Sunday, May 25, 2008



“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.

The more the ruler imposes laws and prohibitions on his people, the more frequently evil deeds will occur
Lao Zi

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.

Friday, May 23, 2008


After 10 years of Thabo Mbeki’s rule, the fissures in South Africa’s ever complex socio-economic paysage have begun to advance at alarming speed. From bribery scandals and electricity shortage to rampant crime and physical persecution of foreigners – the alarm bells are signaling that the country’s hard won cohesion may soon be put to a severe test.

The failure of government delivery is obvious. For some 12 years I would visit South Africa regularly, sometimes staying for longer periods. I traveled around the country extensively and I fell in love with the natural beauty of this unique part of the world. But I was never particularly impressed by my South African friends’ reassuring comments about the “right monetary policies”, “the growth of the middle class”, “the strong Rand”, etc. Yes, wealth did change (few) hands. And yes, the instant aspirations were in asset accumulation, property, modern cars and large TV screens. The possession of most of these articles has also, thanks God, lost its defining skin pigmentation. But just driving through Cape Flats, Hillbrow or Alexandra was a chilling experience. And over the years little seemed to be changing there. The total abdication of the government’s responsibility for the plight of the most destitute citizens and the AIDS catastrophe became engraved in my memory as I chewed on those images. Suffering an almost complete walking ban in Johannesburg, I could reflect on my encounters with Mr Mbeki, Ms Mlambo-Ngucka, Mr Erwin, Mr Mboweni and others. Style, appearance, ideology, image and a fair amount of honest cognitive dissonance seemed to define their self-respect.

Implosion of Mbeki’s presidency is widely blamed for the sense of impending crisis. There is little doubt that the President’s devotion to personalized loyalism has contributed to many administrative shortcomings. But in the South African system of “guaranteed majority”, the accountability is a rare phenomenon. Ministers, bureaucrats and politicians are maintained and dismissed not for their performance, but for their perceived loyalty or lack thereof. While on a macro-scale Mbeki and his entourage have espoused Pan-Africanism, his micromanagement style has bordered on perilous communitarianism.

The mismanagement reached deeper echelons of the administration including the now famed collapse of the parastatal power monopoly Eskom. Lack of foresight and strategic planning are frequently fingerpointed as somewhat impersonalized culprits in this costly affair. But for several years the managers of the power plants were incentivized with bonuses for the uptime, which led to the limitation of periods devoted to routine maintenance of the infrastructure. It is therefore not a question of an isolated case of poor decision-making.

The anti-foreign pogroms this week have been a huge embarrassment for a country that has maintained a posture of human rights advocate with subregional and even global ambitions. The timing of the xenophobic outburst may be related to the accelerating headline inflation and the runaway food prices in particular. The blaming of “the Other” is a familiar theme and the economic sub-context is never far away. What makes these conflagrations more difficult to control in Africa is their tribal aspect, as we saw in Kenya recently. And as in Kenya, the attacks in Gauteng and Mpumalanga will eventually be brought under control. But it solves absolutely nothing in the long term. In several months, South Africans will be transfixed by the spectacle of a populist politician taking over the reins from his rival Thabo Mbeki. Jacob Zuma’s direct style, his questionable probity and devoted following among disaffected masses have sent ripples through the country’s political and business establishment. But the English language media’s alarmist attacks were dangerously monolithic. While many feared the outcome of the ANC leadership contest in late 2007, the actual process of competitive bids was refreshing in a country whose democratic institutions are distorted by antiquated legacy divisions and cosmetic floor-crossing.

The lingering fears of further disruptions, tribal rifts and forced redistribution of assets are too often shoved under the ideological soundbites and the delusion of racial harmony. A country of this diversity is difficult to govern and a lip service to “unity” or “rainbow” is of no help. A federal solution was once dismissed with a sleight of hand, but I have lingering doubts about the judiciousness of that hasty decision.

The tragic attacks on foreigners reveal the greatest failure of all. I did shop at Somali stores in Western Cape and I did trade with Senegalese art dealers in Joburg. In both cases, we had good business and joshed around about life and about Africa in general. I did not feel threatened, and nor did they. I am not even sure if they realized that I, too, was a foreigner. Each of them filled a niche in South Africa’s economic spectrum that “internal” migrants into Western Cape and Gauteng failed to fill. Why? Is it simply a “tradition” that Mozambicans work in the country’s mines? The apartheid-era education disaster explains less and less with every year. 20 months from now we will celebrate 20 years since Mandela walked free. That is already an entire generation. The rest of the world has moved on.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Readers of Western press are easily lulled into a false sense of comfort by the recurrent application of a false dichotomy: “the China we know can only be Marxist-Leninist or it can be capitalist”. And since the country has “embarked on” a market economy (of sorts) and is eager to “do business” with the outside world then you can hardly argue that the People’s Republic is Marxist-Leninist in anything but its name. If we just give the Chinese Communist Party a little more time, the country’s rulers will eventually understand that the inevitable “end of history” is leaving them on the wrong side of the curb. Yes, there seems to be a lot of tension within the Chinese society, and its citizens’ pent-up anger will sooner or later focus on their rulers’ failures to protect the environment, stem corruption, modernize the health care system or improve education.

And yet, to date, this accumulated frustration, while certainly present, has been no match for the resentment that the Chinese mob, with some regularity, pours on Toyotas, Carrefours and foreign consulates.

