‘Xi Jinping has staked out a greater global role for China even while championing a message of assertive nationalism at home’
As China’s Communist Party (CPC) turns 100 on July 1, its current leader, Xi Jinping, has staked out a greater global role for China even while championing a message of assertive nationalism at home. How China will manage these two increasingly conflicting trends remains to be seen. For China, says Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, University of Oxford, and author of “China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism”, at the heart of the party’s aspirations is domestic stability and prosperity, and the fear of the system somehow being overturned. So, domestic considerations will always come first. Excerpts from an interview:
On June 29, Xi Jinping honoured 29 people with a medal, including veterans of the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War, and called on Chinese Communists to remember past contributions and sacrifices. Do those messages still resonate in 2021?
What the ceremony showed was the continuing importance of history in the way that the Chinese Communist Party thinks about itself. Also the way in which that history is used to burnish a narrative, which essentially is about the sort of inevitability in the eyes of the party of its eventual victory. You mentioned a couple of the wars, the Chinese Civil War in which the party was seen to have showed its legitimacy by defeating its Nationalist opponents and the former leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and then the Korean War. This actually came back into prominence last year in 2020 after a long period because in China, the Korean War is not called the Korean War, it’s called the anti-American war [“the war to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea”]. During the period of increased tensions between the U.S. and China, it has a certain sort of historical resonance, but I think it is a really important indication that when the party thinks about 100 years of its own history, it sees it as a continuity. It sees it really as a narrative that has struggled to overcome, and doesn’t really have reverses in the way that it thinks about it. That’s a large part of what the message that was being put forward today [June 29] had to say.
There has been some limited space in China in the past to debate history but it seems increasingly that’s narrowing. Do you see a change under Xi on how the party approaches the history question?
There’s definitely been a shift towards a much more controlled way of looking at history under Xi Jinping, the current leader. It’s always been the case, actually, for thousands of years in the sense that history is political in China. One of the first court historians, Sima Qian in the Han Dynasty [206 BCE to 220 CE], actually found himself being severely punished for writing history that was insulting of the Emperor. There is this long tradition of political history getting people into trouble. In the case of Xi in particular, he has moved the dial from where it was certainly 10 years ago, maybe even five years ago. At that point, it was certainly possible for scholars in particular to read alternative histories of the party, ones in which some of the leaders who had previously been sort of purged might be somewhat reconsidered. The disasters of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s were acknowledged, if not fully, at least as being mistakes that had to be overcome.
But now, there is a much stronger sense that actually, even those sort of cautious criticisms of mistakes in the party’s history can’t be permitted anymore. We gather new textbooks are being issued to schools, which basically don’t even talk about the Cultural Revolution as a mistake. They talk about a period of kind of rethinking and re-education, which would come as a great surprise to all the people who were beaten up during that period. One talks to scholars working in China today, and obviously that has to be done with a certain amount of discretion. The sense that they are being much more constrained in talking about the party’s history is very evident. It’s a top down edict, but it’s having a real effect on the writing of history in China’s own institutions today, for sure.
The idea of national rejuvenation has been around for a long time, but has become more prominent in the Xi era. Do you see a difference in the party’s approach to creating a national identity, and its view of nationalism?
I think it is different. He does, of course, draw on what his predecessors did. If you look at the idea from Deng Xiaoping back in the 1980s, that China should “hide its light and bide its time”, that China should be concentrating on getting rich, securing its economy, engaging with the world and creating this huge economic miracle, when Deng Xiaoping said that he didn’t intend that should be the case forever. He meant that China should use that time to build up to a position where it could reveal itself to the world as a major new power. I think Xi Jinping would feel that he is the leader who essentially has fulfilled that promise or expectation from Deng. If you look at the Party Congress speech that Xi gave back in 2017, that’s one of the first explicit articulations of the idea that China is going to take this global role, that it’s going to have influence around the world.
That is a large part of what you mentioned, the Chinese renaissance, is supposed to be about. In other words, it’s not just a renaissance to itself. It’s a renaissance in terms of the family of nations, the family of civilizations, whatever you want to call it. The difficulty they have now, and this is a question that is still in flux, is how far is China declaring the great renaissance is something that really can only be experienced by people who are within China itself? And therefore, the rest of the world has no right really to comment on it? And how far is it actually supposed to be a message about China changing the rest of the world? These two things seem to be in some ways in conflict with each other. I’m not sure that China itself as yet knows what its answer is to that paradox.
The party pushing this idea of rejuvenation, that China has grown strong and stood up, plays well at home, but doesn’t play very well externally. It seems that contradiction has become more acute. Is it too simplistic to suggest the domestic will always win over external considerations?
I don’t think it’s too simplistic at all. You’ve actually given a very astute assessment of what is at the heart, in the end, of the aspirations of the Chinese Communist Party and the state they run, which is domestic stability and prosperity, but also fear, more than anything else, of the system somehow being overturned. So that domestic consideration will always be most important. I’d like to say it’s not inevitably true, but I think it’s broadly true that when Politburo member Xi Jinping or one of his colleagues gets up in the morning, they’re not so much worried about what the Prime Minister of Japan is about to do as they’re worried about what the Party Secretary of Hunan or the Party Secretary of Sichuan, is about to do, and then probably trying to stop him do it as well. I say him because the number of senior female politicians in China is very, very sad. Nonetheless, let’s understand that international politics in some senses is in service of domestic politics, the two can’t be entirely separated. So in that sense, I think there is a debate going on. This suggests that they are worried about how far favourability ratings for China have plummeted in the year of the pandemic. In India, you’ll be very aware that last year’s Galwan clash really heavily damaged China’s reputation with the Indian public, issues such as how far to take Chinese technology in India I think have been quite negatively affected by the realisation that this is a neighbour who is going to continue to be very problematic in military terms. Lots of other countries are beginning to have a sort of sense that maybe having China as a growing neighbour is problematic.
