Back To Top
Opinion

[Jongsoo Lee] China must overcome victim mentality

China’s recent steps in its foreign policy, such as the aggressive actions in territorial disputes with its neighbors and its support for North Korea over the recent Cheonan incident and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, have led observers to wonder if China has finally embarked on a brazen all-out campaign for regional and even global domination as the rising new hegemonic power. What is missing from recent commentary on China is a historical perspective on China’s rise from China’s own perspective as well as the perspectives of other countries. Is China aware that other countries increasingly feel threatened by its behavior?

For centuries until the sudden rise of the Western powers to global hegemony in the mid-19th century, China had been the world’s largest economy and also among the strongest military powers in the world. The Chinese rightfully regarded their history and civilization with a sense of great pride and tended to look down on other countries and civilizations. For the Chinese, therefore, the sudden collapse of their empire and their humiliation at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialism was all the more traumatic and dealt a heavy blow to their national psyche. China’s history since then has been preoccupied with recovery from this national humiliation and rebuilding China into a strong and prosperous nation. Despite the recent rapid rise of China, about which many Chinese today feel proud, China still suffers from a sense of insecurity and inferiority vis--vis the West and Japan.

Taiwan is the most visible and painful reminder of China’s recent humiliation at the hands of the West and Japan. China lost Taiwan to Japan after defeat in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), and, ever since, Taiwan has been a thorn on China’s side, as it was first occupied by Japan and then by the Chinese Nationalists who fled mainland China after the Chinese Civil War. Since the return of Hong Kong and Macau to China in the 1990s, China regards “return” of Taiwan to China as the last unfinished business of China’s reunification. However, standing between China and the realization of this national imperative is the United States, who remains committed to the military support of Taiwan. China also faces criticism from the West over its one-party dictatorship, human rights record, the problems in Tibet and Xinjiang and other “domestic” issues. These present realities, combined with China’s vivid memory of its recent national humiliation, the history of which is taught to every Chinese school student and fuels Chinese nationalism, imbue China with the mentality that it is a victim of the Western and Japanese imperialism in the modern times and that it still faces an uphill struggle for its rightful place under the sun against these same powers that seek to contain China’s rise. Therefore, in this mentality, China sees its actions in the foreign and national security arenas as entirely in China’s legitimate self-defense, even if these actions seem aggressive and expansionist to China’s neighbors. It seems that, in China’s eyes, no matter what China does, China is still the victim and not the aggressor, which gives China the moral high ground in its legitimate struggle against the historic aggressor nations of the West and Japan.

A quick look at China’s foreign policy since the founding of the People’s Republic of China confirms this interpretation. According to the PRC official rhetoric, the establishment of the PRC in 1949 was born out of the struggle by the Chinese Communist Party against Western and Japanese imperialism and against the Chinese Nationalists and their allies in the old Chinese establishment symbolized by rich “feudal” landlords and Shanghai industrialists. In the 1950s, China’s foreign policy espoused Marxist national liberation struggles against Western imperialism, supporting non-Western leftist movements. China was a leading member of the Non-Aligned Movement, along with India, Indonesia and Egypt, claiming to speak on behalf of the oppressed peoples of the non-West. China today is a rising superpower, but it is still a developing nation with the mentality of a developing nation that views itself as a victim and not an aggressor in the march of modern world history.

How, then, should the nations of the West, Japan and China’s neighbors such as South Korea deal with China, given this recent history of China in the modern world? These nations all have a great stake in China’s peaceful and successful integration into the modern global community of nations. Just as World War I and World War II resulted in the main from the failure to integrate Germany successfully and peacefully into the modern world system, a failure to achieve a similar outcome in the case of China will have disastrous consequences for the global community. Germany’s example shows that China must not be treated in such a way that China feels contained or encircled by a hostile alliance seeking to strangle it by sanctions, subversion or dismemberment. While the global community must take care not to isolate or contain China in this way, the global community at the same time must speak with one voice and send China a clear message that it no longer views China as a victim of modern history who feels entitled to justify whatever expansionist policies it pursues in the name of legitimate self-defense. The message must be that China is no longer an adolescent victim but rather a grown-up adult with real powers to inflict harm on its neighbors and whose actions therefore are increasingly seen as threatening to other nations. Unless China gets this message, China will likely continue pursuing expansionist policies unchecked, an outcome disconcerting to those who remember how an aggrieved Germany in the 1930s pursued expansionist policies unchecked by its neighbors until disaster ensued for the whole world. A coordinated policy response to send this message to China could be joint military exercises and other forms of strengthened multilateral military cooperation between the United States and China’s Asian neighbors. China must be made to realize the hypocrisy in its recent expansionist foreign policy, just as China has always been quick to point out the hypocrisy of Japan in the modern era as Japan changed from a victim of Western imperialism into a leading imperialist nation. China’s recent actions make its neighbors concerned that China too is following Japan’s example by transforming itself from a past victim of Western imperialism into an expansionist power with imperialistic overtones in its foreign policy.

In conclusion, the message that China gets from the international community should be that China must stop playing victim and start acting like a responsible, mature member of the global community. Judging by China’s recent rapid rise and impressive advances in many areas, China has every right to be proud of its accomplishments and not feel victimized or inferior to the West. The key is a healthy national self-esteem for China. If China develops that kind of self-esteem, China will more likely turn into a “normal country” that feels neither victimized nor the need for expansionist policies. If China does not become a “normal country” but, rather, continues its confrontational and expansionist policies, it will be difficult for Japan to become a “normal country” as well. Japan is a country that, like China, suffers from a Janus-faced national identity: it faces the criticism of its neighbors for its past imperialist aggressions yet legitimizes itself as a victim of Western imperialism that only acted to defend Asia from the West and, for this, suffered defeat at the hands of the U.S. atomic bombing. Given this history, growing confrontation with an expansionist China can strengthen Japanese nationalism and the extreme right in Japanese politics, which will lead to Japan’s neighbors worrying about a revival of Japanese militarism. Japan’s tilt towards the right will likely inhibit the growth of a healthy Japanese national self-identity that views Japan as neither aggressor nor victim and thus undermine efforts to make Japan a “normal country.”

If China and Japan both become “normal countries,” ― which could take a long time and much effort on the part of all stakeholders ―, this will likely contribute to the peaceful reunification of the long-divided Korean peninsula, which lies between China and Japan. A reunified Korea will herald the creation of yet another “normal country” in Northeast Asia.

By Jongsoo Lee

Jongsoo Lee is senior research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Seoul. The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s own. ― Ed.
MOST POPULAR