Between History and Identity: How History is Mobilized in China’s Quest for Taiwanese Reunification

The people and the people alone are the motive force in the making of world history. – Mao Zedong –


Panoramic view of Taipei © Jirka Matousek / CC-BY 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons


In his major speech during the one-hundredth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chinese President Xi Jinping mentioned the word ‘history’ at least 22 times. These references usually pointed at the country’s rich historical legacy to convey the sense that China had rightfully reclaimed its position as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ (Zhōngguó) on the global stage. Such a mobilization of history to advance political statements is not unique to China; virtually every state has employed such historical references to make room for both nationalist sentiments and new strategic imaginaries of global relations (Mayer, 2018). One recent example has been Putin’s dramatic mobilization of (his interpretation of) Russo-Ukrainian history to create a pretext and justification for his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. For its part, China has a long tradition of politicizing history, as illustrated by Mao Zedong’s opening quote.


In contemporary China, Xi Jinping is employing these long-standing notions of a common past to legitimize the CCP’s claim on Taiwan, as illustrated by Xi’s speech during the CCP’s centennial. A close analysis of this speech, therefore, highlights key logics behind the country’s international interests.


Xi’s Historical Statecraft

In China, the notion of a common descent has traditionally been a driving force for forging national identities. Such notions of a common descent connect the Chinese people, not only to their ancestors but to many contemporaries as well (Zerubavel, 2004). Ancestor worship is, therefore, an important tradition in China, as highlighted in Xi Jinping’s speech by the numerous references to the ‘Chinese spirit’ being passed on from generation to generation (Xinhua, 2021).


Peace, concord, and harmony are ideas the Chinese nation has pursued and carried forward for more than 5.000 years. The Chinese nation does not carry aggressive or hegemonic traits in its genes (Xinhua, 2021).


This notion of a common past also entails some general sense of sharing a common present (Zerubavel, 2004), which Xi Jinping implies in his speech by emphasizing that the Chinese nation shares a common history of over five-thousand years (Xinhua, 2021). However, besides biological ethnic myths, Xi employs another mode of ethnic myth-making based on cultural and ideological affinities with the presumed ancestors (Smith, 2009). In the speech, he carefully integrates both sources of ethnic myth-making into the Chinese identity by presenting Chinese history as a harmonious and teleological progression towards ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ In doing so, the party represents the people and the people represent the party.


The Communist Party of China has secured extraordinary historical achievements on behalf of the people (Xinhua, 2021).


Such ethnic myth-making contributes to ‘historical statecraft,’ which entails the deliberate use and reconstruction of historical narratives by governments and societies to frame and legitimize foreign policy, build a certain image or role of a country, and create collective identities (Mayer, 2018). Indeed, the speech includes many examples of historical statecraft as one has to ‘make the past serve the present,’ as Xi recalled, citing Mao Zedong.


Emphasizing the unity of the Chinese people as one of the most important elements for China’s progress and future development, the speech called on maintaining political integrity as an essential precondition if the country does not want to be once again reduced to semi-colonial status. Hence, the speech calls for collective action to achieve the inevitable “national rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation, overcoming the so-called “Century of Humiliation” that saw the country subjugated to colonial powers and politically disunited, with Taiwan being ruled by a different government.


From Reunification to Rejuvenation

To achieve this ‘historic mission,’ China’s reunification with Taiwan is vital. Above all, common descent, emphasized through the unity of the Chinese people including both sides of the Taiwan Strait, has been mobilized to support the CCP’s reunification efforts as the five-thousand-year history is shared by all Chinese.


It is a shared aspiration of all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation… All of us, compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan strait, must come together and move forward in unison… No-one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity (Xinhua, 2021).


In doing so, implicit rhetorical shots are fired at Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and her party, which supports Taiwanese nationalism and views Taiwan as a distinct nation, undermining Xi’s emphasis on the unity of the Chinese people and the one-China principle (Maizland, 2021). Accordingly, Xi frames the Taiwanese independence movement as an attempt to divide the Chinese nation, creating an in-group out-group effect that legitimizes assertiveness against such ideology. The historical legacy of common descent, thus, forms a basis for collective action, which in this case entails the reunification of China and Taiwan.


We will uphold the one-China principle and the 1992 Consensus, and advance peaceful national reunification…. We must take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempts toward ‘Taiwan Independence,’ and work together to create a bright future for national rejuvenation (Xinhua, 2021).


Towards the Second Centenary

As seen, Xi Jinping employs historical arguments to legitimize China’s calls for national reunification with Taiwan. Some observers have compared this to Putin’s efforts to legitimize his country’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent invasion of Ukraine in 2022 by employing notions of common descent and emphasizing the unity of the two nations. Yet, while such parallels might indeed be tempting, they can also run the risk of leading to oversimplified and deterministic conclusions that ignore important differences. In the end, every nation is the result of its own complex historical legacy, and this should not be overlooked in favor of simple analogies.


In Xi’s speech, these notions are formed through a synthesis of both genealogical-biological and cultural-ideological impulses that promote an ethnic legacy with strong historical and territorial implications that link the Taiwan question to the larger narrative about China’s road to national rejuvenation. In this way, China’s reunification is seen as an almost inevitable historical reality.


Now that the first centennial year of 2021 has been reached, the focus will turn to accomplishing the second centenary goal of national rejuvenation by 2049. Yet, as Xi has not put a strict timeline on completing this ‘historic mission,’ the future remains uncertain for those on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.





Pieter W.G. Zhao is a graduate student in Global History and International Relations at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He holds a BA (Cum Laude) in History specialized in international relations and maritime history. His well-received thesis focused on China’s 21st-century maritime strategy from a 19th-century naval historical perspective and is currently under peer-review at the European Journal of East Asian Studies. You can get in touch via LinkedIn or by email at Pieter_zhao@live.nl


Previous Publication: China’s Place in the Sun? Historical Analogies and the Chinese Maritime Turn (europeanguanxi.com)



The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.



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References

Maizland, L. (2021) Why China-Taiwan Relations Are So Tense, Council on Foreign Relations. Available at: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-taiwan-relations-tension-us-policy (Accessed: 21 September 2021).


Mayer, M. (2018) ‘China’s historical statecraft and the return of history’, International Affairs, 94, pp. 1217–1235. doi:10.1093/ia/iiy209.


Smith, A.D. (2009) ‘National Identity and Myths of Ethnic Descent’, in Myths and Memories of the Nation, pp. 57–79.


Xinhua (2021) Full Text: Speech by Xi Jinping at a ceremony marking the centenary of the CPC - Xinhua | English.news.cn, Xinhua News. Available at: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/special/2021-07/01/c_1310038244.htm (Accessed: 20 September 2021).


Zerubavel, E. (2004) Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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