Bellicose and Thuggish — China Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Translatio Imperii Sinici (II)

It is a lazy commonplace for ‘China Experts’, ‘China Savants’, 中國通 and a host of others deft at spinning a tale and making a buck by offering gimcrack insights into the People’s Republic of China to focus on the evanescent details of the moment rather than grounding their observations in the long term. Sagacious in the observation that ‘the Chinese’ have a worldview informed by a deep historical consciousness, the grifters are generally heedless as to the actual history of the Communist state, its forebears and the deep-structure of its policies. Nonetheless, it is all too common for intellectual pickpockets to repurpose what they do manage to glean of such things into a kind of ‘Reader’s Digest’ analytical Chinoiserie.

Our five-part series ‘Drop Your Pants — the Party Wants to Patriotise You All Over Again’ offered an approach to the China of the Xi Jinping era (c.2012-) by reviewing the history, and present state, of patriotic indoctrination, confessional culture, the Yan’an period, the party-state, the Chinese constitution, education and militarism. To make sense of Xi’s New Epoch, the various moves to ‘liberate thought’ (there have been at least three), as well as the ‘new eras’ of the past, and the actual underpinnings of Xi’s so-called World View are essential.

China Heritage Annual 2019, which takes as its theme Translatio Imperii Sinici, explores the heritage of the ‘imperial enterprise’ 帝業 in modern Chinese history, thought, politics and culture. The following essay, written by the cultural critic and dissident Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波 in 2002, is a robust and insightful discussion of the background of Chinese nationalist fervour. The writer’s observations, made a decade before the rise of Xi Jinping as China’s party-state-army leader, provide an important context for understanding official, as well as popular, views about China’s place in the world and the quasi-imperial zealotry rife in the People’s Republic today. This essay supplements China’s Red Empire — To Be or Not To Be? by Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 (China Heritage, 16 January 2019).


The following essay is taken from Liu Xiaobo, No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems, edited by Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao and Liu Xia, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012, pp.63-84. We are grateful to Perry Link and Lindsay Waters for supporting our request to reprint this essay, to Michael S. Duke and Josephine Chiu-Duke for their skilful translation and to The Belknap Press for their kind permission. (The typographical style of the original has been retained.)

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
24 January 2019


Liu Xiaobo in China Heritage

Drop Your Pants! in Lessons in New Sinology

China Heritage Annual: Translatio Imperii Sinici

Bellicose and Thuggish

The Roots of Chinese “Patriotism” at the
Dawn of the Twenty-First Century

Liu Xiaobo

Translated by Michael S. Duke and Josephine Chiu-Duke


During the last century of China’s history the nation has fallen victim to cycles of self-abasement and self-aggrandizement, and this is because we have never been able to escape the clutches of the demon of nationalism.

Some say that a century and a half ago the Opium War plunged China into “the greatest transformation in a thousand years.” If so, then today, after traversing a tortuous, painful, and traumatic path, and after missing plenty of opportunities to transform ourselves, we now perhaps should say that China has reached “the most favorable situation in a thousand years.” It is most favorable because never before has it been so clear where we ought be headed.

Over the hundred years before the Communists seized power in 1949, China’s internal and external environments never presented us with a clear direction. At the beginning of those hundred years, we suffered repeated humiliations by the gunboat diplomacy of the Great Powers. Such events, painful as they were, did let us see that the West was advanced in technical matters, and this led our forebears to pursue “foreign learning” in the hope that “technology will save the nation.” But then China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) showed that the ships of our new Beiyang Navy, even though they had advanced armor and weapons, were badly organized and by themselves could not “save the nation.” This led us to look for defects in China’s political system and to turn toward “establishing a constitution to save the nation.”

Finally, the chaos after the Republican Revolution of 1911 and Yuan Shikai’s attempt to reinstate the Confucian imperial system, with himself as emperor, caused people to look beyond both “technology” and the “political system” to deeper issues in Chinese culture as the root cause of China’s problems. Soon the “cannibalistic” teachings of Confucius, embodied in the ruling imperial system, came to be seen as the roots of China’s ruin. The “new culture movement” of the late 1910s and early 1920s called for “Science and Democracy” and “Down with Confucius and Sons.” Now it was culture that would “save the nation.”

From “our technology is not as good as other people’s” to “our political system is not as good as other people’s” and on to “our culture is not as good as other people’s,” Chinese reflections on our own defects probed ever deeper. But the primary mindset that guided the probing was neither “liberation of humanity” or even “enriching the people,” but rather a sense of shame at China’s loss of sovereignty and other national humiliations. All the reform efforts sprang from this kind of relatively narrow nationalism; the goals of enriching the state and of strengthening the military took precedence over ideas that could lead to human freedom. This was the main thrust of the great May Fourth Movement as most intellectuals experienced it. The great majority did not see the movement as going much beyond slogans like “Boycott Japanese goods,” “Refuse to sign the Treaty of Versailles,” and “Down with traitors who sell out the nation.” (See Deng Chaolin, Memoirs, Dongfang Publishers, 2004, internally restricted edition, pp.161-168). It was right when this desperate quest to learn from the West in order to build military strength and save the nation had suffered one setback after another that Soviet Russia came on the scene. Its October Revolution placed before China a radically different model of modernization.

In China’s communist era, despite all of the rhetoric about internationalism and “liberation of mankind” during the Mao years, the regime, especially in its claims to legitimacy, has consistently stressed nationalism. Nationalism has taken different forms at different stages—an arrogant, bellicose style under Mao; a pragmatic, defensive style under Deng Xiaoping; and a resurgence of the arrogant, bellicose style under Jiang Zemin—but the underlying passions that shape the policies have always been caught up in a vicious cycle between self-abasement and self-aggrandizement.

