Understanding the factors behind China’s grand strategy often proves a daunting and elusive task for Western analysts studying the emerging Asian superpower. An often-overlooked aspect of Beijing’s collective mentality is that China is the first power to challenge the United States that truly rose from its post-colonial past. While analysts often cite the Century of Humiliation as a driving force in Beijing’s policies, they too often ignore exactly how this collective trauma manifests itself in China’s “never again” mentality. This mentality cannot be overlooked when attempting to challenge China, whether it be in a territorial dispute or in a trade war. While fears of again falling prey to foreign powers play a significant role in Beijing’s policies, many Western analysts overlook this important aspect, as it is foreign to American and Western European mindsets.
The birth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was not only the beginning of a new regime, but it also marked the ending of the Century of Humiliation (1839-1949), in which foreign powers subjected, manipulated, colonized, and occupied China. This period, characterized by pandemics, famines, corruption, mass murder, and widespread drug addiction, did not gradually wind down. Rather, the last years of this period were also some of its darkest, with the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. During the Japanese invasion and occupation, China experienced war crimes, a high death toll, and man-made natural disasters that killed and displaced millions. Mao Zedong’s founding of a New China marked the end of this dark period, and was supposed to shine in a new era of prosperity.
Surprisingly, this grim past was left behind during the Maoist era. Mao’s China was born out of a revolution and was not supposed to be haunted by the past. For the most part, up until the 1980s, the Japanese occupation did not play a significant role in Chinese collective memory. However, since the ‘80s, the narrative of a Chinese holocaust emerged, with a growing emphasis on the crimes against the Chinese people, and a significant focus on the Nanjing Massacre. Many scholars rightfully point out that this narrative was mainly meant to feed into anti-Japanese sentiments, and while this is true, this narrative played and still plays a significant driving force in Beijing’s national strategy. The narrative has created a never again mentality in China, which dictates that the Century of Humiliation is not just a grim lesson of the past, but also a warning about a possible future. China must not only learn from history, but also actively work to prevent a second century of humiliation.
This is a major difference between China and the West. For Americans, losing a conflict may result in an unfavorable geopolitical outcome, but there is no real and tangible fear among Americans that they will be enslaved by foreign nations. For most American and Western Europeans, such fears are not part of their national narratives. Even if they historically suffered at some point from foreign occupation and oppression, such occupations never bore the seminal weight of China’s Century of Humiliation. Such occupations were mostly committed by people culturally and ethnically close to them, such as the British rule over Colonial Americans, or for a short period of time that is seen as the exception rather than rule, such as the German occupation of France.
On the other hand, Chinese collective memory has increasingly put more weight on the importance of Chinese strength as an antidote to a second century of humiliation. For many Chinese, pursuing national interests is not only important to advance China toward national rejuvenation, but because it actively safeguards China from another period of oppression. In the words of Zhu Chengshan, the curator of Nanking Massacre Victims’ Memorial Hall: “The Chinese victims died at the hands of the Japanese military because a weak nation was able to be bullied by a powerful nation.” In China’s never again narrative, weakness is something that the Chinese people simply cannot afford.
Understanding this narrative is essential for the understanding of Beijing’s domestic, foreign, and defense policy. While for American decision-makers losing control of the South China Sea might be a significant blow to Washington’s strategic standing, for their Chinese counterparts losing control of the region may signal the first steps of another occupation. This might sound like hyperbole, but the haunting memories of this dark past play an immensely strong force in Beijing’s contemporary policies. It is not a coincidence that immediately after taking office in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping took all seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee to an exhibition about the Century of Humiliation. Xi could have chosen to start his tenure by reflecting on the many high points in modern Chinese history, such as Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, Mao Zedong’s founding of Communist China, or even the 1919 May Fourth Movement. Instead, Xi picked the Century of Humiliation as his vantage point for guiding China through its contemporary challenges.
This trauma plays a significant role in Beijing’s policies. The Century of Humiliation was made possible by the internal weakening of the Qing dynasty due to corruption and rebellions. This in turn explains why maintaining domestic stability is such a crucial part of Beijing’s national security policy. At the same time, losing territory to foreign powers also played a major part in China’s decline, which surely echoes as foreign powers pressure Beijing to renounce its territorial claims along the border with India, in the South China Sea, and over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands. But above all, the Century of Humiliation truly began due to foreign interference in China’s internal affairs and laws. Therefore, Washington’s demand that China reshape its domestic laws as part of the ongoing trade war is more than just a trespass on Beijing’s sovereignty; it also echoes one of China’s lowest moments in the last 200 years.
Like all nations, China is more than just a manifestation of its collective memory. As a rational actor, Beijing acts according to its strategic and national needs, and these should be properly examined and analyzed. However, when seeking to design a China policy, policymakers must understand the effects of the never again narrative in the minds of Chinese decision-makers. Using China’s national trauma can be a powerful tool. Ignoring its weight policy is a dangerous mistake that can lead to terrible miscalculations in understanding Chinese policy, whether in the South China Sea or in trade.
In the 2014 Nanjing Massacre memorial service Xi said: “To forget the past means to betray, and to deny the crime means to relapse.” Beijing will not forget its past. Neither should we.
Mark Tischler is research assistant in the Department of East Asian Studies in Tel Aviv University, specializing in Chinese national security and foreign policy.