Review - Never Forget National Humiliation

Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations
by Zheng Wang
Columbia University Press, 312 pp., $32.50


Never Forget National Humiliation (NFNH) argues for the use of historical memory as an explanatory model of Chinese foreign policy and national interests. Zheng Wang “attempt[s] to systematically link the domestic politics surrounding history and memory in China to its international behavior” (8). NFNH gives us an often untold story of modern China: the role of the patriotic education campaign in transforming the destabilized milieu of the Tiananmen tragedy to fervent nationalism among the young and transforming the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from ideological to nationalist. As someone who grew up learning from Chinese textbooks and even participating in the patriotic education campaign, Wang is well-positioned with “insider cultural knowledge” (13) to investigate this subject.

NFNH answers two major questions:

  1. “How have the Chinese Communist leaders used history and memory to reshape national identity so as to strengthen their legitimacy for ruling China after the end of the Cold War” (14)?
  2. “How has this reconstruction of identity influence China’s political transformation and international behavior” (14)?

But before answering these questions, Wang must justify his epistemological approach.

Analytical Frameworks

Wang recognizes the skepticism surrounding use of ideational factors to explain international relations, and whether they can even be systematically researched, as opposed to mere anecdotal evidence. He offers two analytical frameworks for research into historical memory as a former of group identity and influencer of perceptions, interpretations, and decision-making processes.

The first analytical framework regarding collective identity categorizes four types of identity content: 1) constitutive norms that define group membership, 2) relational content that offer comparisons to other identities, 3) cognitive models that filter interpretations of the world, and 4) social purpose or “socially appropriate roles to perform” (19). To this basic outline, Wang adds issues of Harvard Identity Project, which adds an element of social contestation in determining identity content, and social identity theory, which argues for social categorization, identification, and comparison (28-30).

The second framework, based on Judith Goldstein and Robert Keohane’s Ideas and Foreign Policy: Beliefs, Institutions, and Political Change offers three ways ideas (including historical memory) affect political decisions, as 1) road maps, 2) focal points and glue, and 3) institutionalization. As road maps, ideas limit policy choices, reject alternative interpretations, provide moral and ethical motivations, and proffer theoretical causal patterns. As focal points and glue, ideas “define cooperative solutions or...facilitate the cohesion of particular groups. As institutionalization, they limit policy options by creating normative and organizational structures.

In addition to these two frameworks, Wang carefully describes the whole gamut of literature on historical memory and identity formation. He discusses the three main approaches: primordialist (objective cultural criteria), constructivist (socially constructed), and instrumentalist (elites use historical memory to mobilize support). Wang introduces concepts such as “frames” that simplify complex historical narratives and “historical analogy” that draws parallels between contemporary incidents and past traumas or glories, and used for propaganda. Historical memory is also used to delegitimize a fallen regime and legitimize a new one.

What might already be apparent is the convoluted nature of the literature. This is not Wang’s fault. There are naturally diverse, competing theories when it comes to nebulous notions such as memory, identity, and norms. But this is arguably a major weakness in NFNH since the chaotic overlapping frameworks lead to confusion in the subsequent chapters. Ideational theories and concepts are applied piecemeal without reference to the whole analytical frameworks Wang provides. This leaves readers wondering how important these frameworks actually are. Wang’s analysis that follows in subsequent chapters is superb, but relation to these frameworks are usually implied, not stated. The exception is Chapter 7, wherein Wang discusses foreign policy decisions.

Chosenness-Myths-Trauma (CMT) Complex

Historic struggles, whether they be traumas or glories, form group identity and form the Chosenness-Myths-Trauma (CMT) complex that can determine group behavior in conflicts. These chosen traumas and glories are passed on from generation to generation through parents, teachers, and ritualistic ceremonies.

China has a long history of referring to itself as a chosen country. Think of the concepts of Zhongguo  and tianxia. Or that the Chinese are “descendants of the dragon” (Long de chuanren). But most importantly, the Chinese accepted and encouraged assimilation by their neighbors, believing that Chinese culture could be embraced by others and therefore these peoples could join the Zhonghua nation. This chosenness is accompanied by myths of glory: China’s four great inventions, its status as the oldest continuous civilization in the world, and its moral caliber as a peace-loving nation that wins respect through virtue (yidefuren).

