Prisoner of its past

The recent eruption of anti-Americanism in China reflects a deep-seated historical identity as "victim" that is holding back its emergence as a major power.

Orville Schell
June 8, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

As I watched the demonstrators in front of U.S. diplomatic missions in China last month, after NATO's accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, I couldn't help but think back to my first visit to the People's Republic in 1975. Then, under Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution continued to hold sway, and almost every public surface was emblazoned with revolutionary exhortations such as "Down with American imperialism and its running dogs!"

Now the Chinese were once again waving banners and chanting anti-U.S. slogans, including "Blood debts must be paid with blood." The official Chinese press accused the United States of "harbor[ing] deep prejudice and hostility toward China" and of intentionally carrying out a "criminal act" because the Chinese people had "made achievements that enemy forces in the West could no longer tolerate."


Students of Chinese history know that the country's humiliating experience of victimization by foreign powers in the past translated directly into support for Lenin's theories about imperialism. For me, being there at the end of the Cultural Revolution was also an important reminder of just how much of China's modern identity had been forged in opposition to the West.

Official propaganda at the time was still so alienated from America that it was hard to imagine how the Chinese Communist Party would ever feel comfortable cooperating with foreign imperialists like me, let alone becoming fully integrated into the global market system. After all, historically speaking, America and the West were exploiters and oppressors who had "cut up China like a melon," humiliated the Chinese race and soiled China's once proud national escutcheon.

Twenty years of reform have changed many things in China, but the collective memory of "national humiliation" is one of the most resistant parts of China's historical legacy. It will not be overcome simply by increasing trade, by allowing students to study abroad or by more American fast-food restaurants opening in Beijing.


Like an afterglow that lingers on the screen long after a television set has been turned off, images from its history keep haunting China. Each time another country does something the party finds provocative -- especially in relation to Taiwan, Tibet or sovereignty and human rights issues -- party leaders proclaim the offending nation as having "wounded the feelings of the Chinese people." To a Westerner, such an accusation sounds absurdly childish. But actually it is a carefully chosen figure of speech that resonates among Chinese precisely because it emotionally summons up China's experience of being historically "wounded."

In a similar vein, what the recent demonstrations and expressions of indignation (and denial) about the Cox Report allegations suggest is that China has still not transcended its old antagonistic attitudes about foreign powers unfairly preying on it. In witnessing this latest new spasm of anti-imperialist, or anti-American, sentiment, one is still left to wonder: Why does China feel so wounded? With such ambiguous feelings toward countries with which it is now ever more deeply involved economically, what is its future in the world?

It is true that no large nation has been more historically aggrieved by foreigners than China. Unlike much of the rest of Asia, it never became an outright colony, although Hong Kong and Taiwan were colonized (the former after the Opium War by the British in l842, and the latter after the Sino-Japanese War in l894 by the Japanese.) Because it was technologically less advanced, China was nibbled away at by the West, Japan and even Russia, until by the l920s it was a patchwork of "foreign spheres of influence" "and "foreign concessions," in which overseas missionaries, soldiers, businessmen, diplomats and freebooters all enjoyed extra-territorial privileges.


Then, in the l930s, came the final indignity. Japan occupied a large portion of China. The experience of this once strong and culturally preeminent country finding itself defenseless before so many implacable powers left a deep scar on China's pride. And it is this "humiliation" that has led to so many up-wellings of Chinese nationalistic sentiment since.

The Boxer Rebellion of l900 was a milestone of sorts in this sorry process of China being bullied. The Boxers were a mystical anti-Christian sect that arose in north China in opposition to Western missionaries. Of course, the sometimes contemptuous and bullying manner of missionaries, whose rights to evangelize in China had been secured by gunboat diplomacy, prejudiced many Chinese, especially conservatives, against all foreigners. While many
missionaries were selfless in their service to China and engendered a great deal of good feeling, others fomented anti-foreign sentiment by interfering in local politics and treating Chinese with arrogant condescension.


As the missionary-turned-diplomat A. Wells Williams so indelicately put it at the time, the Chinese "grant nothing unless fear stimulated their sense of justice for they are among the most craven of people, cruel, selfish as heathenism can make men, so we must be backed by force, if we wish them to listen."

Just as the current Chinese government sought to ride the genuine popular sentiment against the NATO bombing by aiding and abetting the demonstrators, the ailing Qing court adopted the anti-foreign cause of the Boxers, even issuing an imperial edict commanding: "Whenever you meet a foreigner, you must kill him."

It did not help China's collective state of mind that the Boxer Rebellion was finally put down by an eight-nation "international relief force" that punitively laid waste to much of Beijing and other north China cities, and that the government was then burdened with a huge indemnity.


