The Curse of China’s Identity Fixation

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The Curse of China’s Identity Fixation

As China’s leadership prepares for its transition to the fifth generation, a fixation on identity and core interests is a troubling sign for U.S. ties.

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.

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. 

Of course, with the balance of power in East Asia changing so dramatically in recent years, it’s understandable that Chinese national identity should be in flux. After June 4, 1989 the debate on socialist identity was mostly suspended, but an ideological amalgam is reemerging in which socialism has pride of place, including disassociation from capitalism and a revived stress on anti-imperialism in its broadest sense, including cultural intrusion. Even if leaders of the fifth generation were to question this dimension of national identity, they would face a backlash from a newly emboldened and confident nation.

All this serves the interests of those who have pressed for a sinocentric orientation linking foreign policy to ideology and cultural security. Although foreign policy in 2011 was more cautious than in 2010, the priority on cultural security was heightened. This elevates the profile of Liu Yunshan, secretary of the Propaganda Department and member of the Politburo, who may succeed Li Changchun with a spot in the Politburo Standing Committee. Indeed, Liu recently told a follow-up seminar to last October’s Sixth Plenary Session of the Central Committee that a newly published book on culture, including the views of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao provides “authoritative teaching materials for the Party’s cultural theory.”

The Korean nuclear crisis provides a good example of how this impacts foreign policy, with the issue increasingly being viewed with a mindset of “regime change” and “anti-communism” rather than legitimate security concerns on the part of the United States and others.

Recent weeks have demonstrated that it’s not just on the Korean Peninsula that confrontation looms – there’s also the Iranian program, and claims it’s aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Diplomacy to address both dangers is intensifying, and China’s position is critical. Given the deepening struggle over the leadership succession, today’s Politburo Standing Committee may prefer to find ways to moderate these threats rather than face the possibility of war in 2012. Certainly, cooperation after the November 2010 North Korean attack on Yeonpyeong Island, which led to a joint statement when Hu Jintao visited Washington in January 2011, showed that minimal consensus could be achieved. This may happen again. But regardless, it’s difficult to believe the U.S. and others can expect any serious reconsideration of the assertive drift in national identity before the next generation has consolidated its power.

Back in 2002, Xi won the favor of Jiang Zemin when he was chosen to lead his generation. But he is also facing the prospect of other Jiang favorites reinforcing a national identity that limits his scope for pragmatic diplomacy. Whether Xi thinks as they do, or has a different outlook, is difficult to determine. The fact is that it may be domestic politics, and the deepening controversy over Bo Xilai, which has more of an impact on the prospects for Sino-U.S. relations than Xi’s personal beliefs.

Through the first decade of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms there was uncertainty about China’s future leadership. Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were faces of genuine openness to the outside world, but their powers were circumscribed by the old guard from the “second generation,” who wouldn’t condone sustained political reform or reject what they considered to be the core of communist ideology.

In the aftermath of the Tiananmen demonstrations and Gorbachev’s transformation of the Soviet Union, a framework of collective leadership was established to prevent individual reformers from taking charge. But increasingly under the so-called fourth generation, the system has been exposed as vulnerable to a drift toward extremism in domestic and even foreign policy under the shadow of a more arrogant national identity. Barring an major surprises in the choices made later this year, cultural security is likely be the unassailable legacy that is bequeathed to the fifth generation of Chinese leaders.

Gilbert Rozman is Musgrave Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. His recent books include: 'Chinese Strategic Thought toward Asia, U.S. Leadership,' 'History and Bilateral Relations in Northeast Asia,' and 'East Asian National Identities: Commonalities and Differences.'