Nation, State, Nation-State

China’s Perspectives – Imperialism, Nationalism, or Global Sharing

Professor Hsin-chi Kuan

“My point of departure is that nationality, or, as one might prefer to put it in view of that word’s multiple significations, nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts of a particular kind. Tio understand them properly we need to consider carefully how they have come into historical being, in what ways their meanings have changed over time, and why, today, they command such profound emotional legitimacy”.

Benedict Anderson[1]

Nationalism under the leadership of Xi Jinping

Nationalism under Xi is multifaceted because there are many factors that have shaped the leadership and foreign policy of Xi: (1) two hundred years of trying to “stand up” to the West to overcome a grand humiliation since the Opium War (also call the Anglo-Chinese War, 4 September 1839 – 29 August 1842), (2) a haphazard process of two decades of turning outward again, (3) the contingency of Xi’s personality and biographical particulars that have moulded him as a strong and decisive leader and (4) the changed and changing domestic and international contexts.

The first factor listed above is deeply grounded in the history of China engaging with imperialism from the West. Until then, China had neither a concept of nation 民族, nor the term China 中國, or Chinese (中國人).[1] In the old days, political entities were organized as lineage based dynasties, such as Xia (華夏 2146-1675 B.C.) situated in Shanxi, Han (漢 late nineteenth century) in Northwest China, and Tang 唐 in Southeast China, and so on. The last dynasty is Qing 清 that lost the Opium War and signed the peace treaty of Nanking with Britain in the name 大清國 (The Great Qing State), not China. In daily conversation, along with the general expression of Chinese (zhongguoren 中國人), we often call ourselves huaren華人, hanren漢人, or tangren唐人.

Without the concept of nation, there was no concept of a nation-state or nationalism.[2]

Birth of Chinese Nationalism as Reaction against Western imperialism

The encroachment of imperialism upon the Qing dynasty gave rise to a discourse on causes of the defeat in the Opium War and ways to stand up again. The wish to stand up again is expressed emotionally as nationalism, a natural reaction to the humiliating defeat at the gun of a foreign country. In the search for salvation, the need to industrialization that is related to the advancement of military power was initially recognized. A movement was thus ushered to learn from the foreign practices (yangwu yundong). Later, they discovered that the strength of the Western countries lies far beyond industrial and military hardware. Therefore, modernization broadly understood was deemed indispensable too. It is with this second approach that the concept of “nation (guomin)” emerged as a hot subject of discourse among young intellectuals of the day. They assumed that the nation-state had become the modern structure of political power, and recognized that China’s independency in the larger world required the formation of a new identity. People began to consider or, in B. Anderson’s keyword, “imagine” who they were in a world of many nations. As a result, they found that the nation-state was a natural representation. The learning from foreign practices movement gave way in 1911 to a political revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat Sen. After the fall of the incompetent Qing dynasty, Dr. Sun established a nation-state in the form of a republic and presented a three-pronged blueprint for the task of nation-state building. What has transpired from these lines of history tracing is a theoretical alignment with Professor Hobsbawn’s insight on political development in the modern time that nationalism comes before nations. China is no exception. Key political leaders in modern China, from Dr. Sun Yat Sen, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping are nationalist first before they reflect upon (imagine) who the Chinese are, by tracing China’s miserable encounter with foreign powers. It is the nationalist emotion plus the desire to rise that has defined the craft of nation- and state-building in the late twentieth century.

A Republican Type of Nationalism with a Democratic Option

Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s three principles of the people were first formulated as slogans for the 1911 Republican Revolution. They were further elaborated in form of public lectures and subsequently consolidated as formal party ideology. The first principle defined nationalism in terms of opposition to imperialism and self-determination for the Chinese people. The second principle defined the political rights of the people as a foundation for the development of democracy. The third principle touches on people’s livelihood, especially equalization of land ownership. Behind these three principles of the people was a formulation of who counts as “the people” The five colors national flag of the Republic of China symbolizes the republican efforts to forge a new nation of “zhonghua minzu” which includes people from five major ethnicities living in the land, i.e. the Han, Manchurian, Mongolian, Uighur and Tibetan.

History was not on the side of Dr. Sun though. His revolutionary ideas remained arguments on paper after his death, as his successor Chiang Kai-shek turned them into dogmas for strengthening his power as Director-General/Chairman of the Kuomintang (National Party of the People). Later, after the defeat in the civil war with the Chinese Communist Party, he used Dr. Sun’s ideas to buttress authoritarian rule over Taiwan. The issues of the concept of nation, its implications for the legitimacy of who rules whom and their ultimate resolution, the processes of haphazard installation of democracy and its consolidation is a fascinating story that is beyond the coverage of this paper.

Nation, Nationalism and State-building in the People’s Republic of China from Mao Zedong to Hu Jin-Tao

Given its big size, long history, wide differences in terms of ethnicities, identity politics and socio-political ideologies, the issues of “nation” and “nationalism” are complex matters that resist any comprehensive conclusion. What is commonly known as han nationalism refers to a political culture of people living in the Central Plain of China, i.e. Shanxi.

The founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, admitted when he was 27 years old that he was a naïve nationalist. Being so naïve, he did not envisage building a state out of the nation, but rather preferred to see every Chinese province become an independent state. Well, all this must be credited to his monkey-like temperament as a youth. With age and experience, including all the hardships he endured and witnessed during the “Long March”,[3] he realized that China as a nation was a weak group in the world. He then quickly became a tiger, realistically aggressive, believing that guns could produce a regime and chaos bring changes, with the final ingredient being the minzuhun (soul of a nation) with which China would stand up again. With the above script, Mao spared no effort to conduct rounds of revolution and the like by means of mass movements/campaigns to facilitate the building of a new nation-state. Key events include:

A.   “Anti-corruption, Anti-wastage and Anti-bureaucratism” campaign (1951-52)

B.    “Hundred flowers” campaign (1956-57)

C.    “Anti-Rightist” campaign (1957-58)

D.   “Great Leap Forward” campaign (1958-61)

E.    “Destruction of ‘the four old’ i.e. old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits” campaign (1966-76)

F.    “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (1966-76).

Apart from human deaths, the great proletarian revolution brought stagnation in agriculture and industry, and damage to different kinds of infrastructure required for modernization.