China's intelligentsia concluded that China was being preyed upon because of its weakness and lack of national cohesion. Not only had China suffered four "unequal treaties," beginning with the first Opium War and the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 and culminating with the punitive Boxer Protocol of
l901, but it had lost the Sino-French War of 1884, the Sino-Japanese War in l894 and the scramble for foreign concessions in 1897-98, and then had been forced to yield German rights in China to Japan at the Versaille Treaty of 1919.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the Chinese soon concluded that nationalism was the best antidote for foreign intervention. A deep sensitivity to such foreign predation soon became encoded on China's attitudinal DNA, where, like a recessive gene, it has found expression ever since through the efforts of successive generations to "save the nation." By the 1920s, protest demonstrations, strikes against foreign companies and boycotts of foreign goods were regularly disrupting China's relations with the West.

When the Qing dynasty fell in 1911 and Sun Yat-sen came on the scene, he made nationalism the first of his Three People's Principles. In response to the Versaille Treaty, on May 4, 1919, students proclaimed "National Humiliation Day." "China's territory may be conquered, but it cannot be given away," declared a manifesto. "The Chinese people may be massacred, but they will not surrender. Our country is about to be annihilated! Up brethren!"


And when Chiang Kai-shek followed Sun Yat-sen as leader of the Nationalist Party, he, too, displayed a strong nationalistic bias. Even as a wartime ally, he was anti-imperialist in tone. Writing in China's Destiny, he blamed the "unequal treaties" for causing a "loss of self-confidence, servile dependence on and blind following of others, fear and subservience to foreigners, hypocrisy, and self-deceit."

Chiang saw Chinese as having lost their national confidence under foreign domination. "The attitude of self-abasement was carried to such an
extreme," he wrote, "that they despised and mocked the heritage of their own civilization."

Explaining perfectly the dilemma of intellectuals who are both drawn to and repelled by the West today, Chiang described how "unconsciously, the people developed the habit of ignoring their own traditions and cultivating foreign ways; of respecting foreign theories and despising their native teachings; of depending on others and blindly following them rather than themselves ... Where the influence of these ideas prevailed, the people regarded everything foreign as right, and everything Chinese as wrong." Chiang's remedy was "psychological reconstruction" built around what he called "the most mysterious of all emotions," namely, nationalism.

When Chiang fled to Taiwan in l949, Mao Zedong highlighted China's grievances against imperialism more starkly by adopting an even more aggressive agenda of revolutionary nationalism. "The imperialists and their running dogs, Chinese reactionaries, will not resign themselves to defeat in this land of China," he declared in 1949. "They will continue to gang up against the Chinese people in every possible way ... They will do this as long as it is possible ... We must not relax our vigilance ... No imperialist will be allowed to invade our territory again."


By the time of the "Resist America, Aid Korea" campaign in l952, anti-American sentiment reached such a crescendo that one party-controlled paper could accuse Hu Shih, China's brilliant Columbia-educated former ambassador to Washington, of being unpatriotic because he was "incapable of fostering hatred for America." And, by l967, Red Guards had burned the British Charge d'Affaires Mission in Beijing to the ground. It is crucial to remember that it was in this political culture that China's present leaders came of age.

Although anti-U.S. sentiment did begin to moderate after President Nixon's breakthrough visit to China in l972, when I made my first trip three years later, it was still very much in evidence. Not until Deng Xiaoping became "paramount leader" in 1978 did the situation show signs of real change, because Deng restrained himself from overtly playing the anti-foreign, anti-American

In fact, in the years following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, when references to "hostile foreign forces" abounded, Deng weighed-in boldly against xenophobic forces. In l992, he insisted that although the United States and China had different political systems, there was "no conflict between fundamental interests," and he disavowed using phrases such as "Western hostile forces headed by the U.S."

Of course, Deng's insistence on "not seeking confrontation" did little to resolve the basic ambiguity about the intentions of the West and Japan that remained latent in the hearts of China's aging leaders. In l990, for example, current party chief and president Jiang Zemin gave a speech titled "Patriotism and the Mission of the Chinese Intellectual," in which he could not resist drawing on the reservoir of ambivalent sentiment that still lay just beneath the surface. Alluding to old fears of "hostile forces at home and abroad," he suggested that America and the West were trying to "subvert the socialist system" and to "turn China into a vassal state dependent on the Western superpowers."


With the ideology of Mao's Marxist-Leninist revolution still officially enshrined as sacred canon, and with an important part of the leadership periodically egging on the Chinese people to reconnect with anti-foreign feelings, it was hardly surprising that the Chinese might erupt in yet
another bout of anti-Western protests after the NATO bombing, and that the demonstrations might receive party support.

We forget at out peril that we are always communicating with China through a history, and that however factually murky that history is in the minds of contemporary Chinese, it has nonetheless left an aquifer of residual sentiment beneath the surface filled with inchoate but powerful feelings about weakness, insecurity, inferiority and wounded national pride.

But there is another underground river flowing into this subterranean reservoir that Chinese themselves rarely discuss, perhaps because its implications are even more humiliating than foreign predation. While China was indisputedly abused by foreigners, it has also been equally abused by itself and its own leaders who have so frequently been as savage as the worst foreign imperialists.

