The Curse of China’s Identity Fixation (Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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.'

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