‘Chineseness’: Identity Debate in China from the 1980s to the ‘New Era’

Red Lanterns at Chinese Temple © jcx516 / Public Domain / Pixabay

Since the incredible concentration of power in the hands of Xi Jinping and, more generally, the Party, international media has described China in profoundly misleading terms. China is not a monolithic entity but a complex, multifaceted polity that, to be properly understood by foreign observers, must be “disaggregated” so as to have a clearer picture of the forces shaping its various dimensions. Even if Confucian cultures are at ease with ambiguities thanks to their acceptance of harmony in diversity (和而不同 he’erbutong), Chinese rulers and Chinese people grappled with the challenge of defining Chinese identity. This challenge is not only in a strictly ethnic sense, but also in a cultural, value-based and, broadly speaking, political sense.

Such a multidimensional identity (Dittmer and Kim, 1993) fits the broad definition of identity given by Erikson (1959) as “a mutual relation in that it connotes both a persistent sameness within oneself and a persistent sharing of some kind of essential character with others'. Understanding how Chinese people conceive 中国性 (zhongguoxing, ‘Chineseness’) provides tools to grasp the sense of rather vague government’s policies such as the the China Dream (中国梦 zhongguo meng), Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as Made in China 2025. This debate goes to the question of China’s future itself, a question that becomes strikingly evident when it comes to ‘modernisation’ and the way in which China defines its version of it in comparison to the Western one: where China is going also depends on the interaction between the Party and the Chinese people.

Determining Factors and Identity Dimensions

In dealing with Chinese identity debate, we should take into account two fundamental factors influencing Chinese self-perception: the ‘orthogenesis’ of Chinese civilization and the perception of geopolitical centrality. The concept of ‘orthogenesis’ can be defined as the lack of major historical discontinuities in the history of Chinese civilization (Mazzei, 2022). This is exemplified by a series of elements that characterized China throughout its history and still represent its distinctive features, namely Confucianism, 汉字-based (hanzi) writing system and the peculiar social and political culture, relying on the 官 (guan, “mandarin”) bureaucracy (Meissner, 2006). This unique continuity implies the possibility to draw on the past in the designation of “national” myths, traumas and universal aspirations (Xu, 2009).

On the other hand, centrality is the defining feature of Chinese international self-positioning (Pu, 2017). Notably, 中国 (zhongguo, the “Middle Kingdom”), the self-denomination of China which positions the polity at the center of the 天下 (tianxia, “All-Under-Heaven”, see Zhao 2005, 2021) . An empirical example of the perception of this sinocentric global view is the geographical self-representation of China proposed by Hao Xiaoguang in 2013 in which the center of the map is occupied by China and Eurasia, with the clear marginalization of North and South America. Geographical centrality also implies the politicization of the space, thus leading to a perceived geopolitical predominance. The origin of this sense of superiority is historical as well since Chinese culture was regionally defining both for its inherent attractiveness and for the establishment of the tributary states system (Holcombe, 2011).

Hao Projection. Source: Leiden University

These fundamental factors act upon the three dimensions of the Chinese identity debate, started in the 1980s and dramatically influenced by historical circumstances. These dimensions are cultural (which values are truly ‘Chinese’?), political (what is China as a polity?) and ethnic (what does it mean to be Han?) (Thoraval, 1997). This third dimension is more recent in comparison to the other two. It derives from the nationalist conception of Sun Yat-sen, one of the founding fathers of the modern Chinese nation, who developed the concept of 民族主义 (minzuzhuyi) to undermine the legitimacy of the Manchu Qing dynasty. Sun’s conception is based on several nation-building elements among which 血统 (xuetong, “blood relationship”) is the most important one (Meissner, 2006). This vision fitted the project of creating a Chinese nation-state based on the European model and contributed, alongside with the ethnic sentiment of the Qing era, to the exaltation of the Han ethnicity. Now that the nation-building project has been largely completed, this narrow vision can be a spoiler to the universal ambitions of Xi’s China.

1980s-1990s: ‘Asian Values’ and ‘Chinese Characteristics’

The interaction between determining factors and identity dimensions started at the beginning of the 1980s with the end of the Maoist era, when the Party had to trace the new trajectory of a country deprived of its Great Helmsman (Mazzei, 2014, 2022). At the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee in 1978, Deng Xiaoping began promoting his project of 改革开放 (gaigekaifang, “reform and open up”) that would go on to trigger the ‘de-Maoization’ of the Chinese economy.

