Chinese "Victimhood" and its Relation to its Foreign Policies

Battle between Mongols & Chinese (1211). Jami' al-tawarikh, Rashid al-Din. © Bibliothèque Nationale de France / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

There is no doubt that China is one of the oldest countries in the world. With a long history comes a long list of events that shape nations' mindset and characteristics, together with stereotypes and bias. The one term that strikes me the most, once heard in ordinary dialogue, is “Chinese victimhood”. There are a lot of stereotypes regarding Chinese people that foreigners might hear upon arriving in their home country after visiting China. However, “Chinese victimhood” is a term that I had never heard before.

It’s true that China has suffered centuries of invasions. For example, the Mongols, the Manchus (Qing), Europeans and Americans, and the Japanese. And truth be told, the Chinese nation has every right to feel angry and be proud of their own recent economic and technological advances in becoming a geopolitical great power (Bitzinger, 2016).

However, how do we understand the term itself? Is it a legitimate term that is common in the sphere of international relations? Do people in China use it on a daily basis? What are the characteristics of this term?

This essay will try to answer these questions using theoretical backgrounds based on scientific journals, and to understand the usage of this expression through journals of the international relations sphere.

Historical Background

Many analysts point out that China has been plagued by internal turmoil and that it experienced the most tumultuous century in any country's history (Wu, 2015). They also believe that the complexities, feelings and especially the internal struggles that China endured during its hardest century prolonged that narrative of victimhood and humiliation.

The century most analytics refer to are the years from 1839 to 1949. During these years, China endured two Opium wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860 respectively), the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the Nanjing Massacre (1937 December 13th) during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and this list does not even include all invasions from other Western countries (Facing History and Ourselves, n.d.).

This period also called The Century of Humiliation, as analysist of The Diplomat put it, is the Century that «is characterized by pandemics, famines, corruption, mass murder, and widespread drug addiction … the last years of this period were also some of its darkest, with the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. During the Japanese invasion and occupation, China experienced war crimes, a high death toll, and man-made natural disasters that killed and displaced millions» (Tischler, 2020).

Scholars believe that these dark times were left behind during the Maoist era. The new era in China was born out of revolution and it was not supposed to hang on its darkest past. However, many scholars also believe that in the 80s “the narrative of a Chinese holocaust emerged, with a growing emphasis on the crimes against the Chinese people, and a significant focus on the Nanjing Massacre” (Tischler, 2020). This narrative is sometimes described as ‘victimhood’. Scholars also point out that under Mao, the emphasis was on “China as victor (Bitzinger, 2016).” In 1949, the Chinese people had “stood up” – in other words, they had to get past the humiliations of the past and created a new self-governing state. Yang and Mao (2016) provided with following definition: «"Victim mentality” is defined as a mind-set that sees China as a victim of imperialism while it regards the Chinese people as an ethnic group bullied and discriminated against by the Westerners. Such a nationalistic and anti-Western mentality, based on selective historical memory, provides the Chinese with an understanding of who they are and how they should approach their relationship with the rest of the world».

Yang and Mao (2016) also argue that even though the «Century of Humiliation» was over during Maoist era, this sense of victimhood played an important role in shaping how Mao understood and built foreign policy.

However, what does victimhood mean in political science?

Understanding Victimhood as a Term

T.A. Jacoby (2015) suggests that in political theory if we are talking about victimhood, we should understand the difference between victimization and victimhood. The first term refers to “an act of harm perpetrated against a person or a group”, the second one “a form of collective identity based on that harm”. So, something we should understand is the fact that victimhood is not a feeling or an emotion, it is an identity. Additionally, identity has its own characteristics in social sciences. When we are talking about identity, we are talking about a process of formulation or, to put it simply, the process of “making” identity (Weinreich, P., 1986; West and Zimmerman, 1987). Summing up, we can say that identity is the qualities and beliefs that formulate a person or a group of people; the latter definition is called collective identity.

In regards to the Chinese sense of victimhood, we are referring to a collective identity. Furthermore, T.A.Jacoby goes on explaining victimhood through the 5 stage process, that is the 5 stages that victims experience from an act of victimization to a victim-based identity. These stages include structural conduciveness, political consciousness, ideological concurrence, political mobilization and political recognition. These steps explain the becoming or “gaining” the identity of victimhood. Though the process the author explains in the article is referring to the victims of recent events like ISIS wars, refugees of border disputes, etc. I believe they also might be true to the characters of the Chinese nation.