As the successor of the skeptical Mao who embraced a closed-door strategy vis-à-vis the Western world, Deng Xiaoping introduced an open-minded policy of opening and reform, willing to learn from the West and committing serious efforts to promote “the four modernizations” in areas of industry, agriculture, national defense and science and technology. In terms of setting the priority, Deng’s attention clearly focused on domestic affairs. When it comes to foreign policy, he was cautiously reserved, following a strategy of defensive realism with the slogan of biding time (韜光養晦) and avoiding any engagement with international organizations. After Deng had brought China back from chaos to growth, Jiang Zemin was able to take a bold step to engage the world by acquiring membership in the World Trade Organization, believing that such a connection would end China’s exclusion from the world club and upgrade the status of the Chinese nation in global governance. Compared to Deng’s “biding the time” posture, Jiang’s mottos for his nationalist foreign policy were “observe calmly, respond with composure, grasp any opportunity and follow the trend to benefit”.

The trend remained beneficial to Hu Jintao, who became the new leader of China in November 2002. Against the background of 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the US-Iraqi war, on 20 March 2003 the Chinese government, under the new leadership of Hu Jintao, attempted to develop a new strategy of “the responsible state”, as a complement to his theory of heping jueqi (peaceful rise [on the world stage]). A statistic speaks volumes about Hu’s change of strategy. China had, under the pretext of “non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries”, abstained, in its capacity as one of the five permanent members of the Council, from voting in the Security Council of the United Nation 29 times. And China never vetoed any resolution from 1990 to 1996. Then, on 24 May 2004, China instead took the initiative to amend the US draft about the way of ending the Iraq war by proposing a different motion, that “The united army of US and UK must definitely leave Iraq on the day of electing the new government, a date that may be amended only upon the agreement of both the Security Council and the Iraq government”. Such a move was taken by the top leadership in Beijing as an expression of responsibility and respect towards the United Nations. It also reflects China’s growing confidence as a heavy stakeholder in the system of global governance.

Aggressive Nation- and State-building under Xi Jing Ping

On 12 November 2012 Xi Jinping was elected at the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party as its new General Secretary, thereby completing the once a decade transfer of power to a new generation of leaders. Vice-President and heir-apparent Xi Jinping took over as party chief and assumed the presidency on 14 March 2013. What is in store for China then? Let us first take a quick look at Xi’s growing up as a politician.

“Xi was born a princeling, the son of Xi Zhongxun, a former Director of the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party. His childhood was an asset because of his acquaintance with other princelings and understanding of political life within Zhongnanhai. At the age of 16, Xi spent seven formative years of hard labor in dusty Northwest China as a victim of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution when his father was charged and imprisoned for being a member of the anti-Party clique. The suffering turned out to be a blessing, for he gained a deep understanding of the countryside and the peasants, so much so that he once described himself as ‘always a son of the Yellow Earth’. Xi’s fortune turned around at the end of the Cultural Revolution. In 1974 he was admitted to the CCP as a member. The next year, he was admitted to Qinghua University, with only credentials of primary education. Upon graduation, he became the personal secretary (a confidential post) to Geng Biao, General Secretary of the Central Military Commission, and a member of the CCP’s Politburo and Vice Premier. Three years later he started a long career at the grassroots level (1982-2006), first as Party secretary of Beiding county in Hebei, later moving to Party and government leadership positions at municipal and provincial levels (Xiamen, Fuzhou, Zhejiang, Fujian), and ending up as Party Secretary of Shanghai. At the 17th Party Congress in 2007 when he was merely a member of the Central Committee, Xi was elected directly into the Standing Committee of the Politburo, without first going through the Politburo membership. Key posts quickly followed in 2010 when he became President of the Central Party School, Vice-Chairman of the PRC and Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Summing up his “professional” career of 25 years, from 1982 to 2012, when he was elected to become the General Secretary of the Party, he held 17 posts, i.e. less than 2 years in each on average. He must therefore have mastered the political tricks necessary to move forward in good and opportune times”.[4]

Modernization, Nationalism and the New World Order

Before we continue with the analysis of Xi’s effort to rejuvenise the Chinese nation, it is in order to discuss the historical context under which China was introduced to Western civilization in 1583 (the 11th year of the Ming Dynasty) when a Jesuit father, Matteo Ricci, came to China, bringing with him Christianity and Western knowledge of astronomy, geography, science and technology. He was warmly received by Chinese scholars who called him a 泰西賢士 (Western Confucianist). In contrast, the British Opium war against China in 1842 ushered in a completely different reaction. What Chinese experienced then was humiliation. What followed were different kinds of reflections and movements. The once strong and admired China of the Ching dynasty collapsed as a combined result of bad harvests, warfare, rebellions, overpopulation, economic disasters, and foreign imperialism.

