Rising tensions with Taiwan have focused attention on China, with many wondering where President Xi Jinping sees his country on the world stage. Perhaps the past may provide some clues, writes Rana Mitter, a history professor at Oxford University.
China is now a global power, something hardly imaginable just a few decades ago.
Its power sometimes comes from cooperation with the rest of the world, such as the signing of the Paris climate agreement.
Or sometimes it means competition with it, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, a network of construction projects in more than 60 countries that has brought investments to many parts of the world without Western loans.
Yet there is also a strongly conflicting tone to much of China’s global rhetoric.
Beijing condemns the United States for trying to “contain” China through the new AUKUS submarine pact (Australia-United Kingdom-USA), warns the United Kingdom that there would be “consequences” for the granting of residency in Great Britain to the inhabitants of Hong Kong who are leaving their city due to the tough National Security Act and told the island of Taiwan that it should prepare for unification with the mainland.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has affirmed China’s place on the global stage far more strongly than any of his predecessors since Mao Zedong, China’s supreme leader during the Cold War.
However, other elements of his rhetoric draw on much older sources, looking back on his own history, both ancient and more recent.
Here are five of these recurring themes.
For over 2,000 years, the norms of Confucian thought have shaped Chinese society. The philosopher (551-479 AD) constructed an ethical system that combined the hierarchy, in which people would know their place in society, with benevolence, the expectation that those in higher positions would take care of their inferiors.
Heavily adapted over time, this system of thought supported the Chinese dynasties until the revolution of 1911, when the overthrow of the last emperor caused a backlash against Confucius and his legacy from radicals including the new Communist Party.
One of those communists, Mao Zedong, remained deeply hostile to traditional Chinese philosophy during his years in power (1949-1976). But by the 1980s, Confucius had returned to Chinese society, praised by the Communist Party as a brilliant figure with lessons to teach contemporary China.
Today China celebrates “harmony” (hexie) as a “socialist value”, even though it has a very Confucian air. And a hot topic in Chinese international relations is the question of how that term “benevolence” (ren), another key Confucian term, can shape Beijing’s relations with the outside world.
Tsinghua University Professor Yan Xuetong wrote of how China should seek “benevolent authority” rather than “domination” as opposed to what he sees as the less benevolent role of the United States.
Xi Jinping’s idea of a “world community of common destiny” also has a traditional philosophical flavor – and Xi visited Confucius’ birthplace, Qufu, and quoted his sayings in public.
A century of humiliation
The historical clashes of the 19th and 20th centuries still deeply shape Chinese thinking about the world.
The opium wars of the mid-19th century saw Western traders use force to violently open China’s doors. Much of the period from 1840 to 1940 is remembered as a “century of humiliation,” a shameful era that showed China’s weakness in the face of European and Japanese aggression.
During that era, China had to cede Hong Kong to Great Britain, territory in the northeastern region of Manchuria to the Japanese, and a whole host of legal and commercial privileges to a number of Western countries. In the postwar period, it was the USSR that sought to gain influence in China’s borders, including Manchuria and Xinjiang.
- BBC Bitesize: the first opium war
This experience created a deep suspicion of the intentions of the outside world. Even seemingly outward gestures such as China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 were supported by a cultural memory of “unfair treaties” when Chinese trade was controlled by foreigners – a situation that today’s Communist Party has sworn to never allow again.
In March of this year, a hot-tempered public session between Chinese and American negotiators in Anchorage, Alaska, saw the Chinese reject US criticism by accusing their hosts of “condescension and hypocrisy”. Xi’s China does not tolerate the idea that outsiders can despise their country with impunity.
However, even terrible events can produce more positive messages.
One such message comes from the Chinese phase of World War II, when he fought Japan essentially alone after being invaded in 1937, before Western Allies joined the Asian War at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
In those years, China lost more than 10 million people and detained over half a million Japanese troops on the Chinese mainland, a feat widely commemorated in history books, films and television.
Today China portrays itself as part of the “anti-fascist alliance” alongside the United States, Great Britain and the USSR, giving itself a moral ballast reminding the world of its role as victor against the Axis powers.
China also draws on its historic role as a Third World leader in the Mao era (e.g. at the 1955 Bandung Conference and in projects such as the construction of the TanZam railway in East Africa in the 1970s) to polish its credentials as leader today in the non-Western world.
- Witness the surrender of Japan to China
Modern history remains a key part of how the Communist Party of China perceives its legitimacy. Yet elements of that story – most notably the terrible famine caused by the disastrous economic policies of the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62 – remain almost unheard in China today.
And some modern wars can be used for more conflicting purposes. The past year of turbulent US-China relations has seen new films commemorating the 1950-3 Korean War – a conflict the Chinese remember under a different name – “the war of resistance on 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 20th century, Mao Zedong and other prominent Communist political leaders took part in theoretical debates on Marxism with immense consequences.
For example, the notion of “class warfare” led to the killing of a million landowners in the early years of Mao’s rule. Although “class” has fallen out of use as a way of defining society, the political language of China today is still shaped by ideas of “struggle”, “antagonism” and conceptions of “socialism” as opposed to “capitalism”.
Leading journals, such as the theoretical body of the Qiushi Party, regularly discuss “contradictions” in Chinese society in terms that draw heavily on Marxist theory.
Xi’s China defines the US-China competition as a struggle that can be understood in terms of Marxist antagonism.
The same is true of economic forces in society and their interaction: the difficulties in growing the economy and maintaining that growth adequately green are interpreted in terms of contradiction. In classical Marxism, you reach an agreed point, or synthesis, but not before working on often painful and lengthy “antagonisms”.
Beijing underlines the unwavering fate of the island of Taiwan, which defines unification with mainland China.
Yet the past century of Taiwan’s history shows that the question of its status is rising and falling in Chinese politics. In 1895, after a disastrous war with Japan, China was forced to cede Taiwan, which later 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 lost the opportunity to unify the island; the American Truman administration would likely have let Mao take it, until the People’s Republic of China joined the North Koreans in the 1950 invasion of South Korea, causing the Korean War and suddenly turning Taiwan into a key ally of the war. cold.
- What’s behind the China-Taiwan gap?
Mao launched attacks on the Taiwan coast in 1958, but then ignored the territory for the next 20 years. After the United States and China re-established relations in 1979, there was a difficult agreement that all parties would agree that there was a China, but they disagreed that the regime of Beijing or Taiwan was indeed the legitimate republic.
Forty years later, Xi Jinping insists that unification must come soon, as Hong Kong’s aggressive rhetoric and fate have led public opinion in Taiwan, now citizens of a liberal democracy, to become increasingly hostile to a closer relationship with the mainland.
Professor Rana Mitter teaches at the University of Oxford, where he specializes in the history and politics of modern China. His latest book is China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism
Read More about World News here.
This Article is Sourced from BBC News. You can check the original article here: Source