I. The Bellicose Nationalism of the Mao Zedong Era

The truculent and bloodthirsty forms of ultra-nationalist sentiment that some mainlanders displayed after 9/11 sprang from roots that lay deep within the shrill warmongering of Mao Zedong. I recently read an Internet post that could well have been a Peoples’ Daily editorial in the 1950s: “Bury the Wolf-hearted American Imperialist Ambition for World Hegemony.” The author calls the United States “politically, militarily and economically the most completely thuggish rogue nation in the world.” It dubs the U.S., Great Britain, and Japan “the true axis of evil” and calls on “the people of the entire world to unite, cast off their illusions and resolutely struggle to bury the wolf-hearted American imperialist ambition for world hegemony and to prevent it from visiting an enormous catastrophe upon the entire world.” Toward this end, the author concluded, China’s priority should be to unite with the Islamic world and Russia to launch an attack on American hegemony.

Turning to the American-led war on terror, the author produced an incomparably absurd—yet frightening—conclusion: “If Islam loses, China and Russia will be in danger. If China loses, Russia will lose for sure—and vice versa.” This is why, in his view, China and Russia should join in supporting Islamist hatred of the US. and spare no means to attack America, and why the most effective tools for doing so are “without doubt” terrorist attacks in the style of Osama Bin Laden. China’s primary allies from a strategic point of View are not the traditional communist-bloc nations (North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam), but the Islamic enemies of the United States (Iraq, Iran, and the Palestinians). Islamic fundamentalists and their doctrine of terrorism are not the enemies of world civilization; they are the main allies whom China must unite with in order to defeat the U.S.; they are China’s best national security shield. Jiang Zemin’s state visit to Iran and Syria after 9/11 was therefore a correct foreign policy move.

Most of the posted comments following this article matched it in truculence: “We must turn the Taiwan Strait into a fiery and bloody grave of the Taiwan independence forces”; “Burn the American aircraft carriers to ashes”; and so on. These comments are typical of today’s “bellicose nationalism.”

The nostalgia for Mao Zedong that we see in China today is in part a longing of the poor and downtrodden—the losers in the economic boom—for the egalitarianisrn and job security of the Mao era. But it is more than that. For the “patriots” in today’s rabid nationalism, it is nostalgia for a time when China dared to say “no” to both of the world’s superpowers, the US. and the Soviet Union. I almost think we are back in the murderous Mao era when I hear so many “quotations from Chairman Mao”—things like “paper tiger,” “the East Wind prevails over the West Wind,” and so on. In particular, today’s bellicose patriotism draws upon the Mao-era mentality of “China at the center of the world.”

The origins of that idea, of course, preceded Mao. China’s emperors of old had no concept of sovereignty over a “nation” or a “state.” They thought in terms of All Under Heaven and embraced the very self-regarding notion that they were at the center and rightly should look down on everybody else. In the long history of imperial China until the latter half of the nineteenth century, no challenges from outside came along to force much of a change in this outlook. China was sui generis. Even foreign invaders like the Mongols in the Yuan period (1271-1368) and the Manchus in the Qing (1644-1911) ended up being Sinicized. We Chinese had little reason to look beyond our borders.

Even when we did peer outside, we never had the idea of a “nation-state” with clearly marked borders, but only the idea of All Under Heaven, with ourselves at the center. Imperial rulers took themselves to be masters of this borderless expanse. They governed using “ritual and propriety,” and unsubmissive peoples at the fringes of civilization were “barbarians.” The rulers saw themselves as occupying a central court to which distant peoples, their “tributary subjects,” came to pay homage. The role of the central authority was to “grant favor.” The various small “barbarian” groups stood to the great civilized Han as inferior to superior, as vassal to lord, as margin to center. There was no idea of equal relations between states.

Even when the Western powers used modern weaponry to force China’s doors open, the Sinocentric worldview of our forefathers did not change much. The nobility and the gentry class in late-Qing times rarely spoke of Westerners without using pejorative terms; they seem truly to have believed that these “ocean people” from across the seas were “half human and half beast,” a “hybrid of human and fish,” or “bastards of bug and man.” Protecting the vanity of the Great Celestial Empire, conservative officials and benighted gentry concocted stories and spread rumors to inflame the xenophobic passions of commoners. Christian missionaries, for example, were said to eat babies, cut out people’s hearts and gouge out their eyes, drug and poison people, cause hallucinations, desecrate ancestors’ graves, seduce and rape women, abduct children, stockpile weapons, and teach banditry. The major cases of grievance that Western missionaries brought against China because of this nonsense had a lot to do with why the West forced the humiliating “unequal treaties” upon China.

China’s defeat in the 1894-95 war with Japan, a country once thought to be “as small as a pebble,” finally forced Chinese to start reining in the arrogant notion that the Son of Heaven rules all. But the Qing imperial court still manipulated the violence of the Boxers—the “Righteous and Harmonious Fists”—to vent its hatred of foreign countries and to protect its vain claim of China’s centrality. The term “foreign devils” survives in use in China even today.

A century of humiliating defeats and of falling behind did little to erase China’s underlying arrogance and self-centeredness. All it did, really, was to flip the self-obsession to the other extreme, the extreme of self-abasement. Then, when China did begin to grow strong again, the self-centeredness flipped back toward narcissism and arrogance, only now it had more steam.

Before they gained power, the Chinese Communists always stressed that the first goal of the Chinese Revolution was “anti-imperialism” and the second was “anti-feudalism.” After gaining power they continued in this vein, calling for the elimination of “the three big mountains that weigh on the people’s necks”—the first of which was “imperialism.” On August 18, 1949, Mao Zedong published a report, called “Farewell, Leighton Stuart,” on the departure from China of the US. ambassador, Leighton Stuart. The report became famous as an anti-American proclamation and as China’s farewell to semicolonial rule. A few weeks later, when Mao declared in another famous speech that “the Chinese people have stood up,” Chinese nationalism took a turn from cowardice and self-abasement back toward ill-informed arrogance.

Mao pursued a two-pronged foreign policy whose prongs were contradictory but worked well in tandem. On the one hand, to guard against military re-invasion by imperialists and “peaceful evolution” under capitalist influences, Mao closed China’s doors and sealed the country off, keeping the Chinese people ignorant of the outside. On the other hand, he touted “internationalism” and the “liberation of all mankind” in an attempt to play the role of leader of the whole world and to return China to its position at the center. The result, for the rest of the Mao era, was that China’s traditional mentality about its place in the world came roaring back and bellicose patriotism ran rampant.

