China will never advance as a society if it remains obsessed with playing the victim

Starting early, primary school students take part in military formation camp.
Starting early, primary school students take part in military formation camp.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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Many hoped a better future was on the horizon after Chinese president Xi Jinping promised in the beginning of his tenure to usher in a new era by cracking down on corruption in the Communist Party of China (CPC). But in the four years since his ascension, the central tenor of his “reform”-focused agenda has been to further establish China as a world power, mostly by shoring up its regional interests. Hence the territorial disputes with almost all of its immediate neighbors, from Japan, to the Philippines, to Vietnam.

But where does this newly revamped nationalism come from? Xi’s big idea so far has been his concept of the “Chinese Dream,” which, unlike the American Dream, emphasizes how the fate of the state and its people are entwined. In a time of declining stock prices, jobs, and wages, Xi’s message is simple: Trust in your government and your party, and prosperity will come your way. By constantly casting China as the victim—in everything from its history books to its kung fu movies—China’s elite are able to deflect internal criticism while boosting an uncritical brand of self-preserving, foreigner-fearing nationalism.

It’s easy to point to China’s 4,000-year history and forget that the modern Chinese state is only 67 years old. Still, the past few decades have been singularly influential in regards to the national psyche. From about the mid-19th century to 1949, China was the object of desire for pretty much all the major world powers. China was eventually forced to lower its tariffs and give up much of its most strategic territory in a series of humiliating treaties. Many Chinese see this episode as the initial point of contact with the industrialized West, and it all went downhill from there.

An obsession with past traumatic encounters with foreigners makes it easier for today’s China to focus on external threats—real or imagined—than to examine bad policymaking at home. The Communist regime has long cultivated and exploited this through its education system. By promoting the narrative that China is a victim, children are taught that devious foreigners are still looking to undermine national greatness at every turn. In this “us against them” story, China must preserve its unity in order to survive; the CPC is just the natural outcome of a unified people.

Outside of the classroom, ruling elites cultivate this sense of political homogeneity through myth. Chinese folklore draws liberally from history. Heroes are exalted if the people feel that his or her attributes exemplify “Chinese values.” Using these figures to strengthen China’s sense of “oneness” or of a single destiny only helps to keep domestic dissent at bay. Nowhere is this more obvious than in China’s film industry, where myth and reality coexist comfortably.

The Chinese hero is traditionally a martial or scholarly figure who embodies Confucian values of kindness, honor, and piety. Chinese culture is filled with legends of these figures, many of which have become highly lucrative films. These heroes are metaphors for a resilient and disciplined China facing down foreign encroachment. This theme has become so commonplace that it’s become an almost necessary part of contemporary China’s collective imagination.

Take Hong Kong director Ronny Yu’s “historical” 2006 film, Fearless, starring Jet Li as Huo Yuanjia, a prominent martial artist who lived in late 19th and early 20th century China. Folklore claims that he fought a Russian wrestler who was badmouthing the Chinese as “sick men of Asia,” along with an Irish boxer. Most stories end with Huo defeating both opponents, though some say the boxer pulled out at the last minute due to fear. Whether either of these bouts and challenges even happened remains unclear. Sources on Huo’s life are sparse at best. Still, no director in his or her right mind would let these facts get in the way of a good movie.

One can say the same for director Wilson Yip’s wildly popular Ip Man trilogy, which just concluded earlier this year. Donnie Yen stars as the seemingly untouchable Ip Man, whose tutelage of Bruce Lee on the martial art of wing chun helped jumpstart his modern relevance.

All three films depict a mild mannered Ip defending his family and friends against local thugs, corrupt officials, and unruly foreigners during the early part of the 20th century. The first two films culminate in a showdown against a cruel Japanese general and a cocky British boxer, respectively. The third film is the only one in which Ip Man fights a fellow Chinese martial artist in the climax, although he does battle a foreign gangster in the middle of the movie. That opponent, played by none other than Mike Tyson, gives Ip all he can handle. In fact, in all three movies, Ip blows through his Chinese opposition. It’s only when he fights a foreign villain that he runs into serious trouble, even though none of those opponents seem to have any kung fu training.

These cinematic themes aren’t new. The 90s were full of loosely historical martial arts biopics. Jet Li’s Once Upon a Time in China series is probably the most iconic of these classics, depicting the efforts of a martial artist physician Wong Feihong against corrupt Chinese officials colluding with the “foreign devils.” In the context of China’s highly regulated film industry, such conspicuously reappearing themes represent a clear reflection of how public opinion on the country’s historical and contemporary place in the world interacts with national identity.

The Chinese government is well aware of this. Somewhat akin to American politicians evoking “the Founding fathers,” the CPC is keen to position itself as the inheritor of China’s long line of historical rulers. The country’s massive diversity and barely comprehensible historical variance is an inconvenient truth here, and one that is easily buried. It’s much more useful to gloss over such details and depict history as an undifferentiated, made-for-film monolith.

The same narrative also undergirds China’s political culture. Chinese history is filled with emperors who wrapped themselves in the language of mythical cosmology. They were the representation of the Heavens on earth and no one else had the right to rule. The rise and reign of Mao Zedong, China’s founding father, in the 20th century was buttressed by a personality cult, and the CPC has been the country’s only ruling entity since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. If democracy is the natural political system for a pluralistic society, then one-party-rule suffices for China, whose people is and will always remain one.

This kind of highly selective historical imagination emphasizes China’s colonial trauma. But while the past two centuries of Chinese history have largely been defined by upheaval and loss, an accurate appraisal of what happened can’t take place if ideology gets in the way.

But of course, China is not one for collective soul-searching. As a result, the nation remains incredibly insecure even as it continues to project a brash international image. China is forever the victim of outside meddling. This insecurity helps the government divert attention away from its domestic conduct and prevents citizens from extracting honesty and good policy from its ruling elite. Compounding the tragedy, this mindset ensures that most Chinese will remain cut off from their glorious historical record.

The past is being treated as nothing more than another field for ideology, instead of as an indispensable source for civilization itself. An accurate appraisal of the present situation will never be complete for the Chinese if they lack a comprehensive understanding of what came before. A distorted historical lens will always contribute to inaccurate analyses of present-day concerns. This may benefit those sitting in the CPC’s Central Committee, but that’s about it.