“Century of Humiliation” Complicates US-China Relationship

The U.S.-China relationship will be in focus as China’s president Xi Jinping comes to the United States for his first state visit this week. The relationship has shown some worrisome signs in recent years – with tensions over the South China Sea, cyber attacks, and other old and new issues.

ObamaXiAt his 2013 meeting with President Obama in California, President Xi Jinping called for a “new kind of major-power relationship,” meaning that the rising power and the established power can cooperate to create a new international order rather than engaging in a dangerous rivalry.

This is a promising concept and the right path for the U.S.-China relationship. However, the two countries’ significant differences in ideologies and worldviews prevent them from seeing eye-to-eye.

To understand these differences, Orville Schell’s and John Delury’s book Wealth and Power sheds light on what drives Chinese leaders. The book covers the period from the Opium Wars in the 1840s to modern times under Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Although a history book, it cannot be more pertinent to the current thinking in China.

One central theme permeates the book. Over the last 150 years, generations of Chinese have relentlessly pursued one goal: to restore China’s greatness – Fu Qiang, or “wealth and power” (a more accurate translation of Fu Qiang should be “prosperity and strength”). As the authors argue, such undertakings were motivated by a profound sense of shame and humiliation.

In the early nineteenth century, China was under the illusion that other nations were barbarians, and too remote from the center of the civilized world. But China was soon shaken by much more powerful Western nations. For much of the second half of the nineteenth century, it suffered humiliating defeats in the First and Second Opium Wars with the British, wars with the French, Portuguese, and even the Japanese, whom Chinese considered inferior “dwarf people.”

These events brought China to its knees. The Qing government signed a series of “unequal treaties,” conceding Hong Kong, Macau, and other major port cities to Western control. The Chinese consider this period “a century of humiliation.”

Schell and Delury argue that the Chinese have never forgotten that shame. In their vivid accounts of eleven prominent Chinese thinkers, reformers, and revolutionaries, along with many others who played significant roles in China’s recent history, the authors show how this sense of shame and humiliation has been underpinning the Chinese mentality throughout the last 150 years and until today.

One of the early thinkers, Feng Guifen, believed that the reason that Western countries were so advanced was that they were rich and had strong armies. He reminded his countrymen that the humiliation could serve as a catalyst for self-strengthening. Hence, the idea to make China a strong, rich, and respected country preoccupied generations thereafter in their quest to regain China’s preeminence in the world.

Chinese intellectuals also examined Western democracy. But the central question was to see whether democracy could serve as a means to make China strong, rather than viewing it as a principle to live by. Many dismissed the idea of democracy because it might cause more chaos in China.

The book features instrumental figures such as Liang Qichao, Sun Yet-sen, Jiang Jieshi, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping. While they held different beliefs, they were all on a mission to restore China’s prosperity and strength. They experimented with different modes of reform – be it social Darwinism, republicanism, Leninism, communism, or capitalism.

When Deng Xiaoping’s experiment with a market economy finally triumphed, he had not forgotten “the century of humiliation.” His last wish was to see Hong Kong’s return to China (Deng passed away in February 1997, only five months before Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China).

Schell and Delury hit the core of the differences between the U.S. and China. In the West, many consider democracy and human rights universal values – if not “God-given rights.” In China, however, “building a strong nation so that no one can mistreat us anymore” overrides all other agendas.

This topic has never been fully explored and understood before. Indeed, the sense of humiliation is so deeply entrenched in the Chinese psyche, that even today while the rest of the world considers China a strong and powerful nation, many Chinese still behave as the ones being bullied and mistreated, with a watchful eye for “hostile foreign forces.”

This complicates the U.S.-China relationship. A simple trade dispute can be interpreted by the Chinese as a Western way to undermine China. For example, some extremists regard China’s holding of trillions of U.S. foreign reserves as a conspiracy by the U.S. government to colonize the Chinese economy. There is increasing anti-American rhetoric in Chinese social media, with posts accusing Uncle Sam of plotting to dismantle China “in the way it did to the Soviet Union.”

This “strong nation” mentality clearly defines Xi Jinping’s worldview. His “China Dream” was all about rejuvenating China. In a recent military parade to commemorate the 70-year anniversary of the WWII victory, China put on an unprecedented display of its growing military prowess. At the ceremony, Xi Jinping said, “to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation requires generations of continual striving. The Chinese people have created a brilliant civilization of 5,000 years; we can create an even greater civilization for tomorrow.”

The U.S.-China relationship is a pivotal relationship for the 21st century. For Xi’s “new kind of major-power relationship” to work, China needs to walk out of the shadow of its unfortunate past and be a confident global player. For the U.S., understanding Chinese psychology and acknowledging there might be another worldview that is as valid as ours can help formulate policies that will avoid miscalculations and unnecessary conflicts.

As Xi Jinping’s visit nears, the world is watching how these two powers interact. One thing is certain: the current world order is disrupted by a rising China, which has a different set of priorities and agendas than that of the U.S. Whether a new world order will be created peacefully will depend on how well the U.S. and China understand each other and whether they can work together.

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