The origin of a new political order for China

In his page-turning book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, Francis Fukuyama presents a deep analysis of the state as a modern political institution. How different are state-level societies from tribal ones? He defines “the state” as consisting of “First, they possess a centralized source of authority… Second, that source of authority is backed by a monopoly of the legitimate means of coercion… Third, the authority of the state is territorial rather than kin based... and finally, states are legitimated by much more elaborate forms of religious belief”. The follow-up question is how did the Chinese state arise? Chapter 7 provides the answer. In a snapshot, “genuine states” began to coalesce during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 B.C.). They established standing armies, created bureaucracies for taxation, law-making etc., mandated weights and measures and built infrastructure like roads, canals, irrigation systems. The kingdom of Qin even democratized the army by bypassing the warrior aristocrats and directly conscripting masses of peasants, and promoted social mobility by undermining the power and prestige of the hereditary nobility.[5]

What has transpired in the above is a snapshot of the evolving concept of the state as consisting of the following elements: territory, military defense and a top governor. The idea of “nation” or “nation-state” was not involved in the historical process of state formation.[6] As argued by Martin Jacques, China as a “nation-state” dates back only about 150 years.[7]

China as a “Civilization State” and its Implications

To invoke civilization is history tracing. It is first a vague and sometimes ideology-loaded concept of social-cultural progression from savagery, barbarism, maturity and eventually superiority. The concept itself has been popularized by Zhang Weiwei of Fudan University, China. In his book published in 2012,[8] Professor Zhang argues that the rise of China is due to her adhesion to a developmental strategy based on the Confucian culture and exam-based meritocracy.

Confucian culture (or Confucianism) as an ethical practice is grounded in the following elements: xiu shen (cultivation of one’s self), before climbing up the ladder of qi jia (keeping your family in good order), zhi guo (governing your state well), and ping tianxia (bringing peace to the world), with the emphasis put on the family, and the state as foundationally anchored in the family, so much so that the word “state” is sometimes spelled in Chinese as guo-jia.

When Confucianism is relied on as a political tool, the resultant governance becomes feudal, patriarchal and authoritarian, as attested to by several millennia of dynastic rule in China. In other words, China is prepared and equipped to threaten other states if needed, notwithstanding its status as a “civilization state”. On the other hand, material preparedness does not necessarily lead to an actual outbreak of war. The outbreak of warfare depends on a host of factors. Among them, four stand out: culture, interest, geo-political strategy and, particularly, leadership that translate the other three into belligerent actions. Starting with the issue of culture, two strategic traditions stand out – Confucian teaching on peace & harmony on the one hand, and parabellum[9] based on realist belief on the other. In the former case, Confucian teaching on peace & great harmony (大同 datong) applies. China could be less assertive and more others-regarding; according to realism however, China can be an assertive status quo power, as attested to by Alastair Iain Johnson.[10] A prominent example is evident in East and Southeast Asia where a kind of Chinese Monroe doctrine applies. In the same realist vein, it goes without saying that if China is weak, it can’t afford to be assertive, not to speak of aggressive. It could then be a self-inflicted isolationist. I’ll come to speak about the different positionings by different leaders in different periods.

Today, Confucianism is highly revered by the Chinese government as a hallmark of a civilized state. In addition, it is appreciated as a humanist advocacy about the common destiny of humankind and logically deemed desirable to be promoted overseas. On 24 September 2014 China’s president Xi Jinping addressed an academic conference to commemorate the 2565 birthday of Confucius with the following words:[11]

Maintaining world peace and promoting common development require a multi-pronged approach. The most important one is to establish the concept of peaceful development in peoples’ minds, exactly like what is carved in the front stone of the UNESCO Headquarters. It goes as follows: “The war originated from the thoughts of people, so it is necessary to build a barrier as a defense of peace in the minds of men.... The Chinese nation has always been a peace-loving nation, and peace-loving has deep roots in Confucianism. ... Peace-loving ideas are deeply embedded in the spiritual world of the Chinese nation. Today, peace-loving is still the basic concept of China’s handling of international relations”.

China as an Arrogant State

While China was presented in the above as a civilized state, from another perspective it can be said to have been “imperialist” from its very beginning[12] or at least “arrogant” as suggested by several ideological expressions. In 1046 BCE when the Zhou kingdom was established, its emperor created the concept of the mandate of heaven (tianming) to justify its replacement of the Shang and, at the same time, establish itself as the only legitimate ruler of the universe (tiandi, tianxia), with the blessings of Heaven (tian). Such a string of ideas suggests an arrogant state at the centre of a theoretically unlimited territory. The term “China” in Chinese (Zhong guo 中國)[13] carries an arrogant connotation: “a state in the centre of the world”. It then goes without saying that the state of China is expansionist, if not outright “imperialist”, defined as “a practice of outright acquisition of territory and extension of dominion by military force”.

A caveat is however in order. No doubt China has had both strong and weak dynasties, but all of them shared a common trait: that is the reach of the state has been weak. If this is true for domestic affairs, China’s foreign relations in the old days must also have been quite shallow. Only since the Ming or even the middle Qing dynasties (roughly late-18th century) did a loose network of international trade relations start to develop between China and its neighbouring countries, leading to the evolution of a loose set of expectations and precedents that scholars refer to as a “tributary system”, under which symbolic obeisance and offer of tributes were exchanged with assurance of peace, investiture, and trading opportunities. Examples include Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and the Ryukyu Kingdom.

China as a nation-state with growing power and the China Threat Thesis

To accurately understand and effectively respond to the rise of China, Michael D. Swaine and Ashley J. Tellis of Rand Corporation argued that we must recognize China’s grand strategy as grounded in its historical experience, its political interests, and its geostrategic environment. In their views, this grand strategy is keyed to the attainment of three interrelated objectives: “first and foremost, the preservation of domestic order and well-being in the face of different forms of social strife; second, the defence against persistent external threats to national sovereignty and territory; and third, the attainment and maintenance of geopolitical influence as a major, and perhaps primary, state”.[14]

China as a growing power cannot help stir up some fear of its ultimate intention. As early as 23 April 1992 the US National Security Council already touted the idea of “China threat” in its National Planning Guidance (DPG) report and called for concerted efforts to prevent the rise of China as a military competitor to the US.[15] This fear is a modern form of the old “Yellow Peril” metaphor captured in a Wikipedia article as follows.[16] [17]