The Chinese debate ot that period is influenced by the notion of‘Asian values’, i.e. a theory developed by Malaysian and Singaporean Prime Ministers Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew to systematize the paradigm of the ‘developmental state’ embodied by Japan, in that period the “next number one”, and, later, the East Asian Tigers. The main assumption was that East Asian societies needed to “look at East'': as Mahbubani (2001) explains, the individualistic system promoted by the West was not fit for all societies (with clear implications on the conception of human rights as well), especially for Asian societies whose founding values are communitarian. Asia, according to this theory, should learn from the Meiji formula of wakon-yosai (“Japanese spirit and Western technology”) and its Chinese version 中学为体西学为用 (zhong xue wei ti, xi xue wei yong, “Chinese Learning as Substance, Western Learning for Application”): by maintaining their core values and promoting their communitarian and non-democratic model, Asian countries should seek economic modernization and progress through Western discoveries. The product of the debate is the refusal of Western universalism and the proposal of an alternative regional model.

However, with the end of Japan’s supposedly infinite growth in the 1990s, the developmental model can no longer represent the benchmark for China. The identity debate, in fact, focuses now on how to shape an economy and a society with ‘Chinese characteristics’. This expression was officially used for the first time by Deng Xiaoping in the Opening Speech at the Twelfth National Congress of CPC in 1982 in relation to socialism (中国特色社会主义 zhongguotese shehui zhuyi) and represents the acme of the culturalist thesis, the concrete expression of 中华 (zhonghua, “Sinicization”) as opposed to 西华 (xihua, “Westernization”) (Yang, 2014; Fumian 2018). This theorization implies the ultimate refusal of the Western model of society and modernization and was China’s response to the so-called ‘Beijing Spring’, precipitated by the massacre of Tiananmen Square on 4th June 1989.

As happened with the May Fourth Movement of 1919, when thousands of students asked about the modernization of China through westernization, during the ‘Beijing Spring’, liberalism represented the main driver towards change in Chinese debate. During this period of 文化热 (wenhua re, “cultural fever”), in fact, liberalism, at the time roughly a synonym of 西华, posed a challenge to other political streams (思潮 sichao) as Neo-Authoritarianism, which proposed a strong state as a precondition for modernization and reforms.

Embracing the anti-Confucian legacy of the May Fourth Movement, 1980s liberals found the sublimation of their thought in the 1988 tv series 和尚 (heshang, “River Elegy”) (Mazzei 2022). In the series, the Yellow River, traditionally the “cradle of Chinese civilization”, is compared to the Pacific Ocean: the murky water of the river and the clear water of the ocean represent the difference namely between the likewise “murky” traditional Chinese thought and the “clear” and logical Western approach. The impact of the series was striking even within the Party itself: the Secretary General Zhao Ziyang, a reformer, was in favor of its transmission. The narrative of the series was indeed functional to the intent of renewing Chinese society by abandoning “feudal” traditions and customs. During the ‘Beijing Spring’, both authors of Heshang were arrested with the allegation of “insulting the Yellow River and the Great Wall”, both symbols that the Tiananmen Square protesters were keen to demystify (ibid.). At the same time, Zhao Ziyang, among the few party leaders that opposed an armed intervention on the 4th of June, was arrested and confined until his death in 2005. The identity crisis of that period led to the infamous repression of dissent on Tiananmen Square (Yang, 2014) and to the prevalence of 本土主义 (bentu zhuyi, “nativism”) (Mazzei, 2014).

The main consequences of the conclusion of this phase of the identity debate were the following two: the Confucian ‘re-birth’ of the Party (Bell, 2010); and the failure of the so called ‘fifth modernization’, i.e. the political one, after the four (agriculture, science and technology, industry and national defense) elaborated by Hu Yaobang, revived by Hua Guofeng ten years later and, finally, launched by Deng in 1978 (Holcombe, 2011).

The Current State of the Debate: Identity in the ‘New Era’

The events of Tiananmen square established a new ‘social contract’ by force between the CPC and Chinese citizens under which political freedom was traded with the promise of continuous economic growth . The leaderships of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, characterized by a certain degree of power-sharing within the Party in comparison to today's ongoing centralisation (Thompson, 2020), carefully preserved this tacit agreement and took advantage of the economic boom of China to strengthen the institutionalization of power. The climax of China’s growth was the Olympic Games of 2008, an occasion to project a new image of Beijing abroad (Snyder, 2008). Alongside the celebration of its culture and tradition, CPC also showed to the world the degree of modernity and progress achieved as a result of the reform process and the World Trade Organization (WTO) membership in 2001.

