China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, has issued a call for action to realize “the cause of national rejuvenation,” which he describes as “the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history.”
Mr. Xi held up two goals: the achievement of a moderately prosperous society by about 2020 (when Mr. Xi will in all likelihood still be the country’s leader) and the construction of a strong, civilized and harmonious socialist country by the middle of the century.
Certainly, since before the time of Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, Chinese intellectuals have cried, “Zhenxing zhonghua!” (“Revitalize China!”) Mr. Xi’s call, therefore, is likely to resonate with many.
But this is not 1949, when idealistic Chinese from around the world returned to a poverty-stricken country to help build New China. Countless numbers were subsequently persecuted in political campaigns launched by Mao Zedong.
This is 2012 and, while the Chinese people no doubt appreciate the advances their country has made over the past three decades, they also remember the human tragedies that almost every family experienced at the hands of the Communist Party.
Mr. Xi issued his call after visiting “The Road Toward Renewal” exhibition at the National Museum of China that highlighted the Opium Wars and the subsequent century of humiliation of China.
What this means is that the new leadership is again harping on an underlying theme in the propaganda of the People’s Republic – China as a victim of foreign countries.
But, at the same time, the Chinese government has been silent on the Chinese people as victims of the Communist Party. After all, the number of deaths suffered by Chinese at the hands of the Communist government vastly exceeds that at the hands of foreigners, with more than 30 million people having died in Mao’s Great Leap Forward campaign alone.
The danger of perpetuating a “victim” mentality is that it creates an expectation within China that, when the country is strong, it should settle scores with those who had humiliated it in the past. Such sentiments were very much in evidence during the recent anti-Japanese demonstrations across the country.
Neighbouring countries are already apprehensive of what a militarily strong China will do. Recent Chinese actions only strengthen such fears.
China should realize that it’s not the only country with “lost territories.” It should keep in mind that China’s territory – 9.59 million square kilometres – is much bigger than it was in the Ming dynasty, the last Han Chinese dynasty, which, at its peak, administered an area of only 6.5 million square kilometres.
The size of China’s territory has waxed and waned – mostly waxed – over the centuries. And China grew by subjugating neighbouring peoples, such as those who lived in what’s now called Xinjiang, whose very name – “new territory” – confirms the fact that it didn’t use to be part of China.
In the 21st century, there’s little to be gained by refighting old battles. No country should rely on force – or the threat of force – to gain what it sees as its rightful territory.
An iron fist is not the way to resolve disputes; it only hardens attitudes all around. Thus, in response to new Chinese passports that carry maps bearing China’s territorial claims, the Indian government has come up with a visa stamp that incorporates India’s claimed territories.
Similarly, the report that Hainan province, beginning Jan. 1, will authorize police to board and search ships that illegally enter what China considers to be its territory in the South China Sea will only add to tensions. Even if the Chinese authorities don’t carry out this threat in the short term, other countries now know that the Chinese have legislated to give themselves this power. In future, Beijing will simply say it’s enforcing Chinese law.
Such assertiveness doesn’t do China any good and will only increase the country’s international isolation.
In the 21st century, no one should consider using force to resolve territorial disputes. All such problems should be tackled by diplomats, not soldiers, or resolved by international judicial bodies. If such efforts fail, then the status quo should be maintained and other means found to satisfy the needs of the parties concerned – joint economic development, for example, or sharing fishery resources.
So, when Chinese leaders appeal to patriotic sentiments, they should understand that people around the world are listening. And they should be very careful not to fan the flames of nationalism.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.