The China threat thesis is certainly one of the hottest topics on the Internet and no one has attracted as much attention in the US as Tucker (Swanson McNear) Carlson,[18] a conservative political commentator on Fox News since 2016.[19]

Besides, there are material underpinnings to the “China Threat Thesis”, including China’s rate of economic growth[20] in the three and a half decades since Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening” policy of development was launched in 1978. China boasted GDP growth rates of between 9.5% to 11.5% per year. During this period, the year 2008 ushered in a difficult period of natural disasters,[21] recession, crises, a record-breaking stock market crash,[22] and uneven recovery. After 2008 China’s strategy shifted to reducing debt risk and boosting aggregate demand while employing massive economic stimuli to encourage domestic consumption and investment, thereby decreasing its vulnerability to external shocks. It was at this time that China began to invest in infrastructure, building nearly 30,000 kilometres of high-speed railway to increase connectivity, facilitate closer regional economic ties as to propel urbanization. All in all, the goal is to advance political, cultural, military and scientific-technical might.

The accepted projection is thus that China is destined to become a superpower in competition for global hegemony with the United States as an established power. Graham Allison, author of the celebrated best-selling book “Essence of Decision” that deals with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 even goes so far as to warn that the two big powers will be locked in the “Thucydides trap” leading eventually to war.[23]

Writing on the webpage of London School of Economics Emerging Power Forum on the belt and road initiative of China, John Raji offers a more balanced account.[24] The initiative is a huge entreprise. Its flagship project, the 62 billion USD project of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), together with the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor (BCIMC) will span one third of global trade in terms of GDP and more than 60% of the world’s population. Given the magnitude of the initiative, it is no wonder there are some negative perceptions.

Another alternative query about the worth of China’s One Belt One Road (henceforth OBOR) Initiative is to examine where the benefits go. According to the Borgen Project,[25] both China and the recipient countries benefit from the OBOR project. It enables China to play a greater role in the world and distribute its wealth along a China-dominated trading network. Apart from the Chinese state, individual Chinese companies and workers are direct beneficiaries of the OBOR project in terms of jobs and occasional parallel trading. On the other hand, China’s initiative helps the recipients – developing countries – to improve their transportation, energy production and trade.[26] So, what evidence can be presented to justify the “China Threat Thesis”?

Efforts of the Chinese governments to construct a new nation-state after the First World War

The encroachment of imperialism upon the Qing dynasty gave rise to a discourse on the causes of defeat in the war and ways to stand up again. The wish to stand up again is expressed emotionally as nationalism, a natural reaction to the humiliating defeat at the gun of a foreign country. In the search for salvation, the need for industrialization that is related to the advancement of military power was initially recognized. A movement was thus ushered in to learn from foreign practices (yangwu yundong). Later on they discovered that the strength of the Western countries lay far beyond industrial and military hardware. Therefore, modernization broadly understood was deemed indispensable too. It is in this second approach that the concept of nation (guomin) emerged as a hot subject of discourse among young intellectuals of the day. They assumed that the nation-state had become the modern structure of political power, recognized that China’s independence in the larger world required the formation of a new identity and found that the nation-state was a natural representation. The learning from foreigners movement gave way in 1911 to a political revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat Sen. After the fall of the incompetent Qing dynasty, Dr. Sun established a nation-state in the form of a republic and presented a three-pronged blueprint for the task of nation-state building. What has transpired from these lines of history tracing is a theoretical alignment with Professor Hobsbawn’s insight on political development in the modern time, that nationalism comes before nations. China is no exception. Key political leaders in Modern China, from Dr. Sun Yat Sen, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping are nationalists first before they reflect upon who the Chinese are by tracing China’s miserable encounter with foreign powers. It is the nationalist emotion plus the desire to rise up that has defined the craft of nation- and state-building in the late twentieth century.

A Republican Type of Nationalism with a Democratic Option

Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s three principles of the people were first formulated as slogans for the 1911 Republican Revolution. They were further elaborated in form of public lectures and subsequently consolidated as formal party ideology. The first principle defined nationalism in terms of opposition to imperialism and self-determination for the Chinese people. The second principle defined the political rights of the people (elections, initiatives, referendums and recalls) as a foundation for the development of democracy. The third principle touched on people’s livelihood, especially equalization of land ownership. Behind these three principles was a formulation of who counts as “the people”. The five colors in the national flag of the Republic of China (1912-1928) symbolize the republican efforts to forge a new nation of “zhonghua minzu” which include people from five major ethnicities living in the land, i.e. the Han, Manchurian, Mongolian, Uighur and Tibetan.

History was not on the side of Dr. Sun though. His revolutionary ideas remained arguments on paper after his death, as his successor Chiang Kai-shek turned them into dogmas for strengthening his power as Director-General/Chairman of the Kuomintang (National Party of the People), and later, after the defeat in the civil war with the Chinese Communist Party, he used Dr. Sun’s ideas to buttress his authoritarian rule over Taiwan. The issues of the concept of nation, its implications for the legitimacy of who rules whom, their ultimate resolution by tolerating the opposition movement, introduction of democratic elections and the more present processes of democratic consolidation are fascinating stories that are beyond the coverage of this paper.

A Maoist Type of Nationalism with a theory of constant revolutions

Mao Zedong, on the other hand, could boast that under him China had ‘stood up’, but for what? Mao had in fact two faces. He embraced the Marxist-Leninist brand of internationalism but relied on Chinese nationalism to win the civil war.

