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Contentions

China’s National Identity

China scholars Orville Schell and John Delury are, of course, right that China needs a new national history which is not built around victimhood. For too long, as they note in the Wall Street Journal, Chinese students and ordinary citizens have been taught that their modern history began in 1843 with China’s humiliating capitulation to Great Britain in the First Opium War. This was followed by the creation of quasi-colonial “concessions” by the European powers and later Japan–a trend accelerated by China’s costly losses in future wars against the West (the Second Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion) and Japan (1894-1895, 1933-1945). Schell and Delury write that:

it is time for China and the more vociferous propagandists in Beijing to move beyond declarations about China’s “one hundred years of national humiliation.” That period has come to an end. The world has changed, China and the West have changed, and a new narrative is necessary for China to achieve its declared aim of equality and a “new type of great power relationship.”

Unfortunately, the chances of the current government in Beijing taking their advice are slim indeed, for the very simple reason that a major part of the rationale for the Communist Party’s monopoly on power is to excise China’s supposed history of humiliations. This was the same rationale, incidentally, as the Nationalist regime that the Communists overthrew. Both ideologies grew out of the attempts by early 20th-century leaders such as Sun Yat-sen to create a modern Chinese renaissance–both Chiang Kai-shek and his rival, Mao Zedong, were profoundly influenced by Sun Yat-sen.

Ironically, Mao’s heirs have completed Sun’s mission: Today China has not only the world’s largest population but also the second-largest economy, and within a few years it will surpass the U.S. economy in total size, if not in per capita wealth. China also has the second-largest military budget on the planet, and is growing increasingly powerful in East Asia and influential as far away as Latin America and Africa. By any standard, China has done spectacularly well since it began to shed its Maoist economy straitjacket in 1979. But its leaders cannot shed their ideological commitment to China as victim–an embattled state picked upon by powerful neighbors such as Japan and the United States–without calling into question their own fitness to rule without benefit of elections.


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