Almost every nation in the Asia-Pacific can claim, with some justification, to be a victim. Some are victims of European colonialism or the injured party of American imperialism. Others were victims of Japanese aggression during the first half of the 20th Century.
Even Japan can declare its victimhood, as it was the first (and so far, only) target of nuclear weapons.
Few countries, however, have taken this sense of victimization to its dizzying heights better than the Chinese – or, more properly, than the Communist leadership of the People’s Republic. Indeed, much like the wumao (“50-cent army”) trolls who will almost assuredly attack the author viciously in the comments section after this article, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has raised this sense of past humiliation and subsequent outrage to a fine art. More importantly, it has deliberately done so for political purpose.
This is not to say that the Chinese people have not suffered at the hands of outsiders. China has been subjected to centuries of invasion, including the Mongols, the Manchus (Qing), Europeans and Americans, and the Japanese. They have every right to feel aggrieved by such treatment and to take pride in their country’s recent emergence as an economic and geopolitical great power.
But the current campaign of so-called victimhood has been nothing less than a cynical ploy by the CCP to manipulate Chinese history and the feelings of the Chinese people, as a means to stay in power. Interestingly, this campaign is actually a recent phenomenon. According to Zhen Wang’s excellent book, Never Forget National Humiliation, the official historical narrative of China was quite different immediately after the founding of the People’s Republic.
Under Mao, the emphasis was on “China as victor.” In 1949, the Chinese people had “stood up” – in other words, they had overthrown the humiliations of the past and created a new self-governing state. This triumphalism was actually quite common to communist regimes, and their establishment usually meant, in their eyes at least, the end of history. The National Museum of China, for example, has few exhibitions dedicated Chinese history past 1949, and it certainly does not cover such irksome events as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, or the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
This began to change in the early 1990s, in large part, according to the Wang, to the CCP’s consternation that Chinese youth could so be “polluted” by such foreign ideas as democracy and freedom of thought and expression. Consequently, the “China as victim” motif has increasingly become an increasingly dominant, CCP-led narrative.
This shameless appeal to nationalism and the subsequent manipulation of historical memory is due mainly to the fact that the CCP has little legitimacy otherwise. It has pretty much jettisoned Marxist ideology as its foundation for governing. Nor can it base its authority solely on economic performance, especially as GDP growth softens.
Thus, this “us-against-them” theme can be seen everywhere, such as in the expansion of new monuments and museums observing Chinese suffering at the hands of the Japanese during the Pacific War, or in conspiracy theories that the United States deliberately bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo War.
All this is one thing, but this victimhood narrative takes a much darker turn when it begins to infect Chinese foreign and security policy. Here is the critical point: international relations is generally about getting along; consequently, it is often a process of negotiation, compromise, and concession. But victims, because they have suffered, feel that they should not have to concede or compromise, especially to their real or imagined bullies. Rather, victims are entitled to indulgences and privileged treatment.
This sense of “entitled victimization” is increasingly seen in China’s dealings with the outside world. A BBC report recently spoke of Chinese foreign policy being driven by a “populist nationalism” fueled by an “official narrative of [Western] humiliation.”
This is apparent in China’s take on the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. This perception of national victimhood has spurred Beijing into becoming ever more intransigent in pressing its territorial claims in the adjoining seas. There is no “dispute,” because China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the SCS, plain and simple. Beijing throws out specious arguments about early historical sightings of the Spratlys by Chinese fishermen, or discovering shards of Chinese pottery or coins on some of the islands (by such rights, Norway could claim Canada). It then accuses other countries, such as the Philippines, of “bullying” China, and that the US and Japanese navies, by conducting freedom of navigation patrols (FONOPS) in the SCS, are operating in places they have no right to be. More recently, it has been used to justify the unsurprising militarization of China’s artificial islands in SCS.
What makes this attitude all the more frightening is China’s growing military might. Beijing has, for at least a decade and a half, invested considerable resources, in terms of both money and human capital, into building up its armed forces – and it is paying off. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a much more capable force, relative to its neighbors, than it was twenty years ago.
The concern comes when this modernized and revitalized military force is matched by a new assertiveness, obstinacy, and obduracy in international affairs. When coupled with the country’s sense of victimhood and the subsequent need to “reclaim lost status,” the result is a more militarily capable China that may also be much less inclined to negotiation and compromise, because it may feel it does not need to.
These dual trends – the modernization of the PLA in its embrace of modern, high-technology warfare, together with a “China as victim” narrative – is leading to an increasingly assertive regime in Beijing that believes it is due its place in the sun. This “entitled victimization,” in turn, denotes a China that is less and less willing to support the status quo or pursue peaceful routes to dispute resolution in the Asia-Pacific, but rather it implies a regional great power that is increasingly willing to use force or the threat of force in support of its national interests.
OK, trolls, it’s your turn.
Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.