In the early 1990s when Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought in China started to erode as a part of the worldwide crisis of communism, state legitimacy experienced an acute crisis. The expectation was that nationalism would have to fill the void created by the ‘crisis of confidence’ and by the collapse of the myth of socialism as a magic wand for development. Yet, the road was hard to tread, as argued by Lucian Pye, an astute observer of Chinese culture in evolution. He wrote in 1993 that “the relationship between nationalism and modernization has taken a form in China that is different from what occurred anywhere else”. To him, the essence of modernization is a blending of parochial cultural values and the universal norms associated with world culture, defined as international standards, universalistic knowledge, such as science and technology, and the values and practices appropriate for advanced contemporary societies, while nationalism involves only those sentiments and attitudes basic to orientations toward the nation-state. Above all it is important to distinguish Chinese nationalism from all the powerful sentiments associated with Chinese cultural and ethnic identity. To understand the likely direction of Chinese historical development we also need to have a clear sense of the more specific ideals, myths, heroes, and symbols that can inspire Chinese nationalism as the Chinese seek the goals of modernization. Elsewhere in the post-colonial world nationalism and modernization were reinforcing forces, but in China they have been essentially antagonistic forces. Elsewhere the articulators of nationalism were the most modernized people in the country. Westernized intellectuals were the people who gave voice to the new ideals of independence and nationalism. The anti-colonial leaders of South and Southeast Asia and of Africa were people like Nehru and Gandhi, Nkrumah and Sukarno who were at home in both the modern world and their respective traditional cultures. They had out of their own life experiences a vivid sense of the challenge of combining modern and traditional practices. In contrast, in China political power was never firmly in the hands of the best-educated or the most modernized people. Those who have held supreme political power in Mainland China have reflected mainly the cultures of the interior of China, and few have experienced a deep immersion in the modern world or even spoken a foreign language. … Thus, from the Boxer rebellion to the latest ‘anti-spiritual pollution’ campaign, the Chinese political class has routinely treated modern, Western-educated Chinese as being tainted, flawed people, unworthy of being leaders of Chinese nationalism. Unlike in other countries, many Chinese intellectuals have at times adopted a totally hostile view towards their own great traditional culture, calling for the complete rejection of the past and a boundless adoption of Western culture. There have also been times when other leaders, and particularly some intellectuals, have gone to the opposite extreme and tried to idealize Chinese traditions. But what was idealized were not the realities of living Chinese mass culture; it was indeed an abstraction of a romanticized past. Thus, between the two extremes of either nihilistically denouncing Chinese civilization or romanticizing it, most Chinese intellectuals and political leaders have consistently failed to do what their counterparts in the rest of the developing world have tried to do, which was to create a new sense of nationalism that would combine elements of tradition with appropriate features of the modern world culture. Their dream was how to build up a strong state, not so much a democratic state of the people, by the people and for the people. Given the collectivistic goal and the elitist orientation, it was easy for the movement to end up with the monopolistic rule of the Party, be it the National People’s Party in Taiwan or the Chinese Communist Party. The above analysis of Chinese nationalism is confined to the level of elites, political or otherwise. What about the men on the street? There have always been press reports about nationalist outbursts from time to time. But serious study is almost void,[27] until the publication of the book Deconstructing the Chinese Dream: The Dynamics of Chinese Nationalism and Sino-American Relations (1999-2014)[28] authored by Simon Shen. Shen argues that nationalism in China is multi-faceted depending on three interrelated levels of analysis (A. the Chinese Communist Party, the government and the military; B. the general intelligentsia, scholars or reporters specialized in international relations; C. the common people, including the mass media) and other not easily classifiable platforms of expression (e.g. “diplomatic” dialogues among states or societies, occasions of cultural exchanges, festivals, and tombstoning in honor of martyrs, heroes etc.). On the part of government, experienced deployment is always ready to guide, control and sometime follow the public mood and thereby reconfirms the steering power of the state, sometimes facilitates its bargaining power in diplomatic struggles, and ultimately stabilizes political and social stability too.

The China dream of the Chinese communist leaders is more concrete and contextualized. It has moved from a more reserved and introvert mode through stages up to the pursuit of a super-power status. Mao Zedong’s dream was quite conservative, i.e. just to enable China to stand up in a hostile world. Deng Xiaoping adopted a positive posture towards the outside world, deciding to learn the best practices of the West, and eventually accepted capitalism as the right course for China’s reforms, especially in economy. The catch word adopted was “to let China get rich while keeping a low profile in its foreign relations (韜光養晦 [taoguanyanghui])”. Compared to his predecessor, Jiang Zemin was a leader who wanted to show off his talents. He produced a theory of three representatives,[29] to specify what the Chinese Communist Party stood for in terms of making the state strong and the Party more representative and hence legitimate as the ruler of China. Thanks to his extrovert orientation, China became a member of the World Trade Organization. Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao turned out to be a controversial figure. On the positive side, China’s economic growth registered more than 8 percent each year during his reign. His timely and strong fiscal stimulus managed to save the country from devastation during the world financial crisis in 2007-2008. His legacy must be praised with a long list of accomplishments beyond material progresses. Under his supervision, Beijing successful staged the Summer Olympics in 2008 and pushed through space exploration with the launch of a manned spacecraft and space station. He also exhibited a strong stride with a diplomatic reach to Africa. By 2005 the total Sino-African trade had reached US$39.7 billion before it jumped to US$55 billion in 2006, making China the second largest trading partner of Africa after the United States, which had trade worth US$91 billion with African nations. At the same time, China’s influence also grew in South America and the Caribbean. The most eye-catching deal played by Hu Jintao during his visit to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Cuba in November 2004, was a sum of US$100 billion worth of investment over the next decade. In one instance, China encroached upon the interest of the United States by taking up the modernization of Cuba’s transportation system. Finally, China was also stepping up its military-to-military contact in the region and, by the way, offered military training at the US’ expense too. In the Caribbean, the increasing presence of China in terms of trade, credits, and investments represent a way for local countries to reduce their over-dependence on the United States. Improvement of relations between China and the European Union also took place during the era of Hu Jintao. In November 2005 the General Secretary visited the UK, Germany and Spain, with a clear message of a strong eagerness to enter greater political and economic cooperation with European countries.