The bellicose patriotism of the Mao era had four main historical conditions:

  1. First, the victory in 1949 of the Soviet-backed Chinese Communists in their Civil War with the American-backed Chinese Nationalists (Guomindang) led China into a one-sided foreign policy and cut it off from much of the world. 
  2. Second, in the Cold War confrontation between the two major systems existing in the world, China stood with the Soviet Union and against the United States. It fought the U.S. to a stalemate in Korea (which the Chinese people were told was a “great victory” over U.S. imperialism), and when the French were defeated in Vietnam the reports of victory over Western imperialism were again flamboyantly exaggerated. The hype contributed to mindless self-confidence and a militarization of the economy, and fed into the disastrous Great Leap Forward.
  3. Third, communism that liberates all humanity and internationalism that supports the Third World became ideological cover for an ambition that China return to the center of the world.
  4. Fourth, a warmongering attitude prepared the nation to be ready at all times for the outbreak of World War Three.

Mao Zedong’s unbridled ambition and unrealistic imagination took full advantage of these four conditions. Mao had a superstitious belief in the power of the subjective will as well as in the barrel of the gun, and, once he was in power, was obsessed by the illusion that he could become the leader of world revolution. The economic program of the Mao era has sometimes been described as a planned economy, and sometimes as an attempt to overtake the major Western economies, but in fact it is probably most accurately viewed as dedicated to preparing for war. From the Korean War in the early 1950s onward, Mao was making the preparations. His 1950s and 1960s policies of stressing heavy industry, taking steel as “the key link,” encouraging population growth, moving war-related industries to a “third front” in the hinterland, and pursuing nuclear weaponry were all economic policies that were aimed at military goals.

In the 1950s, when China’s economy was weak, and in complete disregard for questions of life and death among the Chinese people, Mao poured resources into supporting the Communist bloc in its Cold War with the U.S. In the 1960s, having decided to compete with the Soviet Union for the position of hegemon in the international communist movement, Mao unveiled slogans about opposing “revisionism” and whipped up fears that war was “inevitable”—when in fact it was not—and in so doing pitted China against both of the world’s super- powers. It was then, too, that Mao came out with his “Third World” theory whereby Maoist revolution would be exported to underdeveloped nations. The idea was that there could be a replay of how China’s own revolution happened. Guerilla war, with “the countryside surrounding the cities,” would be played out on the world stage as Third World countries surrounded the capitalist First World, and the entire globe would be “liberated.”

At bottom, all of the aggressive, expansionist, and bellicose rhetoric, and the fanciful talk of leaping straight to greatness, depended on the complete rebirth of a self-centered mentality of Chinese world domination. It depended, too, on Mao Zedong’s inflated ambition to be emperor and savior of All Under Heaven. For example, in order to enlist the Soviet Union’s aid in developing nuclear weapons to make China into a military superpower, Mao Zedong completely disregarded the death by starvation of approximately forty million Chinese people and continued to export rice to the Soviet Union. On August 19, 1958, Mao proudly told a group of provincial-level leaders that “some day we will draw up a plan for world unification and set up a Committee to Manage the World.”

Mao used his absolute power to implement his personal will, and he incited the Chinese people to hold others in contempt. Mao’s authority at the time truly was as the popular saying has it: “Every word is worth ten thousand words from others.” The Chinese people really did believe him when he said that all reactionaries—including American imperialists and Soviet revisionists—are “paper tigers.” They also genuinely believed that “the East Wind will prevail over the West Wind” and that the Chinese people are destined to liberate all of humanity. Behind all the high-sounding rhetoric, though, lay more primitive, less civilized undergirding: the All-Under-Heaven mentality; ambitions of hegemony; educating people in hatred; a philosophy of “struggle”; and the worship of violence (including superstitious belief in “the barrel of the gun”). These ideas were not only Mao Zedong’s; they came to pervade all of the Chinese people and were embraced especially by the young, in whom they reached a crest during the Cultural Revolution.

These young — the post-1949 generation of Chinese “raised under the red flag” — had been indoctrinated, from childhood on, in the ideas of revenge for historical grievances, worship of violence, “class struggle,” and world revolution. Every word from Mao Zedong, however trivial, was sacrosanct. Mao infused them with passion for violent revolution, then offered them the Cultural Revolution as a stage upon which to practice it. During the Cultural Revolution, swarms of rebellious Red Guards attacked foreign embassies in China, smashing and burning; some specialized in disrupting international rail service; others, in their fanaticism, sought more than violent revolution inside China and set out to “liberate all humanity” by stealing across borders into Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, and elsewhere, throwing themselves into Maoist guerrilla warfare. Some set up their own “educated youth brigades.”

On September 1, 1966, Red Guards at the secondary school attached to Tsinghua University published a statement called “Smash the Old World, Create a New One.” It announced to the whole world, in grandiloquent terms, that “we Red Guards will be the executioners of imperialism, especially American imperialism; we are personally digging the graves of the old world.” In 1967 a long narrative poem, the collective work of a group of Red Guards (one of whom was Guo Lusheng, who later, under the name “Index Finger,” became a founder of the modernist under- ground “misty poetry”), was infectiously popular for a time. It was called “Dedicated to the Brave Warriors of World War Three,” and it brought the vaulting heroism and deranged visions of liberating the whole world to a new height of absurdity. It tells of Red Guard soldiers who throw themselves into World War Three, hurtle through Europe and eventually help to subdue the world’s two superpowers. Having occupied Moscow and watered their horses in the Don River, they plant the five-star red flag of China atop the Kremlin—similarly to the way the communist armies had hoisted a red flag over Nanjing after capturing the enemy capital in China’s civil war. Then the heroes head off to smoke the tobacco of South America, to drink from the clear waters of Africa, and finally to land in North America, where they capture Washington, DC, and—as at the Kremlin—install China’s five-star flag atop the White House.

