BEIJING – An old saying tells us that those who can’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In China these days, a more relevant adage might be: Those who choose to learn only certain lessons from history are doomed.
That’s the upshot of China’s reaction to a ruling from a tribunal at The Hague rejecting its claims to much of the South China Sea. Government officials and state news media unleashed a blistering torrent of vitriol in response, deriding the whole proceeding as a “farce” and a “brutal violation” of international law.
That attitude is an outgrowth of a historical narrative propagated by the Communist Party’s leadership — one that may be politically convenient at the moment, but that ultimately threatens to undermine China’s rise.
The Middle Kingdom, in this telling, had long been victimized and humiliated by predatory foreign imperialists, which today still scheme to prevent the nation from assuming its rightful place in world affairs. The storyline stretches back to the crushing defeats dealt to the Qing dynasty by aggressive Western powers in the 19th century, and continues to Japan’s even more embarrassing invasion during World War II.
President Xi Jinping likes to remind people of these outrages. Last year’s celebration marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war was accompanied by a tidal wave of anti-Japan propaganda. In a speech, Xi said that victory “put an end to China’s national humiliation of suffering successive defeats at the hands of foreign aggressors in modern times.”
The same narrative is now being adapted for the South China Sea dispute. In early July, an editorial in the state-run China Daily, titled “China Will Not Swallow Bitter Pill of Humiliation,” linked today’s maritime squabbles to past indignities at the hands of the West. “The days have long passed when the country was seen as the ‘sick man of East Asia,’ whose fate was at the mercy of a few Western powers,” it said. The Hague tribunal, according to the People’s Daily, “degenerated into a political tool of external powers.”
There’s no denying the mistreatments inflicted on China during its past times of weakness. However, this narrative of woe is only one version of China’s modern history. There’s another, no less valid narrative that Beijing chooses not to talk about very much. It may not whip up nationalist fervor, but heeding its lessons would actually benefit China over the long term.
That story goes like this: By cooperating with the United States and its allies, China transformed itself into the world’s second-largest economy and a rising superpower. Its rapid development would never have been possible if the U.S. hadn’t opened its market to Chinese exports. Companies from the U.S., Japan and Europe have invested heavily in China, creating jobs and importing know-how. The U.S. security presence in East Asia — the same one Beijing considers an intolerable constraint — has generally kept the peace in the region, allowing China to focus on becoming rich.
If Beijing chose this historical narrative, then its approach to the South China Sea would probably look different. It would seek to peacefully negotiate with its neighbors and work closely with the U.S., Japan and others rather than characterizing them as saboteurs of Chinese interests. The same would be true with other territorial disputes, for instance with Japan and India, that keep Beijing’s neighbors wary of its intentions.
And economically, China would be well served by reciprocating the openness of its trading partners to Chinese business by treating foreign firms more fairly in its own market. That would help forestall the anti-China protectionism now rising in the West.
The problem for Xi is that he benefits too much from the rhetoric about China’s past victimization. By taking a stand against foreign aggressors, he can present himself as a defender of Chinese interests, the man righting all the wrongs of the past 200 years. Widespread support for the government on social media and in the press shows just how well that strategy is working.
But Xi’s fixation on the history of China’s humiliation is threatening to swamp the history of China’s cooperation. In the end, history is what you make of it. Which narrative China chooses may determine how the story ends.
Michael Schuman is a journalist based in Beijing and author of “Confucius: And the World He Created.”