On the negative side of the balance sheet, he is charged by outside observers as being obsessed with stability, thereby leaving aside several important problems, for instance, environmental degradation and widening income inequality. Furthermore, by pushing China’s interest in the East China Sea too hard, he pushed Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines further in the USA camp.[30]

China has since 14 March 2013 entered a new era, with Xi Jinping elected to be the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Xi is an extraordinary man who regards himself as on par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. It is useful to review him as a person, before discussing his ideology and political deeds. Let me start with a quote from a recently published book about Xi: “If you were to write a work of fiction on how to have a perfect presidency, you couldn’t do better: no opposition, a strong economy and an American President who seems to be a bigger fan of Xi Jinping than Xi Jinping is himself”.[31]

Xi was elected directly onto the Standing Committee of the Politburo, without having to go through Politburo membership first. Key posts soon fell into his hands in the same year. In 2010 he became the President of the Central Party School, Vice-Chairman of the People’s Republic of China and Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Summing up his “professional” career of 25 years, from 1982 to 2012, when he was elected to become the General Secretary of the Party, he has held 17 posts, i.e. less than 2 years in each on average. He must have mastered the political trick to move forward both in good times and in bad. What such a personal profile portrays is a personality of perseverance, restraint, circumspection, and low-keyness, at least in the early years of his colourful career. Initially, he certainly got to know the time of the day, namely to “follow the established rules [蕭規曹隨(xiaoguicaosui)]”, in order to consolidate his power. About five years later, he has finished with the project of getting rid of his competitors, reorganizing Party as well as state organizations, and putting them all in his own hands.[32] Last year (2018) the National People’s Congress voted 2,958 in favor, two opposed and three abstaining to pass an amendment to the Constitution abolishing presidential term limits. The decision is seen as an epitome of his political craft. Such a speed of power consolidation has not been seen since the era of Mao Zedong. His political craft does not end within the political hierarchy, but also in dealing with the society. After his political power had been secured, he managed to have several comprehensive, harsh laws passed, to cleanse, in the name of national security, undesirable material or ideational developments in the recent past, such as advocacy for human rights, freedom of speech, civil society and contentious political actions. “National security” has now become the imperial sword of the Big Brother Xi.[33]

Xi Jinping on The Chinese Nation and its Rejuvenation

Having dealt primarily with Xi Jinping as a person in an authoritarian state, it is time to turn to his political ideas and enterprises. In regard of political ideals, Xi is a staunch nationalist. He gave a speech during his visit to an exhibition on “The Road to Rejuvenation” on 18 November 2012, in which he declared: “I believe that realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream of the Chinese nation in modern time”.[34] The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” has become a frequent topic in Xi’s speeches elsewhere. Yet, what does this national rejuvenation mean? While he has never given any further and systematic elaboration, there are occasional comments he has made in speeches that may shed more light on our query. In one speech to the youth, he regarded young people as having the pivotal role in realizing this dream of national rejuvenation. In another comment, he referred to the endowment of the Chinese nation. It reads as follow: “Innovation is the soul of national progress, an inexhaustible source of national prosperity, but also the deepest national endowment of the Chinese nation”. On yet another occasion, he commented about with “the Chinese nation’s self-improvement spirit of struggle” as the cause for the effect that “China has transformed from poverty and weakness to today’s development and prosperity”[35] Yet, what do all these comments have in common? It is about a destiny not yet fully realized. The aspiration or dream of national rejuvenation or revitalization (fuxing) is a theme not unique to Xi. It is inherited from the grand theme of reform discourse in the past decades.

What is indeed the benchmark for Xi’a “national rejuvenation?” The image in his mind is probably the Tang, Song and perhaps even Yuan dynasty when China’s power, both hard and soft, could project very far. Therefore, Xi’s ambition does not stop with rejuvenation only, but extend to secure a respectable place under the sun. This aspiration has not been laid bare for the time being. China has, as a status-quo stakeholder, membership in all major international organizations such as the United Nations, World Trade Organization, World Health Organization, International Monetary Fund, etc., China not only plays an active and supportive role in all of them, but additionally uses them to promote, aggressively, its development of global power status. Initially, as an authority-seeking stakeholder, Xi seems to focus on measured competition with the US. In this framework, Xi advanced a theory of “a new mode of relations between big powers”.[36] It is, firstly, a modest overture appealing to his American counterpart that the two countries should respect each other, endeavor to cooperate on a friendly, win-win basis, and to resort to peaceful negotiations for resolving differences and conflicts.[37] This overture should ensure that the two powers prevent their rivalry from spiraling out of control. Furthermore, it envisages that the two big powers practically reach a reconciliation by craving the world into sphere of influence. This theory is based on his optimistic assessment of China’s development in international relations as on course from periphery or semi-periphery to the center, or closer to the centre of the global stage while not yet quite on par with the US, but certainly closer than ever to fulfilling the Chinese dream of national renewal. This movement to the centre of the world is to Xi irreversible despite disputes with president D. Trump on issues of trade, South China Sea and Taiwan. Therefore, China should henceforth behave like a big power in all international dimensions. In this connection, President Xi proposed, on 28 September 2015 to the United Nations a common goal for all member states to “forge a new partnership of win-win cooperation and create a community of shared future for mankind”.[38] The grand plan of Xi is to bravely reform the world system and grasp the leadership in global governance in the name of global sharing, thus making China a revisionist stakeholder. Such an intention is unambiguously articulated in his November 2012 speech, with the key message of a need for steadfast reform of the current international economic and financial systems, and global governance mechanisms. To prepare China for both eventualities, Xi has helped establish several new international institutions.[39] Beyond all these, the most important initiative recently launched refers to the OBOR Project that serves several purposes.[40] The chief purpose is to project China’s influence all the way westwards up to the South Atlantic world. The attraction of the project for the host countries is the construction of infrastructure such as roads, railroads and ports. The reality is that the project does not always meet the local people’s expectations. Suffice it to cite a few prominent examples. First, China defeated Japan in the International Jakarta Bandung high-speed railway project that is estimated to cost US$5.5 billion. China Development Bank has committed to fund 75 percent of the project costs with loan terms of 40 years for the loan – with an initial grace period of 10 years – with a fixed loan rate. The contract was signed on 16 October 2015 but as of now nothing at all has been done despite the long elapse of the construction commencement date.