A television series about drug trafficking, called Black Ice, has recently drawn a lot of attention. There is fitting irony in the fact that the kingpin drug dealer in this series is an aging Red Guard who, in his youth, had gone to Burma to throw himself into world revolution. Now he is middle-aged, but he still dresses in military khaki, wears a Mao Zedong badge and—like most of the old Red Guards who refuse to reflect on what they did—feels strongly nostalgic about his years of rebellion. He is vicious, merciless, and has a mind full of dark plots about achieving power and ruling the world. He makes and sells drugs not primarily for the money but to fulfill his youthful drive for power. His rebellions in the Mao era failed to get him power, but now, adapting to the times, he uses the moneymaking methods of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin to pursue the same goals. He embodies in one person the difference between two eras: yesterday’s Red Guard is today’s big drug dealer, and yesterday’s transnational revolution is today’s transnational crime. But certain things are the same: the lust for power, the ambition to rule the world, and no scruples about means in reaching one’s goals.

II. The Cynical Patriotism of the Deng Xiaoping Era:
“Hiding Strength and Biding Time”

During the Deng years, pragmatism replaced Utopian illusions, economic development replaced class struggle, military downsizing replaced military expansion, civilian spending replaced military spending, and a “defensive patriotism” replaced aggressive patriotism. In foreign relations, Deng abandoned the three pillars of Mao’s foreign policy—drawing lines based on ideology, leadership of the Third World, and preparation for World War Three—and replaced these with policies that put practical national interests first, built better relations with the developed countries, cut the armed forces by one million, and did what it could to preserve a peaceful international environment.

The Chinese people in the 1980s were seeking desperately to escape the poverty and strife of the Mao era. When the door to the outside world suddenly opened to us, political reform became a hot topic. The outside world’s wealth and colorful variety made us all the more aware of our own backwardness and poverty. Countervailing feelings welled in us simultaneously: a feeling of national shame along with a strong desire to catch up; envy of the wealthy West along with pride in our ancient culture. Even as the government increasingly stressed patriotism in its new ideology, and even though the prediction that “the twenty-first century will be the Chinese century” had already begun to appear in the debate over a “clash of civilizations” between East and West, these trends were held in check by a preference for the open-minded thinking that continued to arrive from the West and that took increased freedom as its main goal. Our sense of backwardness and inferiority at the time did give rise to emotions, but the emotions were mostly yearnings for the things the West had and a desire to learn from the West—not, primarily, hatred of the outside world or expansionism.

After the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, world opinion condemned the brutal killings and Western governments imposed sanctions on the Chinese Communist regime, whose standing in the eyes of Western governments fell to a low point. Then, in an effort to stabilize its rule and to divert attention from its unpopularity, the leaders of the regime reverted to Mao Zedong’s policy of looking for external enemies. They charged that the 1989 pro-democracy movement had been orchestrated by “anti-China” forces overseas; they even said it had been a remote-controlled plot to overthrow the Chinese government and that it was the latest proof that the desire to destroy China among Western capitalists, especially American hegemonists, had never died out. Accordingly China’s core ideological mission had to be, they said, to oppose liberalization and “peaceful evolution” of China in a Westward direction. This was their new domestic policy.

In foreign policy, they turned toward a low-key posture that was captured in Deng Xiaoping’s phrase “concealing our strength and biding our time, and never taking the lead” [韜光養晦 — Ed.] They did this because the great massacre in Beijing had plunged China back into diplomatic pariahhood, and the 1989 collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe had only worsened the international reputation of Communist rule. But on the other hand, China’s economic growth could not do without the markets, capital, and technology of the developed nations. To lie low and get what one needed was only prudent.

But for a dictatorship like this one to promise “never to take the lead” is little but a nasty lie. Properly understood, the phrase has no moral content at all; it is an utterly practical device, aimed only at maximizing self-interest in the long run. The ultimate goal of the “biding time” policy is the same as that of earlier policies: to restore China to the center of the world and other peoples to tribute-bearing status. The policy rests on a faith in ebb and flow in world power; one place gets its turn, then another. When the regime is temporarily weak, it “endures humiliation and suffers in silence”—but simultaneously plans a return and sketches blueprints for revenge. Once back, it will “wipe out humiliation through acts of revenge,” as the heroes of Chinese opera do, and stand as master of a powerful China at the center of the world stage.

The deceitful strategy of “concealing strength and biding time” is attributed to Deng Xiaoping, but in a larger sense it rests in the thinking of Mao Zedong.

In the era of “reform and opening,” the first big outburst of Chinese nationalism came in 1993 when Beijing lost its bid to host the 2000 Olympic games. It was a devastating blow to the regime’s sports diplomacy, but in another sense it helped the regime. It helped because the decision deeply wounded China’s national pride, and to China’s rulers, who were still in dire need of some way to recoup legitimacy after the Tiananmen massacre, that injury to national pride came as a wonderful opportunity. They seized it. If the Chinese people had not believed that the 1989 movement was instigated by “anti-China” forces in the West, now they might; if they did not believe that the massacre was “necessary” in order to protect national interests, now they might. The evidence that anti-China forces in the West had ruined Beijing’s Olympics bid now lay right before their eyes. No room for doubt. Here was fresh evidence that the century of China’s humiliation by foreigners, and their anti-China subversion, was still going strong.

This is how the first major wave of radical ultra-nationalism in the reform era got under way. It was a complaining, compulsive sort of nationalism, rather like that of a jilted lover. As in the Mao era, now it became acceptable, once again, to distort history, even to fabricate it, so long as the goal was to recount the dastardly crimes that Westerners had committed in China in the last century or more, and to show how they had humiliated the Chinese race.

