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China Should Be Wary of the Trap of History

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China Should Be Wary of the Trap of History

China has long leaned into historical narratives in policymaking. Now Chinese officials are increasingly resorting to emphasizing the negative histories of their adversaries.

China Should Be Wary of the Trap of History
Credit: Depositphotos

Much has been made of the importance Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed on historical factors in justifying the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the wake of Putin’s interview with Tucker Carlson, the Cold War historian Sergey Radchenko made the assessment that while Putin’s version of history is “clinically insane,” the fact that “Putin clings to this version of history – again, and again, again – means that we have to take it seriously… It’s not just propaganda.”

Using history to justify policy has long been a fruitful resource for leaders and policymakers. But it is often a trap. The British documentarian Adam Curtis noted as much in his 1995 documentary, “The Living Dead,” observing:

When politicians summon up that romantic vision [memory of a golden age], for a moment, it gives them immense power, but then they discover they have invoked forces they cannot control. The price they pay is to become imprisoned by their dream. They and the British people find themselves trapped by their history.

Putin’s use of history as a resource is well documented. This includes evoking the glory of the Soviet Union (especially its victory in World War II), attempting to rehabilitate Stalin, and using the post-Crimean war (1853–56) rebound of the Russian Empire – under the stewardship of Prince Gorchakov – as an allegory for Russia’s search for international relevance and respect since Putin came to power in 2000.

However, it is not only in Russia where history is an important factor in policymaking. China too has long been using history in its engagement with both domestic and external audiences. This has been especially evident since Xi Jinping’s second term as president.

Domestically, there is a strong emphasis on the so-called century of humiliation; a period that roughly stemmed from the encroachment of imperial powers (starting with the First Opium War in 1839) up until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. During this time, China was continually subjugated and humiliated by foreign powers. 

Although China is no longer in a subjugated state and likes to remind the world that it is “not the country it was 120 years ago” at any opportunity it gets, the century of humiliation remains a powerful historical trope. The key point being emphasized is that “without the leadership of the CCP, the country and the Chinese nation could not have made today’s achievements and could not have obtained today’s international status.”

Externally, however, China has typically sought to be more positive in how it uses history to engage with foreign audiences. Rather than focusing on the negative experiences of the century of humiliation, Chinese public diplomacy efforts drew inspiration from its previous periods of grandeur and its philosophical and cultural heritage.

Prime examples of this can be found in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010, two large international events where China attempted to showcase to the world its historical greatness. More recently, the language and imagery accompanying China’s Belt and Road Initiative has leaned heavily on the Silk Road, an imagined time when China was the world’s largest (and supposedly benevolent) power and provided essential goods to the rest of the world while also being a source of inspiration and awe.

However, in recent times, China’s use of history in its diplomacy has started to shift. In an article published in The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, we demonstrate that there has been a seeping of negative history into China’s diplomacy by examining 20 years of Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) press conferences. 

The data showed an overarching trend of history (both positive and negative narratives) being evoked more and more in MFA press conferences. This trend tracks with Xi Jinping’s clear embrace of history, evident in his 2022 article “Take history as a mirror,” in which he states: “When looking at the present, we should learn from the past, and the past will lead to the present.”

Furthermore, earlier evocations of negative history were mostly reserved for Japan, periodically spiking when various Japanese leaders would visit the Yasukuni Shrine or make a statement that seemingly downplayed China’s experiences of Japan’s imperialism. But since 2018, evocation of negative history has expanded beyond Japan and is now also being used against the United States and other Western actors, such as Australia and the United Kingdom. 

Interestingly, however, it is no longer just negative history that China itself had suffered that was being referenced. Instead, the perceived negative history of an adversary was being evoked in order to challenge a contested narrative. For example, when rebuking contemporary criticism from the U.S., MFA officials constantly evoked shameful events from the United States’ past, such as the Tulsa race massacre, the treatment of Native Americans, and the claim that there has only been “16 years of peace in U.S. history.” 

This is the use of history as a tu quoque retort.

Similarly to how China’s experience as a victim is used, the evocation of another country’s negative history as a colonizer or its historical abuses against minorities were deployed in order to paint China in a more positive light and to shift the focus. But there is also a deeper strategic aim, as it also works as a narrative that asserts China’s vision of international relations and order as being antithetical to the imperialism and hypocrisy of the United States and its closest allies.

A key factor for why this shift has occurred can be found in the dynamics emerging from China’s domestic politics. Rising nationalism in China is a well-documented phenomenon. Given that diplomacy is significantly contingent on the domestic politics of a state, rising nationalism can have significant diplomatic repercussions. In China’s case, this nationalism is extremely defensive and sensitive to perceived insults, highlighting the trauma of China’s past humiliations but also its current state of strength. The rise of China can mean in some nationalist narratives the return to the elevated status at the time of the tribute system when powers deferred to China’s might. 

As these nationalist narratives grow and become more influential, they clash with the hitherto dominant narratives China has been pushing abroad, such as being peaceful, cooperative, and aspirational. This is the classic “two level game” of diplomacy playing out in China, and it is forcing China to abandon emphasizing its rise as peaceful and guided by the Confucian principle of a “harmonious world” in favor of adopting a more confident and assertive posture.

We argue that this kind of historical statecraft works well domestically and in the non-Western world. But, concurrently, it is likely to hurt the long-term aspirational appeal of China as it fails to help China make an ontological case as an alternative to the putative U.S.-led international order. China’s main selling point for international leadership is no longer centered around its historical greatness but rather that it is simply not as bad as the United States and other Western countries. It also potentially reinforces in the West an external perception of China as a recalcitrant competitor perhaps even wanting revenge for historical transgressions.

We conclude that despite China’s efforts to emphasize 2021 as “a new historical starting point” and to reiterate its commitment to “promoting international peace, development and cooperation,” this is a strategic narrative that is undermined by the use of negative histories. Furthermore, as the Russia case shows, the use of history is a potential trap as it is hard to de-emphasize something as ontologically powerful as history. 

Guest Author

Nicholas Ross Smith

Nicholas Ross Smith is a senior research fellow at the University of Canterbury’s National Centre for Research on Europe. He was previously an associate professor of International Studies at the University of Nottingham (Ningbo campus). His research coalesces around the regional implications of great power competition, with a particular interest in EU, Russian and Chinese foreign policies.

Guest Author

Tracey Fallon

Tracey Fallon is an assistant professor in International Studies at the University of Nottingham (Ningbo, China). Tracey’s research interests are in the intersection between culture and politics of China. Her research covers China’s public diplomacy and meat consumption in historical and contemporary perspectives.