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Alfred Dawes | Board games of China and the West

Published:Sunday | August 7, 2022 | 12:08 AM

Go is an ancient board game developed by the Chinese about 4,000 years ago. Like chess, it is a strategy game but that is where the similarities end. Go is simpler, as there are only black and white stones placed permanently, while chess has...

Go is an ancient board game developed by the Chinese about 4,000 years ago. Like chess, it is a strategy game but that is where the similarities end. Go is simpler, as there are only black and white stones placed permanently, while chess has various pieces of particular strength and mobility. The object of chess is to kill a central figure, the king, while Go is an imperial game where the goal is to enclose as much territory as possible. The number of moves in Go far outstrips chess by several powers. When we say they’re playing checkers when we are playing chess, the real threat is the one playing Go.

The Chinese civilisation is the oldest culture in the world. The national identity of Chinese dates back thousands of years. Despite events that reduced their relevance on the world stage, the Chinese have maintained their homogeneous composition while other civilisations have waxed and collapsed. Ch’in unification of the warring states led to the beginning of imperial China two hundred years before the first true Western European empire was formed under the Romans; and while Europe was in the throes of the Dark Ages, China prospered.

The Han people make up 92 per cent of the population of China. This is not a multicultural society by any stretch of the imagination. Minorities such as the Uighurs are being re-educated in the way of the Han culture in internment camps according to Western media reports. Clashes in culture or religion are not regular occurrences. Ideological clashes from the civil war, through to the cultural revolution that saw widespread massacres and even cannibalism, are what have punctuated modern Chinese internal divisions. Now that the ancient dragon has healed its wounds with the widespread acceptance of its own version of communism, it can now look outward once more after hundreds of years of slumber.

The great Chinese fleet of nearly 3,000 ships undertook several voyages, reaching as far as East Africa in the early 15th century, before Columbus was even born. The power of China was flexed throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The importance of China in the world was seen in the Silk Road and the desperate attempts of Europeans to find a seaward trade route to the east, far away from the Ottomans’ land route hegemony.


For reasons unknown, the great fleet was grounded, and China adopted isolationism even as the Europeans built their empires off the exploitation of the Americas and Africa. It was a matter of time before China went into decline and the superpowers of the world came from the West for the next two centuries. Once the world’s largest economy, the Chinese were humiliated with forced opium trading and treaties. A later turn to republicanism did little to halt the chaos that had become a part of the fabric of life in China. Eventually after a long civil war, China became communist under Chairman Mao, with the defeated Nationalist Government fleeing to Taiwan. Mao lacked the firepower to invade Taiwan and an uneasy stalemate ensued, with both governments jockeying for the right to be called legitimate.

It is there that our game of Go begins. Mao miscalculated with a tremendous cost in human life when he attempted the great leap towards the necessary industrialisation of China. Over 30 million Chinese died. The cultural revolution led to even more deaths before China settled on its ideologies and opened to the West. From there it has been nothing short of a miraculous leap towards becoming the second largest economy in the world.

Being the factory of the world is not enough for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Influence and reunification are more important. It is a long-term plan that sees China carefully positioning its pieces on the world board in order to win by a slow march to imperialism. Securing the sources of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers high up in the Tibetan plateau is non-negotiable. Suppressing internal dissent with internment camps and silencing billionaires is necessary. Building out a modern military and the reclamation of islands in the South China Sea to build military bases are key moves to protect the important shipping strait of Malacca, as well as project its borders forward.


China has supersized the Silk Road with the Belt and Road Initiative. It is a major trading partner in the majority of African countries where access to mineral wealth may well be the deciding factor on who will be the world’s leading superpower. Strategic ports, airports and railway networks in Africa, Asia and an increasing presence in the Americas have made China an invaluable trading and development partner for many former colonies of the West.

China has set the board to create a seismic shift in the world order. With a 2,000-year history as a yardstick for time, while gaming democracies stuck in five-year election cycles, President for life Xi Jingping is in no hurry to cement his place in history as the leader who unified the motherland and reclaimed the glory of the Qing Empire. It is the endgame for many in the CCP alongside their leader.

The current sabre rattling and tough talk from both sides of the Pacific may escalate, but most likely will subside in short order. There are still pieces to be placed on the Go board. The United States has encircled China with military bases in stunning chess moves over the last eight decades. The question is whether 80 years was enough time for an eagle to play chess with a 2,000-year-old dragon playing a different game with its own rules.

Dr Alfred Dawes is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, and CEO of Windsor Wellness Centre. Follow him on Twitter @dr_aldawes. Send feedback to and