OPINION: Change in an enduring China

Edmund S. Tayao

Posted at Aug 27 2019 12:35 PM

Kissinger writing on China says,

“China knew, of course, of different societies around its periphery in Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma; but in the Chinese perception, China was considered the center of the world, the ‘Middle Kingdom,’ and other societies were assessed as gradations from it. As the Chinese saw it, a host of lesser states that imbibed Chinese culture and paid tribute to China’s greatness constituted the natural order of the universe. The borders between China and the surrounding peoples were not so much political and territorial demarcations as cultural differentiations. The outward radiance of Chinese culture throughout East Asia led the American political scientist Lucian Pye to comment famously that, in the modern age, China remains a ‘civilization pretending to be a nation-state’”.

“So that’s what explains it....”, one would likely blurt out upon reading this from the book, meaning that the image of China is consistent with the description in the foregoing. The thing is, China is a behemoth, a really large autarchic state that even without doing anything could already make neighbors cringe, at the least feel insecure. It may not necessarily be or always a question of a country’s military security, a huge country with a huge economy can affect its neighbors if it fails or if it succeeds, even without it doing anything intently. Hence, the likely mindset that there’s always something suspect with China. Why would it not be when even now it seems that so much of what it does simply says they feel and act like they can do anything?

If this quote captures exactly how China looks at itself and the world, we have a contradiction, if not a paradox. China sees itself as it was centuries back when its civilization was established way before the west knew itself to be a civilization. The question is how this mindset corresponds to the world today, especially that it is characterized by change.

Admiral Zheng He’s exploration of the world predates by a little less than a century that of Portuguese Vasco da Gama and therefore that of another Portuguese serving the Spanish crown, Ferdinand Magellan who would go on then to discover the Philippines. At about the same time as these two Portuguese explorers, Italian explorers Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci went on their own explorations, which then gave us what was then referred to as the New World. Only then did the idea of a “Western Civilization” become fully concrete. Even before the West has seen the world, China was already conducting business all around. China is now probably the oldest existing advanced civilization in the world.

Evidently, there is every reason for China to feel proud. Especially with the now resurgent globally dominant economy, its glorious past all the more boosts the psyche of superiority. China feels it is the same “middle kingdom” as it was hundreds of years back and wherefore its people remains the same regardless of any separation that may have ensued in the more recent history. With the kind of government run by the Communist Party, no doubt it has been an effective hinge that keeps China together despite its native diversity. Keeping it together, on the other hand, is different from effectively establishing a common identity for its people overall.

Some people may have the same skin color, speak the same language and even heritage, but still did not wind up being under the same state. History is a great transformer; it can either unite or divide peoples. There are so many nations, supposedly the same people that used to be under the same polity, perhaps under a kingdom or empire before, but now belong to different sovereign states. Amy Chua explains that the great enlightenment principles of modernity--liberalism, secularism, rationality, equality, free markets--do not provide the kind of “tribal group identity” that human beings crave and have always craved.

The state as we know it today has strengthened individual rights and individual liberty, created unprecedented opportunity and prosperity, transformed human consciousness, but they speak to people as individuals and as members of the human race, whereas tribal instinct occupies the realm in between. Tribal instinct is consistent with the human psyche, the feeling of belonging, sharing the same experience, of struggles and victories. When people share the same history, the feeling of unanimity comes naturally. The blunt power of the state may reunify, even unify separated peoples but it will take time before a feeling of unanimity can develop.

This feeling of unanimity cannot be imposed. People may look and talk similarly but still differ, especially in terms of behavior and homogeneity, accordingly a feeling of shared identity. This is something that cannot be put in place by some policy, regardless of the intensity of enforcement.

The key is in the shared experience. The people of a particular country may be diverse ethno-linguistically as we are but have become one or at least developed a feeling of belonging because of this shared experience. This shared experience has resulted in common interests, cultivated by having been under colonial power, facing the same challenges and frustrations, and the feeling of euphoria in triumphs. Before the establishment of the state, the different ethno-linguistic groups in the Philippine islands were already well aware of their world. How it has become a collective that is the Philippines is of course because of history, leading to its establishment as a state, that the inherent ethnic diversity has been tempered by the common experience promoting a shared identity.

On the other hand, there are those who used to belong to the same state, not necessarily by force as the former Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, but have now come to be of different sovereign states. Consider the people of the kingdom of Prussia before, for example. The kingdom survived for more than 400 years but still turned out to be of different peoples today in different states. The point in all these may be captured by Amy Chua’s interesting observation-- “the only time Earth is united in Hollywood movies is when it is under attack by another species from another planet”. This emphasizes shared experience as being the key.

The foregoing is important if we are to understand the situation in Hong Kong, and the possible outcome of the still ongoing standoff. We have to ask how accurate is the idea of one China especially in this particular case the people of Hong Kong and those in the mainland. There is without doubt a strong sense of one China but mainly in the mainland. In a seminal work of Teresa Wright on state-society relations in China, it is noted that most citizens “appear to believe that the authoritarian national government has facilitated the country’s--and therefore the individual citizens’ economic rise”. This feeds on the feeling of pride as explained in the foregoing, of belonging to an old civilization and achieving a dominant position in the world. Obviously, this is also a perfect illustration of a shared experience. 

Hong Kong, on the other hand, has been under British rule for 155 years. It developed as a territory separately from mainland China. It may be part of the idea of a One China, Two Systems, but how this impacts on the people should be asked in order to understand not only the nature of the relationship between the two territories but more so what is to expect in this relationship if it is to remain and prosper. Will the people in the mainland support the people of Hong Kong and therefore the ongoing struggle? How do the people in the mainland look at the people in Hong Kong and vice versa? Do they see each other differently or there is a feeling of a common identity?

The government’s source of legitimacy no doubt is more of the mainland, more than Hong Kong. If the people in the mainland do not see any reason to support, at the very least, understand the struggle in Hong Kong, this means the Central Government has all options on the table as far as ending the standoff soonest. It may no longer enjoy the same arbitrariness as before, if we note especially that the world today is a lot more connected compared to 28 years ago. With the people in the mainland fully supportive of the government however, a similar resolution as it was with the Tiananmen protests may still be on the table. 

What is sacrosanct is China’s integrity as a state and the government remaining as it is. Negotiating with the protesters and forging some compromise is something definitely out of consideration. Doing so can impact on Taiwan’s aspirations as an independent state. If the government is to negotiate, it is only because the leaders of the protests have enough reason to trust the government. The government can only end the impasse by appearing strong even if it has to give in to some of the demands of the protesters. In other words, what may appear to be how it has been resolved need not be the same as how it was really resolved. How this can be done is an entirely different story. Meanwhile the world watches, waiting anxiously how it will play out in the long run. 

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.