But this jilted-lover variety of nationalist passion, in which complaint and accusation were the main components, carried within it the seeds of the Mao-style “bellicose and thuggish” nationalism that was about to make a return in the first years of the twenty-first century. The effort to popularize the Maoist reprise began with the release in 1996 of the book China Can Say “No,” which really had everything: ambition for Great China, ultra-nationalist hatred, Mao-style romantic-but-bloodthirsty lyricism, and garden-variety street obscenities. The book recounts a vast spate of crimes against China committed by American hegemonists, tells its readers that Americans—and Chinese people who like America—are nothing but “vulgar trash” fit only to shut up and “not even fart,” and so on. Its apparent aim is to whip up hatred and bellicose nationalism. “If conciliation fails,” the book’s authors write, “we call upon the Chinese people to remember how to hate [and] to seek revenge!” Let a “virtual wailing wall be built” in the Taiwan Straits. “We solemnly recommend that authorities in Washington D.C. build a wall much higher and wider than the Vietnam War Memorial to accommodate the names of soldiers who will die in the future.” The wall can serve as well as a “tombstone of the American spirit.” Meanwhile the “finest paragons” of the Chinese nation are “destined to rise” from the glorious battlefield, fulfilling their mission that China “lead the twenty-first century” while American hegemony and its running dogs are “done for!” In sum, we can see how the low-key formula of “concealing strength and biding time” was the incubator for high-flown rhetoric about the resurgence of Great China, and how the jilted-lover variety of nationalist passion incubated the passions of bloodthirsty revenge.

III. Background to the Rise of Thuggish and Bellicose Patriotism

To whip up bellicose, expansionist patriotism in times of war might be easy. To do it in times of peace is not easy, but the following conditions help:

(1) A history of feelings of disdain for the world and a powerful feeling of vanity that the Son of Heaven once ruled All Under Heaven;

(2) A long history of having suffered humiliation at the hands of foreigners and the buildup of popular sentiment for revenge and settling scores;

(3) Pressure on people’s livelihood because of an extremely large population and natural resources that are insufficient to support it;

(4) Rising diplomatic and military power in the present day;

(5) A solid record over an extended time of education-for-hatred in school curricula and the misleading of public opinion in controlled media;

(6) A national psychology that regularly alternates between extreme self-abasement and extreme self-aggrandizement; and,

(7) A dictatorial regime that can manipulate the aggregate power of the preceding six conditions.

Condition number 7 is the most important one; it integrates all the others, ferments them into a brew and congeals them into a unity. This is because a dictatorial system has monopoly power over the most important of society’s resources; it can use one-sided indoctrination in the controlled media to stir up patriotic sentiment; it can focus education on a certain kind of patriotism; it can build up the military without asking the opinions of the citizenry; and so on. Condition 7 is especially crucial in a large, poor, and technically backward nation. In a liberal society, even if a country is large and poor, conditions 1—6 by themselves will likely not be able to bring about a unified national psychology. If peaceful tolerance is the norm and ideas rise and fall in the give-and-take of open debate, bellicose nationalism will dissipate and eventually disappear.

The Seventeenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 1997 marked China’s transition from the Deng Xiaoping era to the Jiang Zemin era. All seven of the above conditions were in place in China at the time, which meant that Jiang Zemin, who was not content with Deng’s recumbent foreign policy of “not taking the lead,” could now come out with his more bellicose “Great Power diplomacy.” Chinese nationalism, no longer content to “conceal strength and bide time,” was looking forward to world hegemony after a possible “fight to the finish” with the U.S.

Meanwhile many Chinese people in recent years—whether influenced by Deng-style pragmatism, by the extreme relativism of post-modernism, or by Li Zongwu’s “Thick Black Theory” [厚黑學, a kind of amoral Machiavellianism that Li advanced in the early twentieth century, and whose popularity surged at century’s end—Original Editorial Note]—have developed a second nature that is wonderfully free of principle and ready to pursue any opportunity. No scruples are needed—arrogance toward the weak is exceeded only by fawning toward the mighty. This kind of utterly unprincipled cynicism guides the foreign policy of the Chinese Communist Party as much as it pervades the official nationalism that the Party sponsors. The proud banner of a Chinese “economic miracle” and the expansion of the regime’s diplomatic and military power have revived the primitive version of Mao-era “patriotism.” Under the guise of restoring national honor and national “essence,” thuggish language that unabashedly celebrates violence, race hatred, and warmongering passion now haunts the Chinese Internet. It appears as commentary on particular incidents. But what is at stake, in the background, is a major new turn in the abnormal nationalism that has beset China over the past one hundred years. This is a turn from the defensive nationalism that arises from mixed feelings of inferiority, envy, complaint, and blame to an aggressive “patriotism” that is based on blind self-confidence, empty boasts, and pent-up hatred.

The major cause of the new turn is a reversion to the China-is-center mentality. As China endured a century of foreign humiliation, deep-seated arrogance became the key element in its nationalism. The on-again, off-again feelings of inferiority that have appeared are alternate psychological expressions of this same underlying arrogance.

As our country entered the twenty-first century, there were five main factors that led many Chinese people to move in the direction of bellicose patriotism.

First, some important events took place right before the new century began. The return of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997 had great symbolic power for the rebuilding Chinese national confidence. It seemed the righting of historical wrongs had been achieved. Then in 1999, when NATO missiles accidentally struck the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, that event stimulated the greatest anti-American, anti-Western upsurge since the beginning of the reform era and was a shot in the arm for the passions of China’s bellicose patriotism. It was at this juncture that the low-key foreign policy profile of “concealing strength and biding time” began to give way to “great power diplomacy” and to the prospect of “the rise of a great nation.”

Second, some happy successes arrived together in 2001—some soccer wins, admission to the World Trade Organization, and above all winning the 2008 Olympics bid. The Chinese people suddenly had the feeling that a whole new century lay before them, awaiting their imprint. The prediction that “the twenty-first century will be the Chinese century” seemed ready to come true, and people were bursting with pride. The Olympics bid, to be sure, did have down sides: It would not bring the Chinese people much wealth and power in a material sense, and would give the corrupt power elite some great opportunities for profiteering; moreover it would provide a politically correct pretext for the government to put “stability above all,” to stress economics over social justice, and to spend extravagantly, in essence wasting the people’s wealth while trampling their human rights. But it would also give the government an opportunity to stage a spectacular show about national revival and new wealth and power. When three generations of Chinese Communist Party leaders joined the huge celebration of the successful bid in Beijing, appearing together at Tiananmen Square, over a million residents of the city took to the streets and the revelry lasted all night. This happened not only in Beijing but in other major cities. The world could see a resurgent China filled with self-confidence.