The combination of these elements constitutes the core of “sinocentric exceptionalism”, the ethno-culturally based assumption that the Chinese model is inherently superior to all others but neither universal nor exportable at all (a modernized version of 1980s-1990s nativism) (Breslin, 2011). The rise of Xi Jinping in 2012 represented –for a wide range of reasons – a clear disruption in national and international politics: from an internal perspective, the Party has never seen a comparable concentration of power since Mao; from an international point of view, instead, China is now the undisputed “number two” and its foreign policy became absolutely proactive.

The distinctive objective of the “new era” is the realization of the 中国梦 (zhongguo meng, “Chinese dream”). This ideological and political objective vaguely encompasses all possible policy areas (from the reduction of poverty to the enhancement of Chinese military capacity), but can be boiled down to a new version of a recurrent rhetoric among Chinese leaders, i.e. 中华民族的伟大复兴 (zhonghua minzu de weida fuxing, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”). The need of such a “new-fashioned” leadership for an old concept like the ‘rejuvenation’ can be justified as the response to the lack of a democratic legitimation: Xi needs to lean on national history, culture, and sentiments (Wang, 2014). The concept of ‘rejuvenation’ implies the existence of what Wang (ibid.), drawing on Galtung, calls “chosen glory”, i.e. a moment in the five-thousands-years long Chinese history that represents the ‘golden era’. Although this moment is not clearly identified by the official rhetoric, we can assume that its “punctual” nature is merely fictional, being the product of an othering process in relation to a “chosen trauma”.

The latter, on the contrary, is clearly represented by the 羞辱 (xiuru, “deep humiliation”) that followed the defeat in the Opium wars, the ratification of the “unequal treaties'' and, all in all, the loss of the global primacy over the West. The “century of humiliation” (1839-1949) still represents the main legitimacy leverage of the Party that can exploit this historical period as the “rally-around-the-flag” element. The byproduct of that is nothing but nationalism. However, this new version of nationalism differs from Sun Yat-sen’s one for its lack of ethnic dimension: the objective of China is no more the creation of a nation state, it is the re-birth of a ‘civilisation state’ (Xu, 2009). China has to regain the center of the world order: its centrality, yet not to be understood as a form of hegemony (Mazzei 2014; Zhao, 2021), is implied by its inherent “exceptionalism” and by the supremacy of its values. Whether the economic and political dimensions of this model are exportable (‘Beijing consensus’ as opposed to ‘Washington consensus’) or not is debatable (Siddivò, 2015), but the universality of Chinese 文 values (wen, “cultural”, as opposed to 武 wu, “military”) is deemed undisputable.

To sustain it and to make those values easier to spread, Xi, to some extent, concluded the identity debate within the Party. Justified by the rising trajectory of his China, he elaborated a “pret-à-porter” identity, an “idealized collective” one, of which every Chinese citizen, independently of his/her multilayered characteristics, is included, even by force (Fumian, 2018). Since 2012, Xi has promoted the twelve “fundamental values of socialism” among which all universal ones are in the direct responsibility of the political power, while the ones pertaining to citizens are more “duties” than proper values (patriotism, dedication to work etc.). The combination of this new paradigm with the political dominance of Xi’s figure arguably suppressed the main engine of contemporary China identity debate: liberalism. The end of this transformative sichao can be briefly exemplified by the lukewarm reaction that Chinese people showed for the death of Nobel prize-winner Liu Xiaobo in 2017 (Lincot, 2019). “The general indifference in which has been greeted the loss of the dissident intellectual Liu Xiaobo in China shows that liberal ideas, of which he was one of the best advocates, and which have been bitterly discussed by the Tiananmen generation (1989), are today marginalized” (ibid.).


This brief journey through the last 40 years of identity debate in China might help in understanding the logic which underpins China’s current policies, as well as the self-positioning in the global scenario of the rising power. Factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic or the continuous confrontation with the US will undoubtedly continue to shape ‘Chineseness’ and China’s perception of centrality further deepening the alterity between the East and the West. Despite this, the impact that Xi’s rise to power had on the identity-shaping process is undeniable, yet the discontinuity cannot be fully grasped without the constant confrontation with the past that made the ‘new era’ possible.

Vincenzo Poti is a student of the master’s degree in International Security Studies at the School of Advanced Studies Sant’Anna and the University of Trento. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Naples “L’Orientale”, where he developed his interest for East Asia and particularly China. Always looking for new topics to explore, his main interest is to investigate how the political and social culture of China influence its foreign policy in order to debunk the monolithic conception of this complex country. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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

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