March 12, 2013 § 4 Comments
I recently wrote a piece on China in this magazine entitled, “We the People’s Republic of China.” In it, I present imperial China as a highly functional cosmopolitan empire built on philosophy rather than an ethnic nation-state. From that reading of history, I suggest that China rethink the legitimacy of its current political arrangement and the fervent nationalism on which it is based.
But is that the only way Chinese history could be interpreted? The Chinese empires ruled over people of many creeds and colors, and their policies had certainly not been tolerant. The Yuan and Qing Dynasties established caste systems segregated by ethnicity; non-Han ethnic kingdoms such as the Jurchen or the Dali were summarily brushed off as anomalies and footnotes. The Confucian examination system itself could certainly be thought of as a destructive force unleashed by the Chinese hegemon on its conquered peoples. Confucianism as it had evolved in China was a way to organize society, placing each person in specific social roles with rigid expectations and responsibilities. Advancement through mastery of the system, then, really meant internalizing and perpetuating those social hierarchies. It is not so different from the French government’s turning Bretons and Basques into Frenchmen through compulsory public education in the late 1800s. If we read history that way, China’s nationalism isn’t a 20th century phenomenon. It’s only the latest iteration of a millennia-old nation-building exercise.
Read that way, imperial China looks exactly like a modern nation-state. It encompassed an ethnic majority plus an influx of minorities and foreigners. It ruled over many aspects of its subjects’ lives through an advanced degree of systematic bureaucracy. It enshrined political stability by homogenizing the populace. The difference is that in the past, peasants and merchants became gentry subjects of the emperor through scholarly indoctrination, but today the nation-building project is predicated on rectifying the humiliation by Western powers.
In other words, China today is predicated on a psychology of revenge.
Which, fundamentally, is the pathology of China’s current strain of nationalism. It focuses on economic and military competition with its neighbors and the West, creating unnecessary tension; it allows for improbable wealth disparities within the state; it is blind to the harms done to minority ethnic heritages by its modernization policies; it necessitates a harmonious and united society over a candid and self-critical one, all as calculated costs for a singular end.
Giving due recognition to China’s cosmopolitan past and the accomplishments of the many nations within China is a first step (albeit already herculean in itself) to tampering this pathology, and many states today offer lessons of success and failure on how to manage ethnic tension within the institutions of the state (federalism, consociational forms of governance, etc). But we are only talking about a part of the problem.
So questions remain: Can China’s cosmopolitan past give us any clues as to how we got here, and what alternative paths China may take? Under what circumstances will China say, we have finished our project of overtaking the West, we have been paid our retribution in full? And once that happens, what will, or should, China become? I will attempt to offer my thoughts in future pieces, and I hope they will at least provoke more reflection on these questions.