One reason we can tell that there clearly is some sort of reset going on, at least in words, is a speech made by Xi Jinping just a couple of weeks ago, in which he talked about the need for China in the world to be more humble and more lovable. The idea that basically China’s diplomats have gone around the world, essentially barking their heads off, and telling their host countries where they’ve got it wrong, has just not gone down at all, well, anywhere. Whether or not this marks more of a change of language than a change of policy remains to be seen. But it is clear that the Chinese state or the party does recognise that there is a real problem, not just in India, but all across Western Europe, in North America, in Japan, in parts of Southeast Asia. So not everywhere in the world, I’d say in Africa, Latin America, probably feelings towards China are less negative then perhaps in Asia and the global north. But that’s still a pretty considerable part of the world that China has managed to alarm and anger during the past year.
As you mentioned, Xi had in 2017 spoken about China moving to the centre stage of the world, of offering a China solution. Do you see its global ambitions aimed at better using the current world order to suit its interests, or is it to replace the existing one?
I think there’s a dual track strategy, possibly a triple track strategy going on in China. Number one, China is into ownership of the current international order. On the other hand, they would argue, I think, very openly that many aspects of the international system at the moment have worked for them quite well. They’ve done really well in the World Trade Organization, they found it useful to be a major player in the UN Security Council. Institutions such as the World Health Organization have obviously been very heavily influenced by China during the pandemic. So in terms of the existing world system, they’re keen to make it clear that it has plenty of uses for them.
One of the cases that China makes is that China is keen to assert its central role in founding the United Nations, not just to assert its power, that is a large part of the reason, but also to assert its morality. In other words, it’s trying to make the argument that not only are we a strong power in China, we are also a decent power, a good power, because we were amongst the founding nations that actually put together this structure, which still underpins the world. And of course, this was a much more powerful argument until a few months ago, during the presidency of Donald Trump, while Donald Trump was essentially rejecting many aspects of that international order, it made China look more like the status quo power. That’s now harder to do now that Joe Biden has said, you know, America is back.
But we should also note that China is also doing a lot to try and shift the global order as well, either by setting up new institutions that don’t quite fit into the old system, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. It’s a development bank, it’s based out of Beijing, it looks a little bit like any other country’s development bank, but it is not actually a huge amount of money that it disperses but it’s there to show that Beijing can play that game on its own, if it wants to. In some other areas as well, including defence. India, of course, is very aware, of the capacity these days of the People’s Liberation Army Navy to project its blue water power, not just into the Pacific, but into the Indian Ocean. Now that is a shift in global order. And although it’s not necessarily a confrontational one at the moment, it does suggest that China is slowly but inevitably changing a whole variety of assumptions we had about whose neighbourhood belongs to whom.
China has also been invoking the UN to, for instance, criticising the Quad and ideas of a ‘rules-based order’, saying that the only order is the UN one.
The Quad structure, the idea that India, Japan, Australia, and the United States will come together in essentially a kind of a defensive alliance against unnamed powers, I think most people assume China is really what they’re defining it against. That would seem logical. This has got the Chinese both angry and alarmed, and they’ve been speaking in evermore shrill tones about what a terrible idea this is. The different reasons that have been put forward by China – the latest one, as you say, about being outside the UN – is really a function of the fact that China can’t really articulate the major reason that they didn’t like it, which is that they hate the idea of other powers, particularly liberal or democratic powers, coming together in formations that push back against China. There are plenty of other non-UN entities, economic entities in the region that have Chinese input and influence. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership [RCEP] is a very good example of that. China doesn’t go around complaining that RCEP doesn’t fit into those sorts of models. So there’s a certain sort of instrumentalism. When it comes to economics and China, then suddenly, it’s okay.
On the on-going discourse battle between China and the West, Beijing appears to be less defensive than it was in the past about its model, for instance speaking out against ideas such as universal values or for non-interference in internal affairs. Do you think those ideas have a greater resonance at the moment, in parts of Latin America, Africa, Asia, than the West might perhaps assume?
I think that’s true, but just as the West underestimates how powerful that discourse from China can be, I think China is running the danger of overestimating it. Let me say that I think that an awful lot of countries that are interested in Chinese investment, and have some genuine gratitude for what has been produced, whether it’s COVID vaccines, or investment in 5G, don’t necessarily wholesale believe that actually makes China meritorious in its own right. Let me use the example of Argentina, Argentina is a country that it is well known has been going through a whole variety of financial crises really for 20 years or more. It’s broadband, and internet, for instance, is very, very patchy in in many ways. So it would appear that there may be a significant chance of China investing in 5G there that might give China, providing, Chinese technology, an advantage on the grounds that once you lock people into a particular technological path, you can keep them dependent on it. It helps Argentina perhaps because cheap, subsidised, 5G is much cheaper than anything anyone else has come up with. But is it going to stop Argentina being a democracy? Is it going to stop Argentina having a very lively free media? Is it going to stop Argentina having Argentinian politics? Argentina is not going to become some kind of clone of China, because it’s taking Chinese money and at the moment feels angry with the West and the United States. So I think we have to understand that yes, China’s influence is important. But for many countries in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, it’s more because those countries actually want a balance between choices. And they would be as disconcerted to have the choice of only China as they are to feel that they only have the choice of the World Bank or Western organizations as was the case in the past.