Never Forget National Humiliation

Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, by Zheng Wang, Columbia University Press, $32.50

Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese nationalist leader, wrote the same bitter message into his diary every day for 20 years: “Avenge humiliation.” Next to this pithy reminder, he would also add a daily suggestion on how China might “wipe clean” the humiliations inflicted on it by foreign powers.

That story is retold in Zheng Wang’s book, Never Forget National Humiliation. Dr Zheng is now an academic in the US. But he grew up in the People’s Republic of China and so has an intimate knowledge of the nationalist narrative that is now standard fare for Chinese schoolchildren and students. His book is slightly marred by the abstract, model-based theorising that seems to be compulsory for American political scientists. However, it remains a valuable and, often lively, account of a crucial aspect of modern China.

The thesis of his book is that Chinese citizens are being inculcated with a powerful nationalism, based on the sense that their nation must overcome the bitter legacy of the “century of humiliation” – which ran from the first Opium War of 1840 to the defeat of the Japanese in 1945. China’s “historical memory” is key to understanding its foreign policy – in particular a determination to “stand up” to western powers and to Japan.

As Dr Zheng makes clear, the adoption of an explicitly nationalist discourse is a relatively recent development for the Chinese Communist party. It was the nationalist Kuomintang, led by Chiang, that was initially fixated by the idea of avenging the depredations of imperialists and the “unfair treaties” they imposed on China. The Communist party, which was wedded to a class-based view of history and prided itself on its internationalism, did not stress nationalism. Politically, it was more convenient for the communists to blame the misfortunes of China during the 19th and 20th centuries on the decadence and weakness of the country’s own rulers.

That all changed, however, in the post-Mao era. Once the Communist party had effectively embraced capitalism, inequality and globalisation, it needed some new source of political legitimacy. This search for a new political narrative became much more urgent after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

A nationalist view of history was promoted by the party, as part of a conscious response to Tiananmen. History textbooks were rewritten and a whole panoply of new museums built all over the country – with the explicit purpose of showcasing past national humiliations. There is an Opium War museum in Guangdong; a Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in Nanjing – and a lavish new history gallery in the Beijing National Museum, which presents China’s past as a story of national humiliation, redeemed by the courage and strength of the Communist party.

Dr Zheng believes that the leaders who promote a nationalist discourse are not driven simply by a cynical search for legitimacy. He argues the top Chinese leadership has internalised nationalist views – and the rather paranoid opinion of foreign powers that goes along with them. In a fascinating passage, he quotes extensively from leaked discussions held among the country’s leaders, in the aftermath of the Nato bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Even in private, none of the leaders accepted America’s explanation that the bombing had been an accident – all saw it as a deliberate challenge to Chinese national honour, and some saw it as a plot to provoke and undermine China.

After 30 years of nationalist education, these ideas are likely to be more embedded in the general population – who are less educated and less exposed to foreign ideas than China’s leaders.

A key question, however, is whether a freer political climate will lead to challenges to the dominant nationalist discourse in China. The gaps in the current official account of modern Chinese history are certainly conspicuous. On my own recent tour of the national history museum in Beijing, I was struck not just by the unmissable emphasis on national humiliation – but also by the almost complete absence of discussion of the tragedies that the Communist party itself has inflicted on the Chinese people; above all, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the repression of the student movement in 1989.

In a freer China, all these gaps in the official account of the nation’s history will have to be debated and filled in. That, in turn, should lead to a more nuanced view of Chinese history. Nonetheless, the impact of decades of nationalist education will not be shaken off lightly – and the lasting effects will be felt, not just in China, but around the world.

The writer is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator

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