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The Domestic Inspiration for China’s Foreign Behavior

The first decade of the 21st century, says Yinan He, was a time of contradiction in China.

On the one hand, says He, China endured a succession of trials: An earthquake in Sichuan killed more than 80,000 people, ethnic riots in Tibet and Xinjiang left hundreds dead, government corruption caused unprecedented social unrest, and dissidents published a human-rights manifesto, Charter 08, demanding an end to one-party rule.

On the other hand, while other countries struggled, China enjoyed record economic growth and surpassed Japan in 2010 to become the world’s second-largest economy. And the Beijing Olympics of 2008 stirred a deep sense of national pride.

He, an associate professor of international relations, believes that a careful reading of China’s domestic politics can help explain its occasionally aggressive behavior in the international arena. The lessons learned from this exercise, she says, apply to much of Chinese history.

He explained this dynamic in a paper she delivered recently at the annual convention of the International Studies Association (ISA) in New Orleans. Titled “Domestic Troubles, Anti-West Identity Discourse, and Implications for Chinese Foreign Policy, 2003-2012,” the paper is part of He’s second book, which will relate domestic turmoil to the anti-foreign rhetoric employed by Chinese leaders from the late 19th century until modern times.

He argues that China’s domestic political considerations motivate much of its international conduct, especially its occasionally harsh criticism of Japan, the United States and other Western nations.

“Many studies have been conducted to make sense of China’s ‘assertive’ foreign policy since 2010,” He wrote in her ISA paper. “Conventional wisdom attributes this assertiveness to Western provocation, to China’s newly gained economic power, and/or to belligerent domestic public sentiment.

“I argue instead that China was assertive in rhetoric, not in policy actions, and [that] the primary driving forces behind its official discourse about the West, especially the United States, lie more in domestic political dynamics than external interactions.”

By reading the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese government, He says it is possible to establish a “causal link” between spikes of anti-Western rhetoric and increases in domestic tension.

“The ups and downs of anti-Western rhetoric during Hu Jintao’s rule,” she says, “were often correlated with the domestic pressures he was grappling with.”

Liu Shaoqi and Liu Xiaobo

A similar pattern can be observed during periods of Mao Zedong’s rule from 1949 to 1976, He says. As China’s Cultural Revolution reached its peak in 1968-69, Mao spoke out more virulently against the United States, other Western nations and even the Soviet Union, China’s one-time ally. But as the Cultural Revolution began to wane from 1970 to 1972, Mao’s rhetoric softened.

“Mao was hostile to Western nations and to the Soviet Union not just because of any imminent security threat but to a large extent due to domestic political struggles,” says He.

The conventional wisdom would argue that China’s leaders lash out against the West and other countries when they feel the country’s security is threatened. He disagrees and cites as one example the case of Liu Shaoqi, the second most powerful man in China under Mao, who spoke out against the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, was placed under house arrest and died there in 1969.

He says the accusation against Liu—that he had become a “socialist revisionist” and “capitalist roader,” or someone too closely allied with the Soviet Union and the U.S.—is part of another pattern in Chinese history: the linking of domestic “troublemakers” with foreign “others.”

In 2009, she notes, the Chinese government sentenced Liu Xiaobo, one of the authors of Charter 08, to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” In 2010, while in prison, Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”

“The average Chinese citizen must have wondered why, just for signing Charter 08, the government was sending Liu Xiaobo to jail,” says He. “So the government media attacked Liu for serving as the ‘political tool of Western interests.’”

A comparative study of reconciliation

He’s first book, The Search for Reconciliation: Sino-Japanese and German-Polish Relations Since World War II, was published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press and discusses the contrasting paths taken by two pairs of former adversaries since World War II.

The war, history’s deadliest, devastated Poland and China. In Poland, more than six million people were killed, including three million Jews, and concentration camps, slave labor, mass executions and deportations, and religious and political persecution were the order of the day. In China, 10 million Chinese were killed, civilians were massacred in Nanjing and other cities, biological experiments were conducted on live human beings, and thousands of Chinese were forced into prostitution or enslaved.

He, a native of China, learned to speak and read Japanese and spent 18 months doing research at the University of Tokyo for the book. She admits to being “very pessimistic” about the prospects for reconciliation between Japan and China in the near future. Unlike Germany, which apologized for its war crimes and paid reparations to Poland, Japan has made only a limited accounting for the atrocities it committed in China during World War II.

Thus, 70 years after the war ended, He writes, Poland has achieved reconciliation with Germany through a harmonizing, or converging, of national memories. Japan and China, by contrast, have engaged in “national mythmaking,” causing a divergence of national memories and a relationship “still marred by serious distrust and simmering animosity.”

He acknowledges that the premise of her book challenges the “standard realist explanation” of international relations, which places more importance on common strategic interests than on historical memory. She argues instead for a concept of “deep interstate reconciliation” that is sustained by mutual understanding and trust.

“Because the enduring memory of past trauma can fuel mutual grievances and mistrust,” she writes, “nations cannot avoid addressing historical memory when searching for a path to reconciliation.”


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