Through time and progress, the part of identity of victimhood turned into the sense of what some scholars call “never again” mentality (Tischler, 2020). What does it mean? It means that Chinese people not only acknowledge the sorrows of the past but are making sure with everything in their power to prevent something similar happening in the near future. China not only learned its lessons, but also works hard to prevent any sorrows that might occur from any side.

Victimhood in Chinese International Policies

Many scholars point out that understanding the narrative of victimhood is essential in understanding China’s internal, foreign and defense policies. They also point out that these policies can be characterized as “never again” policies, something we covered above. And this narrative also explains why it is crucial for China to maintain both international and domestic stability, and why it’s a big part of its national security policy. At the same time analysts from The Diplomat point out that “…losing territory to foreign powers also played a major part in China’s decline, which surely echoes as foreign powers pressure Beijing to renounce its territorial claims along the border with India, in the South China Sea, and over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands. But above all, the Century of Humiliation truly began due to foreign interference in China’s internal affairs and laws''. And many scholars see the Century of Humiliation and victimhood as a driving force in China’s both foreign and internal policies. We can see that the victimhood mentality begins not only because of invasions but also because of foreign interference in Chinese internal affairs. So, in the modern world the victimhood can also be related to the defense of China’s sovereignty. Something every country in the world cares about.

As a rational actor, Beijing in any foreign/internal relations policies acts according to its strategic and national need. However, when making a design for any kind of China policy, policymakers should understand the ‘never again’ mentality in the minds of Chinese decision-makers. Using China’s national trauma can be a very important feature of Chinese minds that should never be ignored. Ignoring this narrative is a dangerous mistake that can lead to terrible miscalculations in understanding Chinese policy.

Therefore, the South China Sea (SCS) dispute is a very complex issue (Bitzinger, 2016). The narrative of victimhood is believed to be a reason why Beijing is into becoming ever more inflexible in pressing its territorial claims in the adjoining seas. It is believed that there is no “dispute” for China, because China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the SCS. China is protecting its sovereignty and making sure that nothing can lead to the next Century of Humiliation, this simple.

Issues Generated by a Sense of Victimhood and an Approach to Solve Them

In the beginning of the essay we did not know what Chinese sense of victimhood meant. Through research and understanding of the term we learned that on the one hand, victimhood means remembrance of the past, owning the identity of the victim. On the other hand, it also turns into a “never again” mentality, which means making sure that sorrows of the past are never happening in the near future. However, from the international relations point of view, the victimhood mentality in a broader picture looks like “us versus them” mentality. It is true that victimhood as a psychological term opposes two actors: bullies and victims. Xi Jingping gave a speech in 2014 at Peking University about victimhood:

Since the Opium War of the 1840s the Chinese people have long cherished a dream of realising a great national rejuvenation… China used to be a world economic power. However, it missed its chance in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the consequent dramatic changes, and was thus left behind and suffered humiliation under foreign invasion... we must not let this tragic history repeat itself ... China has stood up. It will never again tolerate being bullied by any nation.

Though everything in this speech is true, in modern days the “us vs. them” mentality can easily turn the world into the society that has been described in Hobbes’ “Leviathan”. Precisely, war of all against all. China has grown a lot since the Century of Humiliation. Though the meaning of the “never again” mentality does provide a healthy outcome, the “us vs. them” mentality might do more harm.

In the case where the second meaning prevails, the Tianxia philosophy might come in handy. The Tianxia philosophy was first described in the book called “The Tianxia System: An Introduction to the Philosophy of a World Institution” by China’s most influential contemporary philosopher Zhao Tingyang.

The “us vs. them” mentality might always lead to confrontations and hostility among civilizations, states, actors, but the philosophy of Tianxia, which basically translates into “all under heaven” coexisting harmoniously might bring peace and understanding among states.

Zhao Tingyang (2018) explains the Tianxia system as follows:

About 3,000 years ago, the Zhou dynasty brought the tianxia system — the only one ever practiced — to prominence. The dynasty sought to bring the whole world together under one tent as a way to eliminate any negative external influence, and thereby conflict, within what was then considered the civilized world. Tianxia thus defines the concept of “the political” as the art of co-existing through transforming hostility into hospitality …

This system will provide the sense of harmonious coexistence where no state goes for the sovereignty of the other, where on the one hand the world is connected, and on the other there is independence of ideas and cultures.

“Bullies” might stay as bullies, but “victims” always grow to be better.

Mavzuna Mukhiddinova holds an MA in sociology from Higher School of Economics (Russia), now pursuing a PhD. in International Relations and Diplomacy from Beijing Foreign Studies University (China). Her focus of research is Chinese foreign policies, SCO and BRI. You can find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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

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