Who can forget the tens of millions dead as a result of Mao's Great Leap
Forward, the anguish brought to intellectuals "sent down" in the anti-rightist movement, the insanity and brutality of the Cultural Revolution and the savagery of the crackdown on the "counter-revolutionary turmoil" of l989?


What could be more ruinous to China's stature and national pride than having to defend as "the correct line" its virtual colonization of Tibet; murderous leaders such as Kang Sheng, Lin Biao and even Mao himself; the arrest of millions of its own citizens for nonviolent protest; the gratuitous shooting of missiles toward "fellow compatriots" on Taiwan; and support for the likes of Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, North Korea's Kim Il-sung and Burma's military junta?

Each of these self-inflicted insults heaped as much ignominy on China as any foreign intrusion. And they left many Chinese filled with a quotient of
repressed resentment that they would have, if they had been permitted to, addressed against their own government.

Alas, this combination of abuse from within and without has only tended to make China more jingoistic and nationalistic. After all, when misrule occurs at home, emphasizing injury at the hands of foreigners and exporting blame for one's afflictions is a convenient way to distract attention from the real issues.

In indulging itself in this syndrome, China has made itself something of a professional victim. It is a curious fact that being viewed as a "victim" no longer seems to confer the stigma of weakness and incompetence on a country, but, instead, a badge of honor -- bona fides of being among the elect of the oppressed. Such an election provides a powerful catalyst for the excitation of nationalist or racial sentiments.

But a pedigree of victimhood also has a way of allowing emotions to eclipse the ambiguities of both history and reason. When leaders claim that actions of another country have "wounded the feelings" of their people, it becomes logical for that people to rise in indignant defense, even to burn down foreign legations. The only problem is, such behavior is often inimical to a country's real interest.

A year ago in Beijing, when Jiang Zemin got to insouciantly bantering with President Clinton in the Great Hall of the People, it was momentarily possible to hope that China was emerging from this old mind-set. Indeed, it was tempting to think that both countries were emerging from their deep-seated ambivalence about each other -- that they might vault over the century and a half of history where the roles of victim and oppressor had taken such firm root to some sort of new "strategic partnership." And when Premier Zhu Rongji showed up for a state dinner in the White House this April and -- despite disagreements over Kosovo and the fact that a final agreement admitting China into the World Trade Organization was not forthcoming -- managed to radiate a sense of ease, confidence and cosmopolitanism, it was all the more tempting to hope that enough distance had opened between the present and China's bitter past to allow for a different sort of future.

As I watched both events, the old anti-imperialist slogans on smokestacks and walls circa l975 did seem as if, at last, they might be slipping into oblivion. Watching Jiang and Zhu, I wondered if China might not, at last, be actually escaping the gravity of all the past incursions and humiliations that had so animated Mao's revolution and churned its populace up into so many demonstrations of anti-foreignism. Now, of course, one is far less confident that China's escape from the burdens of history will be quite so easy.

Just as China's definition of sovereignty -- as conferring an almost absolute right on a nation to do whatever it pleases within its borders -- is out-of-step with these globalized times, so, too, the way it sometimes comports itself on the international stage is often more appropriate to a century ago, when China really was the victim of colonialism and imperialism. Although party
leaders know that both China and the world have radically changed, they nonetheless seem unable, or unwilling, to let go of old and confirmed ways of emotionally responding to real and imagined insults.

However, until China's leaders are able to jettison the stale Maoist ideology that keeps encouraging their people to see their country as victimized by more powerful nations, they will not be able to break their often self-defeating pattern of response to the West, much less help their nation take its rightful place as a truly "great power."

Given the abiding nature of Chinese ambivalence toward America, it is important to remember that just as Americans have evinced a certain historical tendency to lurch from viewing China first as enemy and then as friend, China, too, has a yin-yang-like, love/hate relationship with the United States. Despite all the incipient anti-Americanism, the Chinese people have also evidenced an almost equally strong tendency toward respect, even infatuation with the U.S., especially in regard to American education, democracy, entertainment and lifestyle. But even during periods of friendly relations, most Chinese officials have been loath to publicly celebrate this connection. And so, wariness about our intentions keeps surfacing unchallenged like leitmotifs in a Wagner opera.

Because it will help allay Chinese fears of hidden conspiracies, "constructive engagement" is surely the wisest policy for the United States. But, it would be both arrogant and foolish to assume that even the most friendly and ardent recipe for engagement will be enough to "fix" the relationship. The truth is that in certain crucial ways China needs to "fix" itself, first by realigning its
own relationship to its past, a past that has been badly distorted by party historians, even as the party has slipped into oblivion. Until it manages this complex task of historical archeology, its relations with the U.S. and the West will exist on a weak ideological foundation, and be periodically disrupted by overheated nationalistic incidents that become all the more tectonic because they are so invested with a century and a half of unresolved and humiliated feelings.

Orville Schell

Orville Schell, author of numerous books and articles on China, is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

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