How is it possible that nearly two decades since the cataclysmic events of June 1989, sizable sections of the Chinese population could be so strongly coerced against the Western, and allegedly universal ideals of freedom, democracy and human rights? Could it be that Chinese students’ anti-American demonstrations of 1999, anti-Japanese demonstrations of 2005 and anti-French demonstrations of 2008 are less of a temporary aberration and reveal more about the Communist Party’s ultimate success in molding a collective identity that is now exposed to modern technologies, but remains intellectually dulled and generally resentful of any influences suspect of being “foreign”?

The outside world has little understanding for Chinese nationalists’ grievances. Their hostility is a derivative of the obsession with “unity” and with the elusive congruence of the national identity and the state. Ernest Gellner once defined nationalism as first and foremost a sentiment - a feeling of satisfaction aroused by a fulfillment of the principle (of unity), or a feeling of anger provoked by the violation of that principle. Whether expressed as the “pride in China” or “anger at foreign interference”, the strongly affective response reflects an extraordinary attachment to an elusive collective identity. Nothing stirs these sentiments more than when these pre-judgments are being “confirmed” by the attitudes of out-groups, perceived as supercilious and insufficiently respectful of China’s aspirations.

Over several weeks, an entirely unprepared foreign audience was thus confronted with the images of overexcited fenqing, angry Chinese youth beating up Korean protesters, streaming into Australian capital in force to “protect China’s pride” and picketing outside European department stores. This is a message of the nationalist ardor instilled in the hearts and minds of the new generation by the post-Tienanmen indoctrination, the best guarantee yet for the preservation of Chinese Communist Party’s authority. The deeply aggrieved fenqing youth nervously stand up for their collective identity and eagerly proclaim their readiness to defend China against “Western influence”.

This does not bode well for the Olympic atmosphere in summer. The political gala of the 2008 Games will provide an excellent occasion for the self-glorification of the deeply repressive one-party state. Beijing’s gargantuan buildings, stupendous firework displays, extraordinary militarism of orderly dancers and choirs – all these remarkable wonders will no doubt entertain foreign officials while they choke in the stuffy, carbon-smelling air of the Chinese capital in August. But deep down, China’s rulers must suspect what we all know. The amazing show of economic growth, the sheepishness of most of its subjects, the grandeur of the imperial pomp and the intriguing addiction to size are little more than a spectacle of sublimation, an engagement in an activity that symbolically represents a fantasy of a bygone empire. It carries the seeds of self-doubt and the fear that few observers will mistake sensation for significance.

For everyone else, the spotlight on China is also an opportunity to probe the phenomenon of the country’s growing nationalism.

China is a beautiful country and Chinese people are very kind and warm-hearted”,
A girl on a ferry.

Many years ago, during my first trip to Communist China, a teenage girl unexpectedly walked up to me on a river ferry and rattled off the following sentence in English: “China is a beautiful country and Chinese people are very kind and warm-hearted!” This was not an opening for a more profound exchange into these themes or others. The girl’s English began and ended with the above statement. Her diminutive figure, which quickly folded back into the grey-and-brown clad crowd, precociously functioned as a megaphone for collective identity constructs, in this case directed at the then rare foreign visitors. As I recalled this scene many years later, I could not shed the amazement at the seeming triumph of collective self-identity over Chinese people’s individual self-images. Is it possible that the self-esteem, in the eyes of the locals, is coterminous with the success, respect, pride, greatness or, indeed, beauty of a “nation”? Or this merely a stir-fry serving, destined to the senses of the impressionable outsiders?

The most striking discovery that a Westerner makes while interacting with the Mainlanders is their reluctance to dissociate their individual identity from the criticism addressed at the government. Such a criticism seems to be digestible only if emitted by a mainland-dwelling Han Chinese, but is most likely attacked as illegitimate if pronounced by a foreigner, or a representative of an ethnic minority. When confronted with a group of outsiders, a mainland Chinese will often speak in first person plural (“wo-men”), volunteering to highlight the pride, if not the burdens, of the mythical “5000 years of history”.

Assuming for the moment that at least some elements of this collective identity are genuine, then why have they developed this way?

Part of the answer could be sought in the cognitive structures that interact with the terms existing in Mandarin. It is true that the concept of “identity” (e.g. rentong – combination of ‘identify with/comply with’, or shenfen – ‘body/split’) emphasizes a set of relations, rather than individuality. There is little doubt that this conception reflects the robustly relational character of primary groups.

The second part of the answer could be searched in the Chinese intellectual tradition of obscuring the differences between the natural and the cultural, between nature and nurture. Much has been made of the primacy of family ties in Asia, as the grounding source of ethical values. But in Chinese culture, the legitimacy of family ties has been for 2500 years extended to other societal relations. Superimposition of family-like connections operated to strengthen the feelings of obligation to “tian-di-jun-qin-shi”, respectively: heaven, earth, sovereign, parent and teacher. When the arbitrary ties to the ruler and the teacher are thus couched in terms reminiscent of the patrilineal legitimacy, the freedom to choose one’s relational identity is being severely constrained. The entire Confucian emphasis on the concept of duty could thus be exploited as the backbone of the authoritarian ideological kit.

Nevertheless, it requires an enormous leap of faith to equalize the meaning of relational identity and extended patriarchalism with that of a “national bond” or “national identity”. The pre-eminence of sense-perception in East Asia makes any reference to abstract entities inherently difficult to enforce. Had the very terms “identity” and “obligation” made the definition of the Chinese collective self so simple, the country’s successive dynasties and regimes would have found it fairly straightforward to promote a coherent set of defining “values”, “customs” and “symbols”. Instead, a China in identity crisis re-defines its national character more readily in opposition to the rejected and vilified “Other” – the Westerner, the Japanese, or a “minority” group.

(This is the first in a series of articles devoted to the phenomenon of Chinese nationalism. They will appear regularly over the next couple of weeks).