EMPIRE (STUCK) IN THE MIDDLE? THE CASE OF COLLECTIVE EGO-CENTRISM
“A countryman offered the heat of the sun to the king, out of respect” ~ Chinese proverb
In the pre-modern era, those inhabitants of China whose horizons somehow extended beyond the immediate vicinity of their native village or a municipality imagined a universe as entirely centered on their own vertical society with an Emperor at its finial. The scant knowledge that the Confucian bureaucracy had of the “outside” world led to a starkly reductionist vision of the universe – a China surrounded by four groups of barbarians, (si yi). Tellingly, they were referred to by four cardinal directions from the Chinese perspective: dongyi, xirong, nanman and beidi. The temptation to explore the world further beyond these reaches was never particularly strong. That “world beyond” was traditionally dismissed as “bahuang” – “the eight wastelands”. Foreign visitors recorded extraordinary tales of collective devaluation – disdain of others in an effort to preserve one’s own self-esteem.
The “barbarians” – yemanren (“wild-unreasoning-men”) played a twofold role in Chinese history. They would send kowtowing emissaries with exotic gifts for the Emperor. Or they would send armies that pillaged the country and replaced the Emperor. With the ease of Orwellian about-face, Chinese historians have made sure that in the latter case, the barbarians somehow ceased to be… “barbarians”.
The collectively ego-centric view of the world, in which every “outsider” exists only by virtue of its relationship to China has amusingly essentialist implications for international relations today. Whenever there is a friction between China and its partners – be it on trade issues, access to natural resources, or support for unsavory regimes, the terms of the dispute are not formulated as a set of “differences” of opinion that could be addressed and negotiated away. Rather, Beijing would couch the differential in terms of China’s being “misunderstood”. It is therefore the responsibility of China’s partner to make an effort to “understand” it better and to go an extra mile to reduce tension. Those of us who frequently travel to China have heard this standard terminology of disagreement many times over. Rather than identifying where the gap between the two positions lies, the Chinese interlocutor would simply state that “you don’t understand China”. Facing “China”, rather than the person you are talking to, not only places you in a position of guaranteed numerical minority, but the onus will be on you - and you only - to make an extra effort and “understand”, rather than to tackle the issue and resolve any related differences between you and your Chinese partner.
This asymmetric proceeding, which seemingly perpetuates lopsided power relationships of yesteryear, may in fact have served the Qing dynasty rather well, but in a multi-polar 21st century, such displays of collective ego are a sure-fire guarantee of recurrent PR disasters for the Beijing government. Even if we were to analyze international relations using the yardstick of the power paradigm, China’s apparent inability to even pretend to adopt the viewpoint of its partners leaves it in isolation redolent of an autistic child. Tragically, this obsession with status and respect deprive Beijing of options and impose too many internal constraints on its margin of maneuver.
The hierarchical focus on relationships has left contemporary China in limbo. The concentric Weltanschauung was shattered in the 19th century and throughout the dramas of China’s modern history it has not been successfully replaced by a new positioning of the country whose name bears the ideogram of the “middle”. Of course, contemporary China does differentiate between America’s power and the less “advanced cultures” which do not merit much consideration. But so did Tang Dynasty, forced to distinguish between the surrounding barbarians and the forces of the Arab Caliphate which trounced the Chinese armies at Talasin (751 AD).
Celebrated scholar Bo Yang, was scathing in his criticism of the Communist China’s education system which, in his view, perpetuated and even reinforced the worst traditions of Chinese intolerance. Bo Yang’s claims cannot be easily refuted and the first results of Taiwan’s educational reform show that there is nothing genetic in sinocentrism.
CCP AND THE DILEMMA OF CHINESE NATIONALISM“
The more the ruler imposes laws and prohibitions on his people, the more frequently evil deeds will occur”.
The history of Chinese Communist Party is not independent of the struggle for national identity. The foundation of CCP is closely related to the May 4th movement of 1919, but its own doctrinaires repudiated the preceding “bourgeois-nationalist” revolution of 1911. Ironically, the students of May 4th movement highlighted the ideals of liberalism, democracy, and freedom of speech – an anathema to the future Communist regime. Eventually, the Communists were to brand these ideals as “foreign” and grafted them on competing KMT’s supposedly “anti-Chinese” image. Successful only ex-post, the label proved useful in the ideological struggle of the 1940s. The reasons for the misconception of the CCP as “Marxist” and therefore not-“nationalist” can also be found in the legacy of the post-war propaganda efforts deployed by KMT dictatorship in Taiwan. KMT’s envoys used to score cheap points in Washington by accusing the Beijing regime of having exchanged the noble Chinese traditions for a Leninist import.