The trauma of the “century of humiliation” is the anchor of nationalist sentiment. This century includes the First Opium War, the Second Opium War, the Sino-Japanese War, the allied invasion of 1900, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and the Anti-Japanese War (World War II). These were a series of military defeats coupled with unequal treaties: Treaty of Nanjing (1842), Treaty of Tianjin (1860), Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895), Protocol of 1901, and “Twenty-One Demands” (1915). To never forget this national humiliation, the Chinese government constructed museums and monuments (e.g., Opium War Museum, Yuanming Guan, September 18 Historical Museum, Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall).

Chinese historical consciousness understands these unequal treaties to have forced China into a semicolonial state. This damaged the Chinese economic system, encouraged warlordism, and destroyed the collectivist, Confucian society. These colonial powers wanted to assimilate China rather than assimilate into China’s universal worldview. Instead of being Yi, cultural/ethnic outsiders, these foreigners were guizi (“devils”).

National Identity and CCP Identity

Transformation of National Identity

Quoting Joseph Levenson, Wang writes, “the intellectual history of modern China in large part has been the process of making guojia (a nation-state) of tianxia” (75). Nationalism was to replace culturalism. Wang provides a summary of this transformation through the Republican era, two the propaganda battle between the Nationalists (KMT) and the CCP. The KMT focused on national consciousness, while the CCP in classic Marxist fashion emphasized class consciousness. Both leveraged China’s humbled stature, but with different political ends.

The CCP focused on domestic issues, blaming the poor state of China on feudalism and Confucian orthodoxy, while the KMT blamed the unequal treaties and colonial powers. The CCP viewed Communism and Marxism as the way forward, while the KMT supported China’s elite cultural traditions. After the CCP victory, “national humiliation” was not a common subject of public discourse. Class distinction was more important than ethnicity as the fount of political cohesion. Nationalism and Mao’s “internationalism” were in tension with one another. Class struggle explained imperialism and the Chinese civil wars.

And finally, the CCP’s legitimacy was based on victory in the civil war. The Anti-Japanese War was not discussed in detail because the KMT held primary responsibility for the victory while the CCP remained guerrillas and waited for the Japanese to wear down the KMT war machine. In fact, Mao’s had a positive appraisal of the Japanese contribution to the fall of the KMT.

So what changed? A crisis of legitimacy where the old model just would no longer do. 1976-91 was essentially a transition period from a disillusion with Maoist politics to a new stability. People no longer believed in socialism and Marxism, let alone trusted the party. This culminated in the Tiananmen Incident, followed by the fall of the Soviet Union. The CCP had to do something, and that something was the patriotic education campaign.

The patriotic education campaign began in 1991 when the National Education Council released the “General Outline on Strengthening Education on Chinese Modern and Contemporary History and National Conditions,” but truly came out swinging in August 1994 when the Central Committee released the “Outline on Implementing Patriotic Education.”

Schools began to teach a patriotic narrative rather than the Taiping Rebellion and the capitalist KMT. The party secured China’s national independence and ended national humiliation. Chinese history became part of the required curricula in high school in 1992 and became part of the national entrance examinations. “Memory sites” or “patriotic education bases” proliferated to commemorate chosen traumas of humiliation. But this education campaign could not be secluded to the school system. To implement a truly comprehensive campaign, notions of national humiliation seeped into pop culture and the media, including films, songs, books, “Red Tourism,” and local and national holidays.

Although the CCP, under Deng’s leadership, renounced Maoist bottom-up mobilization, the patriotic education campaign bears all the hallmarks of mass mobilization campaigns (qunzhong yundong). It began as an education campaign for schools and evolved into nationwide mobilization, though institutionalized. There are offices in various levels of government and party agencies that oversee the campaign. The party is quick to quash heretical lines of inquiry that contravene the patriotic historic narrative. Wang argues that “full comprehension of this campaign is a precondition to understanding the rapid conversion of China’s popular social movements from the internal-oriented, anticorruption, antidictatorship democratic movements of the 1980s to the external-oriented, anti-Western nationalism of the 1990s” (116).

