus “discovers” the “New World” in 1492 – Daniel’s vision was interpreted as describing the succession of empires of antiquity, namely the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman empires. This was described in Latin as translatio imperii – literally, the succession of empires. The belief was that the divinity only ordained there to exist one empire at a time, namely, a “universal empire” ruled by a “universal monarch”. Through a divinely ordained process the “baton of history” was passed from one empire to the next. Ultimately, however, the “end of history” would prevail and the “eternal Kingdom of God” be established. This historical terminus would be preceded by “the apocalypse”.

A number of monarchs in Europe claimed to be legitimate successors of the Roman Empire and the Universal Monarch: Charlemagne, Ferdinand and Isabella, Dom Manuel, Charles V, and more besides. This view of imperial succession was also held in the Islamic world by figures such as Suleiman I and even the Mughal emperor Jalal al-Din Muhammad Akbar I. Translatio imperii and its core vision continued to adapt to new circumstances and was explicitly used to legitimate the British Empire in the 19th century. Napoleon in the early 1800s claimed that the Roman Empire had been reborn in France. Although the term begins to decline in favour, the essential idea of a single and legitimate “empire” that is divinely ordained continues to persist, and is clearly evident in the discourse of Pax Americana and American exceptionalism of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

I refer to the form of translatio imperii that develops from the 19th century onwards as a form of “liberal eschatology”. It is during this time that “liberalism” develops as a self-reflexive discourse of political philosophy and colonial expansion used to justify the ascendancy of the West at a global scale. This part of the story is well known. But it is only one part. The other part is the liberalism – very broadly defined – that embraces “apocalyptic modernity”. That is, liberalism as a narrative that is always searching for the signs of the “end of history”, signs that its vision of a “universal empire” in the form of, for example, a “global rules-based order”, are about to materialise. To reach this stage, however, requires first vanquishing the enemy, or in apocalyptic terms, the antichrist.

This entails a form of geopolitical foresight which, informed by the tradition of Judeo-Christianity, assigns the role of the antichrist, or arch enemy, to different political entities and ideologies. During the course of the 20th century, especially during the Cold War, it was the USSR and the ideology of Bolshevik Marxism that played this prophetic role. Post 9/11, when the US was the global hegemon and some had even declared “the end of history”, this role shifted to Islamic extremism (which it should be noted has its own apocalyptic eschatology).

For much of this time “China”, that is, the People’s Republic of China, was not on the radar. After China entered the period of “reform and openness” in the 1980s and as market reforms deepened from the 1990s onwards, Western liberalism adhered to the fantasy that China “would become like us”. What this implied was that China would open its markets to Western capitalism, and its culture, including its political culture, to Western modernity. Over time, the fantasy held, China would be integrated into the Western – that is, US–dominated world order. What it meant in fact was that China “would become like us but be subservient to us”. This is an essential tenet of translatio imperii in the form of its US exceptionalist incarnation, one informed by a mixture of Christianity and White supremacy.

However, for mindful observers, under the leadership of the CPC, China was always going to find its sovereign path. This finally became obvious to everyone with the ascent of President Xi Jinping from 2013. Suddenly China was no longer playing its part in the narrative of liberal eschatology. So the script had to change and “China” become the new antichrist.

In being sensitive to the changing status of “China” within this liberal eschatology, I began a detailed investigation of how “China” has appeared in Western, mainly US, Christian discourse and how this has dovetailed with changing geopolitical circumstances. I found that “China” didn’t begin to feature prominently in the various apocalyptic narratives of Christian writing until around 2007/2008 when for some it was apparent that, in the wake of the GFC, the global order was undergoing a dramatic transformation. This process of scriptural transformation, both in religious and cinematic terms, was accelerated by the experience of the global pandemic, which in itself was perceived by many as an apocalyptic event.

During this time China was literally demonised and anti-Chinese racism found new strength. The world of the conspiracy theorists went mainstream, and China was accused of wanting to “rule the world”, of co-opting the United Nations, of engaging in bio-warfare, and so on. The Western fear of the “Asiatic hordes” had returned (in fact it never went away). If China was not going to “become like us [and be subservient to us]” it had to be put in its place. Thus began the process of strategic realignment that we have seen occurring with the formation of the Quad, AUKUS and so on.

It is time to call this out.


This article is part of P&I’s extended series China: Perspectives beyond the mainstream media guest edited by Jocelyn Chey. View the series below:


China: Perspectives beyond the mainstream media

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