A second remarkable case happened in Malaysia, where a double-track East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) is supposed to be built connecting Port Klang on the Straits of Malacca to Kota Bharu in northeast Peninsular Malaysia, connecting the East Coast Economic Region states of Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan to one another and to Peninsular Malaysia’s west coast and Central Region e.g. Negeri Sembilan. Construction began in August 2017 but was suspended on 3 July 2018, only to be recommenced after Malaysia Rail Link Sdn Bhd (MRL) and China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) agreed to sign a supplementary protocol in April 2019 on the revised construction cost and southern alignment of the rail link. In the midst of this deplorable process, Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister of Malaysia, said after meeting his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang in July 2018 that “we don’t wish a situation to arise when a new version of colonialism emerges because poor countries cannot compete with the rich ones”. The background is that after winning the recent general election, he had second thoughts about the development costs of the railway project (about US$197.5 to be divided into construction and financing costs). Further dissatisfaction with the Malaysia-China deal has to do firstly with the high cost of Chinese loans, secondly, the propensity of Chinese contractors to engage Chinese labourers only, thirdly, the fact that all construction materials must be imported from China and, finally, that all talks and negotiations about the project were conducted in China. Construction was therefore called to be suspended indefinitely on 4 July 2018. On 26 January 2019 both sides announced the cancellation of the speed railway plan. For whatever reasons unknown to this author, the project was rescued after the construction costs were revised downward and the southern part of the rail link reopened in April 2019.[41]

The third case, Pakistan, is the most glaring example of local frustration with China’s OBOR initiative. It is known that China-Pakistan relations are the closest and friendliest of all China’s neighboring countries. Given its geopolitical strategic importance, Pakistan serves as the key state for China’s projection of economic, political and military power in the region. All in all, Xi’s OBOR project must have been received as a big gift by the Pakistanis. The reality turned out to be otherwise. “The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”[42] is intended as the flagship of Xi’s OBOR programme and has received praise from political leaders from both countries. Yet, after five years in construction, the project invited a host of reproach and worries: the debt trap, increase in trade deficit, real benefits generated from the project and fairness of the deal,[43] instability caused by attacks,[44] etc. From the viewpoint of Pakistan, the most important value of Xi’s project is to stimulate its industrial modernization.

Conclusion

1.   China is nationalistic, performing, authoritarian, and revisionist in the sense that it accepts the basic, liberal rules of the world order but is dissatisfied with its status in the hierarchy.

2.  Authoritarian governance combined with capitalist economics has elevated China to the status of an emerging super-power in the world.

3.  President Xi believes that China’s model of modernization is successful and should be recommended to other developing states.[45]

4.  According to a worldwide public opinion survey undertaken by PEW, “the United States and China now compete to be the more favored world power”, and both of them “engender the same level of goodwill”.[46]

 

END NOTES

 