Third, expressions of admiration from the West began playing an important role. China’s state-run media not only tooted China’s own horn but also took advantage of admiring international comments on China’s rise to Great Power status. In this effort the English scholar Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China became important, as did Napoleon’s prediction that China was a sleeping giant that “when it awakes, will shake the world.” All kinds of favorable comments on the Chinese economy from Western governments and international organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund became psychological resources for the building of national pride. The constant refrain of these voices, as reported in China’s state media, was that the Chinese economy “is the best of all”; that “a very powerful China is on the rise”; and that “by 2015 or 2020 China’s economy will surpass Japan’s.” Even negative comments from the West about “the China threat” were turned around to be evidence of China’s new strength. Headlining these stories with words like “astounding,” “unimaginable,” and “miraculous,” the Chinese media led the Chinese people into an extremely dangerous illusion—that the former “sick man of East Asia” is turning into the “mighty giant of the East” and that China has already risen to be the one “great power” in the world that can resist the United States.

Fourth, some important trends in international relations in the early 2000s seemed unfavorable to China. Russia, at the time, was turning toward the West; relations between the U.S. and India were improving; the U.S. was making inroads into Central and West Asia; China was embroiled in spats with neighboring countries over maritime rights; the issue of North Korean refugees to China was causing diplomatic squabbles; and, most importantly, the Koizumi government in Japan was refurbishing its military and appearing more hostile toward China. All of these trends made the Chinese leaders feel more and more that they were surrounded by an unfriendly world, and xenophobic sentiment became a natural response. Because of the way events were reported in the Party-controlled press, that response tended to harden into hatreds and thirst for battle.

Of all such issues, the rivalry with the U.S. was most important. After the end of the Cold War, the Chinese Communist regime stood as the world’s exemplar of dictatorial government, while liberal America stood as the world’s only superpower. It seemed that a final struggle between the rival political systems would open up between China and the United States. The government of George W. Bush, when it first came to power, seemed to take China as the biggest potential adversary of the U.S. and pursued an overall strategy of containing the Chinese Communist regime. Bush was the American president most friendly toward Taiwan in all the thirty years since the U.S. and China resumed diplomatic relations. He approved an increase in military sales to Taiwan and took every public opportunity to emphasize America’s commitment to Taiwan. Ignoring past taboos, he stated plainly that America would protect Taiwan if it came under military attack. Even on a visit to China, in a speech at Tsinghua University, Bush gave no face at all to the Chinese Communists in saying, again, that the United States would abide by its commitments to Taiwan under the “Taiwan Relations Act.” Setting aside warnings from the Chinese government, the U.S. strengthened its relations with the Taiwan military and, in a move unprecedented in thirty years, invited the Taiwan Minister of Defense Tang Yaoming to visit the U.S.

It was in this tense atmosphere of China-U.S. relations that, on April 1, 2001, a midair collision occurred between a U.S. EP-3E surveillance plane and a Chinese J-811 fighter plane off Hainan Island in southern China. The resultant media hoopla stimulated a vast new outpouring of hatred toward the United States.

The 9/11 attacks that arrived a few months later led to a temporary relaxation between the governments of China and the U.S. The two sides cooperated, in a limited way, on “counterterrorism,” but the U.S. did not—at least not right away—retreat from its policies on human rights, freedom of religion, nuclear proliferation, and the Taiwan question. Among supernationalists in the Chinese populace, however, the success of Osama Bin Laden’s surprise attack provided an opportunity to vent invective toward the U.S. and stood, moreover, as a model of what could be achieved if scruples were set aside. A book called Unrestricted Warfare by two senior colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, first published in 1999, found a new burst of popularity. For some Chinese, 9/11 showed American vulnerability, and it bolstered their confidence that China would be able to subdue the world’s most powerful nation.

Fifth, a new, more vigorous challenge was appearing from Taiwan. Chen Shuibian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the 2000 presidential elections in Taiwan, and in 2001 the DPP won again in the elections to Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan. These elections not only demonstrated that democracy in Taiwan had matured to a stage where political parties could hand power back and forth in a peaceful manner; it also marked the rise of genuinely indigenous political forces in Taiwan. After the DPP took power, its series of moves toward “de-Sinification” and “rectifying Taiwan’s name” (i.e., replacing “China” with “Taiwan” in the country’s name) caused Taiwan and the mainland to drift further apart. Hatred for Chen Shuibian and his DPP deepened among parts of the Chinese populace, and there was stronger popular support for a military solution to the Taiwan question. Bellicose Chinese nationalism reared its head in a torrent of battle cries on the Internet: “Better to pound Taiwan into a barren island than to allow it to secede from the fatherlandl”; “We’re ready to tear Taiwan down and build it up again, but not to let it go independent”; and so on.

Together these five factors intensified feelings of bravado—still grounded in inner insecurity—among many parts of the Chinese populace. This duality of insecurity-plus-bravado has operated from the beginning of the Communist years in China, and it finds expression in a vrariety of face-saving tactics.

When a people like ours, who struggle with feelings of inferiority, have to face the facts of inadequate national strength, or of less than full respect from others, one way we try to feel better is to grab onto any piece of historical material that can make us proud. It is even all right to exaggerate a success wildly, so long as it contributes to an image of “number one” for the group. If it is hard to deny that we are inferior to others materially, we can claim, as Mao did, that we are superior spiritually. If we are not as good as others now, we can build a myth that we are bound to be the most powerful nation some day, because we certainly were in the past.

China’s ruling group capitalizes on this psychology. In the state media, China’s military, economic, scientific, and even athletic successes since 1949 are all spun as signs that China is on its way to world domination. Fighting the US. to a standstill in Korea in the early 1950s was spun as a one-sided victory of China’s “volunteer armv.” When America sank deeper and deeper into the quagmire of its war in Vietnam, and eventually had to withdraw, this, too, became a great “victory” for China in 1975; there were never any clear winners in China’s border skirmishes with India in 1962, the Soviet Union in 1969, and Vietnam in 1979 (and in each case there were heavy casualties among Chinese soldiers), but each time the Chinese Communists told the Chinese people that they had achieved great victories.