Transformation of Party Identity

Under Jiang Zemin’s leadership, the CCP transformed from a revolutionary party into a nationalist party. To prove this point, Wang examines three political reports at party congresses 1992, 1997, 2002. Jiang’s “Three Represents” was meant to make the CCP into a party representative of all classes of people. The Chinese people became divided not by class, but by their love of country. China also promoted solidarity with the Third World as having also been bullied previously by developed countries. Jiang laid the wreath of victory at the feet of the CCP. The CCP’s successful revolution brought about a tectonic shift that cast off the shackles of national humiliation. Jiang used the phrase “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (zhonghua minzu de weida fuxing).

Hu Jintao continued Jiang’s language of rejuvenation (e.g., Hu’s political report at Seventeenth Party Congress called for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”). Hu understood rejuvenation as accomplished via reform and opening up and education, accompanied by a flourishing of Chinese culture and reunification of Taiwan. To show weakness encourages enemies to attack.

The patriotic education campaign is not exclusively top-down. Wang argues that the party leaders themselves believe their new ideology of nationalism and patriotism. Drawing primarily on the example of Wen Jiabao’s attachment to his childhood memories of the Anti-Japanese War, Wang demonstrates the comprehensive reach of the campaign (139-141).

These Transformations in Action

Wang argues that the 2008 Olympics and the Sichuan earthquake demonstrate the success of patriotic education.

Why were the Chinese solely obsessed with gold medals during the Olympics, to the neglect of silver and bronze? Wang argues that this obsession with Olympic gold medals is a desire to vindicate the Chinese people from alleged imperial racism that denigrated the physical prowess of the Chinese race. Success in Western sports, beating them at their own game, is not enough. Gold is the only medal that counts since silver or bronze is still inferior.

2008 Sichuan earthquake also caused an upsurge in patriotism as well as the indispensability of the CCP’s centralized governance. Wang argues that the high incidence rate of natural disasters in China made it historically inclined toward strong leadership that could respond quickly and effectively. The party’s management of the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake reminded the people of the positive role their centralized government plays in mitigating natural hazards. Yet again, nationalism is not just top-down, but also bottom up. The Sichuan earthquake, and the Olympics as well, created a groundswell of voluntarism and a burgeoning civil society.

Historical Memory and Chinese Foreign Policy

Chinese foreign policy increasingly follows a realist paradigm, as opposed to the “morality diplomacy” that pervaded the official foreign policy pronouncements of the 1980s and 1990s. This new paradigm places national interests as of utmost concern, aligning with Jiang’s “patriotic turn” to ensure national dignity and face (mianzi).

Wang examines three U.S.-China crises between 1995 and 2001 to demonstrate how historical memory is the best explanation for Chinese behavior--escalating the conflict, conspiracy mentalities, and demands for apology. These are the only three hot external conflicts China has faced since historical memory was institutionalized through the patriotic education campaign. These three crises are 1) the U.S. decision to issue Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui a visa to speak at Cornell University in 1995, 2) the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia (1999), and 3) the collision between Sino-American warplanes (2001). The puzzling observation is during all three crises, the Chinese were simultaneously cooperative in other areas, a sample of which are detailed below.

China’s leaders responded to Lee’s visit to the U.S. by recalling PRC’s ambassador, rejecting the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to China, and staging military exercises and missile tests near Taiwan. The Chinese Embassy bombing sparked conspiracy theories among the Standing Committee, Chinese citizens at large, and even Chinese nationals studying in the U.S. The 2001 warplanes collision remained unresolved for as long as it did because the United States was unwilling to issue an apology, claiming it had done nothing wrong since the collision occurred outside Chinese airspace.

Wang uses his analytical framework to explain historical memory’s role in Chinese behavior in its foreign relations. Historical memory acted as a road map by adding these new conflicts seamlessly to a long historical line of humiliating incidents of Western aggression, which in turn spawns a “culture of insecurity” and a “Chinese sense of victimization” (186). This explains the three marked characteristics of Chinese behavior. Chinese leaders must act tough in face of international pressure in order to save face, understanding that the government’s legitimacy is based on the central myth that it is “the righter of past wrongs” (190). The party had to show it had wrung victory from the United States. Nationalism, while buoying the party through political solidarity against external forces, can also box-in government policy making. China escalated the conflicts because past traumas caused strong feelings for revenge and exaggerated current threats under the umbrella of moral superiority (191-2).

