The Curse of China’s Identity Fixation


The problems confronting the Sino-U.S. relationship were always going to be too severe to expect a boost in bilateral relations from Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s coast-to-coast tour of the United States last month. And although the visit served a constructive purpose in preparing the way for bilateral dialogue after China’s leadership transition, there are few signs that either side is close to finding solutions to the numerous issues complicating bilateral relations.

On the American side, there’s concern over the broad direction in which China appears to be heading, and U.S. officials likely had three key questions in mind for the visiting Xi. First, is the generational shift in China’s leadership later this year a meaningful opportunity to pursue common interests that have been on hold during the Obama administration? Second, would Xi be able to shed more light on what is meant by China’s repeated reference to “core interests”? And third, is China ready for constructive dialogue on some of the more pressing issues that threaten to explode?

Unfortunately, Xi’s public statements offered little to be optimistic about on these points. Of course, at this delicate time in the struggle over who will be admitted into the new Chinese leadership, Xi must exercise caution. But it’s probably fair to say that more was learned about the leadership succession from the Wang Lijun affair in Sichuan than from Xi’s taciturn remarks. The fact that the crime fighting deputy mayor of Chongqing spent a night at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu as security forces representing rival leadership figures vied to see who would supervise his “vacation therapy” is testimony to the high stakes involved. Should Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai’s rise to the Political Standing Committee be derailed, this could affect the balance between the two most widely demarcated factions of “princelings” and Communist Youth League veterans.

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Given the occasional calls of Premier Wen Jiabao for political reform, even in the midst of ever tougher crackdowns on dissent, the struggle likely extends to advocates of clashing models of domestic development.

Meanwhile, in the background to Xi’s visit, another division was on many minds, in both the U.S. and China – the struggle between the hardline faction that appeared to wrest control over foreign policy in mid-2009, and the “biding one’s time” faction that reasserted itself to a certain extent from December 2010. There’s little public evidence on how such a struggle might be playing out, but Chinese publications are revealing about the national identity divide.

Such divisions underscore the complications that can come with generational transition. In the Khrushchev era, and again as Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new thinking” spread, analysts pointed to the “children of the 20th Party Congress” as the best hope to end the Cold War. Similarly, from the 1980s, as Chinese youth travelled abroad in droves for education and gained access to the “information revolution” of the Internet, there was hope that the generation would narrow the gap with the United States. But with the fifth generation poised to take power, and as was the case with the Soviet leadership before Gorbachev, a small group active in choosing its representatives is determined to filter out those who might be “soft” on the West and dissident reformers. Even the son of a scion of the Communist Party may not be trusted, as care is taken to stack the Politburo Standing Committee with trusted officials whose step-by-step climb up the leadership ladder has weathered close scrutiny. The fact is that Xi couldn’t afford to engage in the inquisitive conversations that Gorbachev had while waiting in the wings, nor will he have the status to show bold leadership.

One issue that U.S. officials are likely particularly curious about is China’s “core interests,” a term that has become code for a range of identity concerns from sovereignty and territorial integrity, to regime security and the stressing of non-interference in internal affairs, to the controversies that swirl around the use of the term as it refers to disputed boundaries and islands, including in the South China Sea. Tied to this is the priority given to “cultural security” since 2011, and the top-down control over TV, publications, and the Internet – all this belongs in the category of national identity priorities, which has obvious implications for international ties. The more fully the list of “core interests” is specified, the more hemmed in the fifth generation will be. Every time identity labels are used, the more it limits future diplomatic flexibility, trumping pragmatism with claims of national identity. 

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