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised Ed. London, N.Y.: Verso 1991.
[2] Martin Jacques, When China rules the world: the end of the Eastern world and the birth of a new global order, 2nd ed.; on the issue of state-building, it is useful to read Francis Fukuyama’s page-turning book The Origin of Political Order, especially chapter 7, “War and rise of the Chinese state”. He presents there a deep analysis of the state as a modern political institution. How different are state-level societies from tribal ones? The answer lies in the basic ingredients of “the state” as consisting of “First, … a centralized source of authority, … Second that source of authority is backed by a monopoly of the legitimate means of coercion, … Third, the authority of the state is territorial rather than kin based, … Finally, states are legitimated by much more elaborated forms of religious belief”. The follow-up question is how did the Chinese state arise? Chapter 7 provides the answer. In a snapshot, “genuine states” began to coalesce during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 B.C.). They established standing armies, created bureaucracies for taxation, law-making etc., mandated weights and measures and built infrastructure like roads, canals, irrigation systems. The kingdom of Qin even democratized the army by bypassing the warrior aristocrats and directly conscripting masses of peasants, and promoted social mobility by undermining the power and prestige of the hereditary nobility. What has transpired in the above is a snapshot of the evolving concept of the state as consisting of the following elements: territory, military defence and a top governor. The historical formation of “nation-state” started first as a European phenomenon after the 1500s, whereas a Chinese nation-state dates back only about 150 years, as argued by Martin Jacques in his book When China rules the world: the end of the Eastern world and the birth of a new global order, 2nd edition, London: Penguin 2012.
[3] The Long March by the Chinese Communist Party as an escape from the persecution of the Guomindang took place from 1934 to 1935, covering 10,000 km, which resulted in the relocation of the communist revolutionary base from southeastern to northwestern China and in the emergence of Mao Zedong as the undisputed party leader.
[4] This long paragraph is copied from Hsin-chi Kuan, “China Under the New Leadership”, Maryland Series in Contemporary Asian Studies, Number 2, 2013(213).
[5] Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: from prehuman times to the French revolution, London: Profile Books, 2011, pp. 80-81 and chapter 7, “War and the rise of the Chinese state”.
[6] The historical formation of “nation-state” stated first as a European phenomenon after the 1500s.
[7] Martin Jacques, When China rules the world: the end of the Eastern world and the birth of a new global order, 2nd ed. London: Penguin 2012.
[8] The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State, Hackensack, N.J.: World Century, 2012.
[9] The Latin word “Parabellum” mean “If you want peace, you should prepare for war”.
[10] Alastair Iain Johnston, ‘Realism(s) and Chinese Security Policy in the Post-Cold War Period’ in E.B. Kapstein and M. Mastanduno, eds, Unipolar Politics: Realism and State Strategies After the Cold War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 261-318.
[11]President Xi Jinping addressed an academic conference to commemorate the 2565 birthday of Confucius.
[12] Otherwise how could we explain why China’s territory has expanded far beyond its original base of the “central plain”?
[13] The same goes with some synonyms, like 「Zhongtu 中土」、「zhongyuan 中原」、「zhongchow 中州」、「zhongxia中夏」、「zhonghua中華」.
[14] Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future, Project AIR FORCE|RAND, 2000.
[15] https://www.archives.gov/files/declassification/iscap/pdf/2008-003-docs1-12.pdf
[16] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Peril
[17] The picture’s caption reads: “The Yellow Terror in all His Glory (1899) is a rebellious Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) Chinese man, armed to the teeth, who stands astride a fallen white woman representing Western European colonialism”.
[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tucker_Carson
[19] Here are a few selected commentaries by T. Carlson on the China threat: Tucker Carlson Tonight – The China Threat – YouTube 5/10/2018; Tucker Carlson Lawmakers USE Russia To Ignore ACTUAL China THREAT 7/24/2018 ; “Rubio on how to combat China’s threat” 5/4/2018; Russia or China? Which is America’s greatest threat? 2/24/2018.
[20] BBC News, “Quick guide: China’s Economic Reform” 3 November 2006.
[21] The big earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan on 12 May 2008 killed 70,000 people.
[22] The market plunged from a 2007 high of 6,124 to 1,664 in October 2008.
[23] See “Thucydides trap”, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/06/09/the-thucydides-trap/
[24] John Raji, “Chinese Imperialism – The belt and road initiative”.
[25] The Borgen Project is a nonprofit organization that is addressing poverty and hunger and working towards ending them.
[26] Judy Lu, “How OBOR Benefits Developing Countries”.
[27] Duan Xiaolin laments over the lack of rigorous analysis of Chinese nationalism and its foreign policy implications, see her “Unanswered Questions: Why We may be Wrong about Chinese Nationalism and its Foreign Policy Implications”, in Journal of Contemporary China. Vol. 26, No. 108, 886-900.
[28] The English edition was published in 2007 and the paper relies on its Chinese edition translated by Simon Shen, Liu Yongyan, and Judy Lee and published by Bordertown Thinker Series (邊城思想系列 [biancheng xixiang xilie]).
[29] There are: “Represents advanced social productive forces”, “Represents the progressive course of China’s advanced culture” and “Represents the fundamental interests of the majority”.
[30] This information is taken from Matt Schiavenza, Was Hu Jintao a Failure?
[31] Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at London’s King’s College and the author of CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping.
[32] List of leadership positions in key organizations.
[33] In the name of national security, the high degree of autonomy enjoyed by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong shall not apply in certain cases.
[34] See http://www.xinhuanet.com//politics/2012-11/29/c_113852724.htm
[35] A quick way is to search through published compilations of Xi Jinping’s quotes. See for example xijinping yulu.
[36] Zhimin Lin, “Xi Jinping’s ‘Major Country Diplomacy’: The Impacts of China’s Growing Capacity”, Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 28, No. 115, 31-46.
[37] The concept of “a new type of international relations between big states” was introduced first at the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs held in November 2014. It was later elaborated into “the new type of big state diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” meaning that China desires to avoid the “Thucydides’ trap” and instead to pursue, with reference to the Chinese traditional ‘pragmatic kingcraft’, developing together with other countries a “community of common destiny for all mankind in all fields of the life-world”. The idea of ‘pragmatic kingcraft’ is derived from the different strategic teachings of Mencius and Hsun-Tsu, that were observed by the Han, Tang and early Qing rulers.
[38] See the text of his speech.
[39] Prominent examples include the BRICS Development Bank, the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement (RCEP), and most prominently the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
[40] The other purposes include mainly the following: 1. The export of excess industrial production capability, 2. Offer of employment opportunities for the excess labour force, 3. Investment as well as market outlets for Chinese merchants, 4. Strategic land and maritime bases for the Chinese military, 5. More efficient transportation connections between China and key posts in Southeast Asia, Western Asia and the Middle East, and the African continent.
[41] A possible explanation may be the credible threat on the Malaysian side to look for alternative contractors from other countries.
[42] The Corridor is expected to have a 3,200 km belt for trade and transportation of energy resources. It will also connect Kashar city, Xinjiang of China via Pakistan’s Balochistan province all the way to the Arabic Sea.
[43] The people of Pakistan ask whether it is fair for China to reap 90% of the income from Gwadar Port.
[44] Chinese workers were murdered, China’s consulate in Karachi was attacked, and regional instability started getting worse.
[45] On 4 December 2018 Xi announced 10 major plans to boost cooperation with all African countries except Eswatini (which recognizes Taiwan) in the coming three years. The package features US$60 billion of funding support and covers the areas of industrialization, agricultural modernization, infrastructure, financial services, green development and investment facilitation, poverty reduction and public welfare, public health, people-to-people exchanges, and peace and security.
[46] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/08/23/in-global-popularity-contest-u-s-and-china-not-russia-vie-for-first/

 

 

Collegamenti

Nazione, Stato, Stato Nazione

Sessione Plenaria 1-3 maggio 2019 | Nota concettuale – Oggi il mondo si trova ad... Continua

©2012-2017 Pontificia Accademia delle Scienze Sociali

 

Share Mail Twitter Facebook