The achievements of Chinese people living in the West are reported and exaggerated on a similar principle. The people who are praised might be foreign citizens, but if they are ethnically Chinese, their accomplishments are touted as proof of the power of the nation and the superiority of the race. This happened when C.N. Yang and T. D. Lee won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957, and even when the Taiwanese scientist Yuan-Tseh Lee won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986. All such examples are trumpeted as the pride of the Chinese race.

Worse still, facts themselves cannot stand in the way when claims of national pride are at stake. Utterly phony “news stories” will do. One of the more famous examples is a report that the United States Military Academy at West Point erected a large photograph of China’s heroic superpatriot Lei Feng (whom Mao had promoted as a model) and that American cadets were “learning from” him. Another said that US. soldiers fighting in the Pacific War all carried a copy of Sunzi’s Art of War (sixth to fifth centuries BCE), which is why the Pacific War was won on tactics rooted in ancient Chinese wisdom. Yet another report tells how a Chinese woman named Wu Yang went to Oxford University, became the top student, and, amazingly, received a doctorate in only her second year; then she received a scholarship of 60,000 British pounds, which was the first time such a thing had occurred in Oxford’s 800-year history.

A group of elite young economists (Yang Fan and others) have announced: “For more than a thousand years China was always the world’s superpower; China’s defeats have come only in the last 150 years.” Or, as Lin Yifu, the economist who became famous for defecting from Taiwan to China in 1979, put it: “In the two thousand years before the Industrial Revolution, Chinese culture and civilization were indeed the most advanced in the world, and the most deserving to be called the world’s highest achievements … people from all over the world made pilgrimages to the Central Empire.”

IV. Blaming and Complaining Turns into Patriotism-as-Violence

Excessive self-confidence and passions of blind hatred have led many mainland “patriots” to reject universal values. Cursing and shouts of “kill!” drown such values out.

Talk of armed attack on Taiwan and declaration of war on the U.S. has become fashionable in government think tanks, among intellectual elites, and in parts of the population as well. In the writings of the elites, this bellicose patriotism is presented as two major principles: first, “a great rejection” of Western hegemony, and second, preparation for “a great attack.”

The “great rejection” idea is upside-down theory in the sense that it begins with a neat formula and then fills in facts to suit it. It says: in politics, reject Western “political hegemony” and oppose “peaceful evolution” in a pro-West direction. In military affairs, prepare for confrontation with American “military hegemony,” and call for a multipolar international order. In economics, prevent “capital hegemony” from controlling China, and retain our people’s economy as the indisputable top priority. In the cultural realm, prevent “Western discursive hegemony,” which is also “cultural colonialism,” and advocate the indigenization of scholarship.

Some of these thinkers have gone further and advanced the idea of “system hegemony” in the international order. This idea is that both the rule-making and decisions about rule-following in today’s world are monopolized by the strong while the weak have no right to doubt them. In world trade, for example, the developed countries make the rules and the end result of the global circulation of capital is that the profits go mainly to the developed countries. The pattern extends to international organizations and even to the rules and standards used for international awards and prizes. They are all governed by “Western” values. Thus we have, in politics, the United Nations; in economics, the World Trade Organization; in military matters, NATO; in culture, the Nobel Prizes, Europe’s three major film prizes, and the American Academy Awards; in sports, the Jesse Owens Prize; in music, the Grammy awards; in art, the Venice Biennale; and so on. Western rules and standards are everywhere. In the view of the hegemony theorists, the “system hegemony” of the West is unfair. It did not come about because Western culture and Western systems are superior to others or because they are intrinsically more “universal.” It came about because the West has been economically, technologically, and militarily more powerful. Material differences, not value differences, put it where it is.

In the reform era, as Deng Xiaoping’s emphasis on economic growth gradually replaced Mao Zedong’s policies of “taking class struggle as the key link,” and as people began to enjoy more decent standards of living, the Mao-era “enemy mentality” gradually dissipated in Chinese society. But the one-party dictatorship, with its paranoia about maintaining power, still needed an “enemy mentality” for use in maintaining control and still relied on its revolutionary faith that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun.” The main difference is that the “enemy mentality” now has an exclusively overseas target, whereas under Mao the enemies were both domestic and foreign. (Today, only “a tiny minority” of people in China—who happen to be the country’s best political thinkers—are called “agents of anti-China forces”) In the years since Mao, public hatred has shifted from class-based hatred to nation-based hatred, and Mao’s maxim that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun” has gained the corollary of “national unity and dignity grow from the barrel of a gun.” The xenophobic psychology, enemy mentality, and gun-worship of the Mao years have all found new life under the guise of “patriotism.” Internally, this tool of “patriotism” has been useful to the Communist Party as a new ideology with which to control the nation after the total collapse of any belief in communism; externally, it has been useful in issuing military threats against Taiwan and the U.S. In the minds of the “bellicose patriots,” the only language that American “hegemonists” and Taiwan-independence “elements” understand is the sound of ballistic missiles exploding. But it would be a mistake to take this hyperbolic language as empty talk. Someday it could well be a basis for action. Thuggery in language and thuggery in life are related.

The worship of violence marks a reversion to barbarism for human civilization. This reversion happens most easily inside autocratic political systems, and the extent of the return to caveman impulses is in direct proportion to the barbarity of the autocracy within which it takes place: the more barbaric the dictatorship, the more devoutly its people will worship violence. In recent world history, the worship of violence has always found convenient pretexts: for colonialism, the expansion of Western “civilization” was the rationale; during the Second World War, the efficiency of Fascism was the rationale; during the Cold War, it was the Communist ideal of one-world harmony; and now, for China, it is ultra-nationalism. In our new century, when freedom, democracy, and peaceful development have become the main tendency throughout the world, “ultra-nationalism” stands naked as nothing but a euphemism for the worship of Violence in service of autocratic goals—be they the terrorism and holy war of Islamic fundamentalists or the refusal of dictatorial systems to accept political democracy.