Some historians argue that the rupture with China’s fossilized traditions in 1911 and again in 1949 was more lasting on a symbolic rather than structural level. Although Chairman Mao himself would revel in anti-Confucian rantings, the Communist mandarinate did recreate many of the trappings of multi-layered centralism. The frequent armed conflicts with China’s neighbors in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were often cloaked in the propaganda of ‘liberation’, but essentially revived the expansionist traditions of the highly centralized state. At some point, sandwiched between his Chinese imperialist instincts and the internationalist responsibilities Mao Zedong had to edit some of the writings in which he had openly referred to China’s tributary states in Korea, Vietnam, Burma and Nepal. Internally, after the Bolshevik-sounding parenthesis entitled “On Practice”, Mao returned to peasant mythology and conceptually Chinese themes of rural struggle. There was new-fangled symmetry between the role Mao reserved for the Chinese peasantry and the Confucian disdain for commercial classes. But grounding nationalist dogmas in the putative virginity of the countryside was not unique to China. Erstwhile Russian and German nationalisms likewise sought reinvigorating sources in the folk traditions and indulged in the idealism of the rural purity and stamina.
Dysfunctional Marxism may have continued to plague Chinese economy, but it ceased to contaminate Mao’s ideology with foreign concepts as early as in 1950s. The final break with formal communism took place in 1957, during the brutal campaigns against “rightists”. Khruschevian “revisionism” was attacked openly by CCP in 1963 and the convoluted debate immediately preceding the Cultural Revolution largely focused on the role of the state in the “proletarian revolution”.
Chinese Marxists could use class struggle dogmatism in the military confrontations with Taiwan, Tibet, India and the UN forces in Korea, but such language was less easily applicable in the conflicts with the USSR and in Hua Guofeng’s disastrous adventurism in Vietnam. The Soviet-Chinese frictions and the battles inside the CCP owed a lot to the presentism of recurrent “ruptures with the past”, while all nationalisms always preach continuity and idealize the past. The tension between the maze of Marxian sophistry and Chinese nationalism could not be resolved until 1989. And while the quaint anti-capitalist rhetoric of the Maoism may have coined a set of isomorphous maxims, the CCP’s ideological bequest of the last 20 years has been axiomatic in its ethnocentric orthodoxy.
Unfortunately for all the keen supporters of the dissident movements in China, the Chinese Communists’ near-monopoly on nationalist discourse has not prevented the dissenters from chiming in. Nearly a decade after the events of June 1989, I had an opportunity to debate with Wang Dan, one of the famed leaders of the students’ movement. Although he refused to espouse the term “nationalism”, his views over China’s two critical ‘national’ problems – Tibet’s real autonomy and acceptance of Taiwan’s sovereignty – were not too dissimilar from the CCP’s rabid sloganeering. My experience certainly was not unique as the specialized press frequently deplores the prospects for a post-Communist regime in China as almost inevitably “ugly and nationalistic”. That seems to assume that the current government in Beijing isn’t.
Indeed, CCP’s “pragmatists” and their allies from Western business lobbies frequently assert that the introduction of “Western style” democracy to China would bring to power a group of chauvinistic extremists. This is not to deny that such extremist elements exist. But one could pause to think if such a group of wayward nationalists could realistically pose more of a geopolitical threat than a jingoistic Communist Party whose educational methods bequeath a generation of materialist nouveaux-riches so completely deprived of access to – and even aspiration for - competing sources of information.
But even the CCP, with its virtual monopoly on hearts, minds and broadband has not resolved the burning question of how to ground the sources of Chinese identity. The question of what defines Chineseness has never been satisfactorily resolved, even though several attempts were made to reconcile the rigid dogmatism of the ruling elites with the pre-existing folk traditions. These compromises sought legitimacy in the appeals to race, language and institutional history. I will review each of these three themes next week.