China’s Looming Identity Crisis


For some Chinese, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is no longer relevant. Instead of “our country” (wo guo), this country has become “your country” (ni guo) for them.

More specifically, “your country” is the State of Zhao (Zhao Guo). Zhao refers to an elite family in Lu Xun’s famous novel, “The True Story of Ah Q” (published in December 1921). Initially, Ah Q, the main character of the novel, a poor man, thought his family name was also Zhao and therefore celebrated as a relative when Master Zhao’s son obtained a Xiu Cai degree. But Master Zhao slapped his face and scolded him, “How could you be named Zhao? Are you worthy of the name Zhao?” From then on, Ah Q was not too sure that his surname was indeed Zhao.

In today’s China, the “Zhao family” (Zhao jia ren) refers to elite families of the PRC under the leadership of the CCP. Generally speaking, these are families of revolutionaries and their decedents. The first generation of revolutionaries created a “new China,” and their children are now in a position to reap the benefits this new China could bring about.

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As a member of the “Zhao family,” one could enjoy various privileges of the system. Unlike ordinary people in China, they have access to special provisions (te gong) of foods, live in a guarded compound, drive a car with special license plate, and can keep planes waiting if they are running late. There are other perks as well: in the wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign over the past three years, with the exception of Bo Xilai, no one from the “family of Zhao” has been exposed.

For these critics, in today’s China, there are no democratic elections, no freedom of speech, and no rule of law. China has the second largest economy and the wealthiest government in the world, yet the Chinese government has been giving money to foreign countries generously, while “non-Zhao families” have to suffer under the burdens of expensive medical care, expensive education, and expensive housing. For a growing number of people, China no longer belongs to the people, but to the Zhao family.

In Lu Xun’s story, the issue is not whether Ah Q is really named Zhao; it’s a question of identity. Ah Q had a simple desire to be identified with the family of Zhao. But for Master Zhao, that thought was intolerable. For him, Ah Q belonged to an entirely different social class; it was out of the question that Ah Q could ever be identified as one of the Zhaos.

The shift from “our country” to “your country” takes this idea one step farther, moving from familial to national identity. The new phrase has resulted from the painful realization that one’s unilateral identification with a country that belongs to elite families could be rejected by any member of the elite.

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