China’s Communist rulers, who can see the world’s drift toward freedom and democracy as clearly as anyone, and who know that they are actually much weaker in the world than they would like to be, have no choice but to recognize the world’s present course as one of “peace and development.” On the other hand, as long as the Party refuses to accept political democratization, it will never be able to let go of its primitive barrel-of-the-gun mentality. Moreover, the people of mainland China, inured for decades to the ways of Communist dictatorship and with centuries of imperial experience lying behind that, carry within them habits of violence-worship whose poison will not be easy to eradicate. Every day the dictatorship continues is a day that this poison cannot be purged, and a day that “patriotism” continues to serve as an acceptable reason to tolerate bloodthirsty language that could, some day, turn into barbaric action. When a population gives its majority support to narrow nationalism in preference to the universal values of human freedom and dignity, it turns “patriotism” into an argument for despotic government, military adventurism, and thuggery.

In its actual power today, the Chinese regime is still far behind the U.S., and there is no chance of its becoming a world hegemon any time soon. The real costs at stake are domestic, in the national psychology of the Chinese people, who are being misled by a dictatorial system, for purposes of its own power, to embrace a thuggish version of nationalism and a pipe dream of world domination. All of this is profoundly corrosive of the universal values of human dignity and freedom. The mentality of world domination, to say nothing of the thuggish outlook, has not served the Chinese people well, either now or in earlier centuries. What these ideas have actually brought to the common people of China, past and present, has not been peace, success, honor, health, or a vigorous society, but bloodshed, defeat, ruin, humiliation, dismal lives, and societal collapse.

At home in Beijing, July 10, 2002

Chinese Text:
























八十年代的民间,国人急切渴望摆脱了贫穷和恶斗,封闭的国门突然打开,政治改革成为热点,外面世界的富裕和多彩凸现了自身的落后和贫乏,民族耻辱、赶超欲望、对富足西方的嫉慕和坚守古老文化的自傲,同时并存。尽管爱国主义越来越成为官方的新意识形态的核心,尽管在“中西文化大冲撞大论战”中已经出现了“21 世纪将是中国世纪”的预言,但那时毕竟还有以自由化为标志的开放心态和西化思潮,可以制衡民族主义情绪的泛滥。现实落伍以及自卑情结所激发的主流情绪,还不是对外仇恨和扩张,而是向往和学习西方。
























胡鞍钢在《中美日俄印有形战略资源比较》一文中计算出:如果按照人均购买力来评估,中国经济总量甚至能够在2020年超过美国,跃居世界第一;林毅夫先是声称21 世纪将是中国经济学家引领国际经济学的潮流,继而认为:按GDP计算,中国经济总量将在2050年超过美国;中心城市以及东部沿海富裕地区的政府,不断发布本地区已经进入中等发达国家行列的统计数字,北京、上海、广州三大中心城市发布的人均产值,还颇有相互攀比的色彩;国家信息中心也宣称:中国的中产阶级在几年内将达到2 亿多人,还有许多人撰文指出:中国已经代替俄罗斯成为美国的主要竞争对手,理应担负起反抗美国霸权的国际重任。








1949 年以来的经济、科技、体育等方面的成就和国力军力提升,皆作为终将称霸世界的征兆。韩战与美国打成平手的结局,被夸大为志愿军一边倒的胜利;美国在越战泥潭越陷越深,最后不得不撤军,也被片面地渲染为中国的胜利;中印、中苏、中越的边境战争中,本来没有胜利者,中共却在掩盖解放军的惨烈代价的同时,对内宣称取得了伟大的胜利,似乎中共军队从未吃过败仗。


















《联合早报》6月12日报道,北京大学国际关系学院举办《美国的战略调整、新战略秩序与21 世纪中国的国际安全》研讨会。与会的中国专家学者一致认为“美国把中国视为头号对手”,甚至认为布什实际上已经把中国列入“邪恶轴心”或“邪恶国”。南方网发表题为《美国新战略笼罩亚洲欲建立包围中国的隐形长城》评论。该文分析了反恐战争以来美国的外交战略,结论是布什政府“正在认真建立以美国为中心的世界新秩序”,而这一秩序得以顺利建立的主要战略前提就是围堵正在崛起的中国。在此新战略的格局下,美国与亚洲的传统盟友之间的关系日益走向军事化,俄罗斯和中亚西亚也正在融入西方,中国的传统势力范围和同盟国家正在美国的利诱下,一个个弃中国而去。甚至象缅甸这样的军政权,也通过释放昂山素季来寻求与美国改善关系。所以,中美正面冲突将不可避免。









深圳,2002年3月9日下午,金发碧眼身材高大的美国人马克借酒壮胆,在一辆公共汽车上当众扯开一名中国女子的胸扣往里看,且口出狂言:“我是美国人,我把你杀了,你们能把我怎么样!”洋酒鬼兼流氓激怒了车上所有的国人,大家一拥而上,将他扭送派出所,马克不得不低下高傲的头,警方处以500 元人民币罚款,马克向受害人当面道歉并做了书面道歉。据警方介绍,马克是心理学硕士,曾任职深圳书城中的电子工业人才培训中心,一向下流疯狂,经常跑到酒吧喝得烂醉,到处惹是生非,无所顾忌地用手向女学生胸部指指点点,已被培训中心开除。警方还查实,马克入境后,没有按规定向公安机关申报住宿登记,违反了《外国人入境出境管理法》的有关规定。对此,警方对马克又处以罚款并缩短他在中国停留的期限。

北京,2002年4月19日下午,在359路公共汽车上,一个年近40岁的美国男子,身高1米8以上、黄色分头、穿短袖和牛仔裤。他突然对好言劝说不要把脚放在汽车引擎盖上的女司机孟秋生大打出手,鲜血直流的女司机被迫紧急停车。他还冲着上前劝阻的小伙子的额头狠击一拳,将其打得跌在座位上,头破血流,额头鼓起一个大包。他还用下流的语言和动作辱骂围观和劝解的群众,冲着人群傲慢地做着各种极其下流的动作,口里喊着:“Come on,Come on,I mate you……”他威胁并追打采访拍照的记者,大骂“Fuck!”。一位会英语的女士好心为他翻译并用英语示意他坐下,他非但不领情,还不停地骂脏话。后来他见围观群众越来越多且义愤填膺,还想跳车窗逃跑。最后被赶来的巡警带走,给予了行政处罚。