Supplementing this analysis of hot conflicts, Wang examines three non-conflict U.S.-China incidents--WTO negotiations (1986-2001), arms control negotiations (1991-1996) and the Yinhe incident (1993)--along with three conflicts with non-U.S. countries--Indonesia anti-China riots (1998), South China Sea disputes with the Philippines (1990s) and with Vietnam (1990s).

The first group of three cold U.S.-China incidents are marked by a cooperative posture by the Chinese and a disinclination toward escalation. Wang argues that these three did not escalate because they were not sudden emergencies, the CCP was able to keep detailed accounts out of domestic media, and professional experts conducted negotiations rather than diplomats, military personnel, and other political agencies. As an aside, Wang does not consider Yinhe incident a true emergency due to a lack of domestic pressure and the way negotiations were conducted.

Wang argues that the non-U.S. cases did not escalate because China views Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam as Asian neighbors that experienced the similar trauma of colonialism. These three incidents also lacked a high degree of public awareness among the Chinese citizenry.

Evaluating Never Forget National Humiliation

NFNH is a fine model of interdisciplinary analysis, drawing history, social theories, and international relations into a focused treatment of a potentially amorphous topic. The organizational structure, however, makes it difficult to put all the pieces together. As mentioned before, Wang spends a significant amount of pages reviewing the theoretical and epistemological underpinnings of his inquiry, building two analytical frameworks and even taking the time to synthesize the Harvard Identity Project and social identity theory. But these frameworks are used largely in piecemeal fashion, and are never given a full, systematic application to the questions at hand. His overarching arguments per chapter are convincing, but also leaves readers wondering how all the data actually fits into his analytical model.

“Memory, Textbooks, and Sino-Japanese Reconciliation” (Chapter 8) similarly seemed disjointed from the rest of the work. Wang’s investigation of the textbooks in Japan, South Korea, and China is an important contribution to his arguments, but the chapter takes an odd turn toward policy solutions. Most of the chapter is spent showing the value of trilateral cooperation in the joint-writing of history textbooks, which, while a good cause, is left disconnected from the point of the NFNH.

NFNH also lacks nuance when it comes to offering alternative narratives. Wang mentions domestic oppositional voices to the orthodox version of Chinese historical memory, but only a couple of times, and usually in context of being suppressed. But surely there is a significant, though small, number of Chinese voices counteracting this patriotic education campaign. With the dramatic increase in study abroad programs for Chinese students and the Internet, new historical perspectives are up for grabs in the marketplace of ideas. Though these voices in public discourse remain largely muted, discussing them would provide a more accurate picture of reality on the ground.

These critiques do not come close to disqualifying this book as worthy of consideration for any student of China studies. This should be evident from the summary provided above. If anything, NFNH helps readers appreciate the influential role of historical memory in forming contemporary Chinese identity and foreign policy motivations. It also, personally, gives us insights into the Chinese consciousness when viewing the actions of the United States and other Western countries in the international arena. It is apt that I end this review with a poem that Wang himself quotes in his concluding chapter:

When we were the Sick Man of Asia,
We were called the Yellow Peril.
When we are billed to be the next superpower,
We are called The Threat.
When we close our doors,
You smuggled drugs to open markets.
When we embrace free trade,
You blame us for taking away your jobs.
When we were falling apart,
You marched in your troops and wanted your fair share.
When we tried to put the broken pieces back together again,
Free Tibet, you screamed. It was an Invasion!
When we tried Communism,
You hated us for being Communist.
When we embraced Capitalism,
You hate us for being Capitalist.
When we had a billion people,
You said we were destroying the planet.
When we tried limiting our numbers,
You said we abused human rights.
When we were poor,
You thought we were dogs.
When we loan you cash,
You blame us for your national debts.
When we build our industries,
You call us polluters.
When we sell you goods,
You blame us for global warming.
When we buy oil,
You call it exploitation and genocide . . . .
What do you really want from us?
Think hard first, then answer.