MEMORY OF “NATIONAL HUMILIATION” PROPELS CHINA TO PURSUE HEGEMONY
The Wuhan-originated coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than 430,000 lives to date, but China—its government and people—has shown no repentance. Instead, it is going all out to formulate a new world order, blatantly claiming that none other than China is fit to reign over a post-COVID-19 world. How does one explain this Chinese posture, which can only be characterized as arrogance?
This question undoubtedly puzzles not only Japanese but many other people across the globe. A book by a Chinese-born American scholar Zheng Wang—Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations (Columbia University Press; 2012)—provides the answer. It is available in Japanese translation: Origin of China’s Historical Consciousness (Toyo Keizai Shinpo co., Tokyo; 2014).
Chinese are convinced that they are better than any other race on earth, stresses Professor Wang. We all know that Chinese have since ancient times called ethnic groups outside China “barbarians” and treated them as such. Confident in the sophisticated culture, civilization, and their moral principles with which they have managed their own country, they have looked down on others. In that sense, Chinese society can be said to be deeply tainted with racial discrimination.
And yet the Chinese have accepted those “barbarians” if they followed the teachings of the Middle Kingdom, became immersed in their culture, and wanted to become Chinese. In this respect, Chinese have regarded themselves as generous.
To come to grips with the Chinese mindset, Prof. Wang points out the importance of recognizing the three factors that support their pride and patriotism: elitism, myth, and trauma.
According to Wang, Chinese elitism dates back to ancient times, when they believed they were a chosen people living in a holy land in the center of the world. Chinese philosophy, customs, writing system and so on proliferated across peripheral regions, enabling China to form “mentoring relationships” with its neighbors. This enabled them to be confident of the universal superiority of their civilization, shaping a deeply ingrained elitist mentality.
The story of the Chinese race as a chosen people created a myth about their heritage that firmly settled in their hearts—until it was shattered to pieces by the “100 years of national humiliation” that followed the Opium War. This led to Chinese trauma.
China’s century of national humiliation comprises six wars—the First Opium War (1840-42); the Second Opium War (1856-60); the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95); the Boxer Uprising (1900); the Manchurian Incident (1931); and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45).
That Japan was involved in four of these six wars is worth noting for us Japanese. China suffered a severe defeat in both its first war against Japan and the Boxer Uprising, while Japan was victorious in both conflicts. Although the Chinese side won the Second Sino-Japanese War, it was in truth merely the result of Japan having been defeated by the US. The fact that China was not able to defeat Japan on its own injured the pride of the Chinese, the author asserts.
In Chapter 3 of his book, Wang explains “why the Japanese are hated so intensely by the Chinese” by quoting General Chiang Kai-Shek as repeatedly stating in his diary: “Every day I will record a method on how to destroy the ‘dwarf pirates’ (i.e., Japanese) to avenge our national humiliation.” According to Wang, the Chinese trauma resulted from their defeat in battles against the Japanese, whom they had long regarded as inferior. I believe that we would do well to bear firmly in mind that Japan and the Japanese are unfortunately that much hated by the Chinese. Their ill sentiments toward Japan can be directed at us at any time, like turning on a tap, depending on the political climate of a given time.
Wang stresses that one will not be truly able to understand the behavior of modern Chinese or the world strategy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) without comprehending the Chinese mindset born as a composite of the elitism deeply rooted in Chinese society, the myth of China’s greatness, and the trauma of the shattered myth.
A chosen race is proud. As Xi Jinping said at the CCP’s 19th National Congress in Beijing on October 18, 2017, Chinese believe their nation must grow stronger economically and militarily, one day towering over the rest of the world. They never stop doubting that China naturally deserves universal respect and admiration since it leads the world by teaching new values. That is why China cannot tolerate even slight slanders and criticism.
One case in point is China’s angry reaction to an article American political scientist Walter Mead wrote for the Wall Street Journal entitled: “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia” (February 3, 2020). Mead discussed the clumsy handling of the new coronavirus by China during the initial stage of the epidemic and how the crisis would affect the Chinese economy. Two weeks later, the Chinese government—like someone incapable of controlling his emotions—expelled three WSJ correspondents who had nothing to do with the Mead article.
Retaliatory Death Sentence for Australian
Having abruptly locked down the city of Wuhan, a leading industrial city inhabited by 11 million citizens, and refused to allow journalists to cover the unfolding tragedy, China proudly declared that it had successfully stemmed the coronavirus ahead of other nations. It has since been boasting about these “achievements,” vigorously claiming the correctness of the “Chinese model” to the international community.
Seeing now as a golden opportunity to expand its global spheres of influence, China is adroitly making full use of every means possible. When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded on April 23 that an independent international investigation be conducted to determine the source of the Wuhan virus—entirely sensible from the standpoint of the free world—China retaliated on May 12 by restricting imports of Australian agricultural products, including beef.
On June 5, the Chinese government issued a travel warning to its citizens, claiming that Australians were becoming increasingly racist against Chinese because of the coronavirus pandemic. Five days later, on June 10, the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court sentenced an Australian man to death for drug smuggling.
The power the CCP fully utilizes is not only economic, but judicial. An extra-legal presence reigning over all three branches of government, the party is free to do as it pleases. That it is taking full advantage of its military power is apparent from the behavior of the People’s Liberation Army on the seas and in the air across the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. That four Chinese Coast Guard ships regularly cruise the contiguous zone off the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands is yet more proof that the Chinese believe in the use of force to get what they want.
Wang reminds the international community to bear in mind a powerful expression that spurs virtually all Chinese into patriotic action—a four-character phrase taught since childhood, meaning: “Never Forget National Humiliation.”
In other words, Chinese parents and teachers are committed to inculcating ethnic resentment and anger in the minds of young Chinese, emphasizing what brutal hardships the generations before them suffered under the great powers, especially Japan. Deeply chagrined by what their fathers and forefathers had to suffer in terms of national humiliation, today’s Chinese find new energy which engenders a burning desire to realize a great revival of the Chinese race at all costs.
The CCP had to fill the ideological void created after the Cultural Revolution exposed the failures of Maoism and Soviet communism collapsed amid the Cold War. The raison d’être for the CCP would vanish unless it could substitute the goal of an idealistic communist society with a new ideology. That new ideology needed to fill the void was patriotism and a plan for a great revival of the Chinese race. “Never Forget National Humiliation” linked immediately with patriotism is exactly the phrase that has sustained the CCP’s survival.
In order to check China’s hardline stance and ensure its own survival, Japan must step up efforts for closer cooperation with key allies. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 906 in the June 25 issue of The Weekly Shincho)