A contest for China’s soul is under way in the country, pitting two powerful forces and two very different stances towards the outside world against each other. The outcome will have a major impact on whether China succeeds in becoming a nation capable of having truly constructive and durable relations with the rest of the planet.
On one hand, the nation’s economic revolution has helped position it as a confidant powerhouse of trade, a more responsible global powerbroker and even as a reassuring military presence. On the other, China remains trapped by a past and a mindset steeped in a sense of victimisation, which tempts it to export blame for internal problems.
The main question is whether China can escape the pull of this old psychological syndrome – which kept it preoccupied throughout the 20th century with debilitating sentiments of weakness, insecurity and humiliation – and allow itself to be guided by a new outlook on the world, and even on old enemies.
The anti-Japan demonstrations are a symptom of the old syndrome, fuelled by grievances born at a time when China was, indeed, aggrieved and humiliated. With China’s growing economic clout, rising standards of living, and increasingly respected place in the world, one would hope that the Chinese and their leaders would find a way to let go of the dead. Yet, even as the lustre of the “China miracle” dazzles the world, the Chinese seem loath to leave behind their dark feelings of victimisation. Instead of assuming a new national paradigm based on the reality of their accomplishments, China’s leaders cling to the old one of their country as the victim, the “sick man of Asia” being “cut up like a melon” by predatory imperial and colonial powers like Japan. That bitter memory of oppression and exploitation lingers in the minds of too many Chinese.
Of course, Japan did occupy China, committed unimaginable savagery, and has since paid no reparations or apologised in a convincing way. Nevertheless, what benefit does China gain by continuing to raise these issues? What is worth the risk of alienating the world’s second-largest economy and one of China’s most important trade partners?
First and foremost, aiding and inciting the expression of popular anger against Japan gives Communist Party leaders a powerful and readily available vehicle for rallying domestic support, thereby legitimising their own power. At the same time, the demonstrations represent China’s experience of the world as an unequal place where the weak are inevitably bullied, exploited and humiliated. This mindset suggests that despite the panoramic skylines and five-star hotels, China has a long way to go before it truly comes to understand and appreciate its actual accomplishments and status.
Of course, China’s wounded psyche and the desire for restitution from its former tormentors deserve sympathy. In this sense, China, like many countries, could be said to have something of a bipolar personality. Much of the emotional force of Mao Zedong’s revolution derived from the widespread sense of unequal treatment and humiliation by foreign powers, and this revolutionary fervour has never been properly interred.
Just as Mao’s portrait has never been taken down from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, so whole elements of his revolution continue to survive in China’s institutions, ways of thinking and modes of interacting with the world. Like recessive genes, they sometimes suddenly re-express themselves.
The role of victim is all too familiar to the Chinese, perhaps even somewhat comforting, for it provides a way to explain (and explain away) China’s problems. But it is also dangerous, because it derives from China’s old weaknesses rather than its new strengths. The era of Japanese militaristic and imperialist power has long gone, and the world is beating a path to China’s door. The last thing it needs is to remain trapped in the past.
Orville Schell, one of the foremost experts on China, is a dean at the University of California at Berkeley.
Copyright: Project Syndicate