How China’s past shapes Xi’s worldview
China is now a world power, something hardly imaginable a few decades ago.
Its power sometimes stems from cooperation with the rest of the world, such as the signing of the Paris climate agreement.
Or sometimes it means competition, like the Belt and Road Initiative, a network of construction projects in more than 60 countries that has attracted investment in many parts of the world deprived of Western loans.
Yet there is also a very confrontational tone in much of China’s global rhetoric.
Beijing condemns the United States (United States) for seeking to “contain” China through the new AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) submarine pact, warns the United Kingdom that there would be “consequences” to granting residence in Britain to Hong Kong people leaving their city territory due to the harsh national security law, and told the island of Taiwan that it should prepare to be unified with the continent.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has asserted China’s place on the world stage much more strongly than any of his predecessors since Mao Zedong, China’s supreme leader during the Cold War.
Yet other elements of his rhetoric draw on much older sources, dating back to his own history, both ancient and more recent.
Here are five of those recurring themes.
For more than 2,000 years, the norms of Confucian thought have shaped Chinese society. The philosopher (551-479 CE) built an ethical system that combined hierarchy, where people would know their place in society, with benevolence, the expectation that those in higher positions would look after their lower ones.
Heavily adapted over time, this system of thought supported the Chinese dynasties until the revolution of 1911, when the overthrow of the last emperor sparked a backlash against Confucius and his legacy of radicals, including the new Communist Party.
One of these communists, Mao Zedong, remained deeply hostile to traditional Chinese philosophy during his years in power (1949-1976). But by the 1980s, Confucius was back in Chinese society, hailed by the Communist Party as a brilliant figure with lessons to teach contemporary China.
Today, China celebrates “harmony” (hexie) as a “socialist value”, even if it has a very Confucian air. And a hot topic in Chinese international relations is the question of how the term “benevolence” (ren), another key Confucian term, could shape Beijing’s relations with the outside world.
Professor Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University wrote about how China should seek “benevolent authority” rather than “dominance,” contrary to what he sees as the less benevolent role of the United States.
Even Xi Jinping’s idea of ââa “global community of common destiny” has a traditional philosophical flavor to it – and Xi visited Confucius’ birthplace in Qufu and quoted his words in public.
A century of humiliation
The historical confrontations of the 19th and 20th centuries still deeply shape Chinese thought on the world.
The Opium Wars of the mid-19th century saw Western traders use force to violently open the doors to China. Much of the period from the 1840s to the 1940s is seen as a âcentury of humiliation,â a shameful era that showed China’s weakness in the face of European and Japanese aggression.
At that time, China had to cede Hong Kong to Britain, the territory of the northeastern region of Manchuria to the Japanese, and a whole series of legal and trade privileges to various Western countries. In the post-war era, it was the USSR that tried to gain influence on China’s borders, especially in Manchuria and Xinjiang.
This experience created a deep distrust of the intentions of the outside world. Even seemingly outward-looking gestures such as China’s joining the World Trade Organization in 2001 were underpinned by a cultural memory of “unfair treaties” when China’s trade was controlled by foreigners – a a situation that the Communist Party of today has vowed never to allow again.
In March of this year, a moody public session between Chinese and US negotiators in Anchorage, Alaska saw the Chinese push back against US critics by accusing their hosts of “condescension and hypocrisy.”
Xi’s China does not tolerate the idea that foreigners can despise their country with impunity.
However, even terrible events can generate more positive messages.
One of those messages comes from the Chinese phase of WWII, when he fought Japan mostly alone after being invaded in 1937 before the Western Allies joined the Asian War at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
During those years, China lost more than 10 million people and detained more than half a million Japanese soldiers on the Chinese mainland, a feat widely commemorated in history books, movies and television.
Today, China presents itself as part of the “anti-fascist alliance” alongside the United States, Great Britain and the USSR, giving itself moral ballast by reminding the world of its role of winner against the Axis powers.
China also builds on its historic role as a leader of the Third World during Mao’s time (for example during the Bandung Conference of 1955, and in projects such as the construction of the TanZam railway in East Africa in the 1970s) to restore its credibility as a leader today in the non-Western world.
Modern history remains a key part of how the Chinese Communist Party views its own legitimacy. However, elements of this history – notably the terrible famine caused by the disastrous economic policies of the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1962 – remain largely ignored in China today.
And some modern wars can be used for more adversarial purposes. The last year of bumpy relations between the United States and China has seen new films commemorating the Korean War of 1950-1953 – a conflict the Chinese remember by a different name – “The War of Resistance to America. “.
On your Marx
The historical trajectory of Marxism-Leninism is also deeply rooted in Chinese political thought and was very actively revived under Xi Jinping.
Throughout the twentieth century, Mao Zedong and other great Communist political leaders took part in theoretical debates about Marxism with immense consequences.
For example, the notion of “class war” led to the murder of a million landowners in the early years of Mao’s reign. Even though “class” has fallen out of favor as a means of defining society, China’s political language today is still shaped by ideas of “struggle”, “antagonism” and conceptions of “socialism” by opposition to “capitalism”.
Major journals, such as the Party’s theoretical body, Qiushi, regularly discuss “contradictions” in Chinese society in terms largely inspired by Marxist theory.
Xi’s China defines the American-Chinese competition as a struggle that can be understood in terms of Marxist antagonism.
The same is true of the economic forces of society and their interaction – the difficulties in growing the economy and maintaining that appropriately green growth are interpreted in terms of contradiction. In classical Marxism, you reach a point of agreement, or a synthesis – but not before having worked on often painful and long “antagonisms”.
Beijing insists on the unwavering fate of the island of Taiwan, which it defines as unification with mainland China.
Yet the last century of Taiwan’s history shows that the question of its status comes and goes in Chinese politics. In 1895, after a disastrous war with Japan, China was forced to cede Taiwan, which then became a Japanese colony for the next half century.
It was then briefly unified with the mainland by the Nationalists from 1945 to 1949. Under Mao, China missed its chance to unify the island; the U.S. Truman administration would likely have let Mao take it, until the People’s Republic of China joined the North Koreans in invading South Korea in 1950, sparking the Korean War and suddenly making Taiwan a key ally of the Cold War.
Mao launched attacks on the coast of Taiwan in 1958, but then ignored the territory for 20 years. After relations between the United States and China were reestablished in 1979, there was a difficult agreement that all parties would agree on the existence of one China, but not on whether the regime in Peking or Taiwan was in fact the legitimate republic.
Forty years later, Xi Jinping insists that unification must take place soon, while aggressive rhetoric and the plight of Hong Kong have led the Taiwanese public, now citizens of a liberal democracy, to become increasingly more hostile to a closer relationship with the continent. – BBC
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The ASEAN Post.