The humiliations at the hands of foreign powers narrative


According to Social Identity Theory, a significant part of an individual's personal identity consists of his or her social identity, and so depends on group membership. Group identity tends to be defined by contrast to other groups. Membership in a group leads to systematic comparison, differentiation, and derogation of other groups. In conflicts between groups of people, disputants usually view people outside their own group as less good, or in the case of the opposing group, as really bad. The opposing group is seen as the "enemy," who is inferior to one's own group in many ways. When people are engaged in a serious conflict, they will normally project their own negative traits onto the other side, ignoring their own shortcomings or misdeeds, while emphasizing the same in the other.

Enemy images and stereotypes are formed in response to the basic human psychological need for identity, and as a result of group dynamics. Once a conflict becomes escalated and polarized, enemy images are bound to be formed. This sort of inter-group conflict occurs even in the absence of material bases for conflict. Enemy images play an important role in perpetuating and intensifying conflict.

The zero-sum nature of face and China's history of victimization at the hands of the West combine to make many contemporary Chinese view diplomacy as a fierce competition between leaders who win or lose face for the nations they embody.

Public apology however means admitting a fault. Clinton's full apologies and Bush's (as translated by the Chinese) full apologies-were skillfully "dressed up" by the Chinese official media as diplomatic victories of Beijing. The American apologies were also used by Beijing to put itself on the "moral high ground"-"We are right" and "You owe us."

The following now is designed to examine how, the beliefs of history and memory influenced the Party's decision-making during the three incidents we promised to make sense of.

In the eyes of many Americans and international observers, issuing Taiwanese President Lee the visa to deliver the graduation address at his alma mater was innocuous, the 1999 embassy bombing was merely a technical mi stake and the U.S. government offered official apologies fully and quickly, and the 2001 plan collision happened outside Chinese territorial waters, therefore, they would not think that any of these incidents were intentional or any kind of bullying or aggression to China or the Chinese people.

However, as we have seen, the majority of Chinese people, including the majority members of the CCP Politburo, believed that the embassy bombing was a deliberate action, an American conspiracy; even though the EP-3 was outside Chinese territorial waters, it was conducting spying against China, and the collision caused the damage of Chinese jet and the death of Chinese pilot; therefore, they saw both incidents as American aggression, many of them even viewed them as China's new humiliation, another in a long line of humiliations that China has suffered since the Opium War. Why did people of the two parties have such huge differences in perceptions and interpretations regarding the same conflict situation?

The concepts of security dilemma and enemy images provide alternative explanations for the Chinese people's perception of the United States. However, both concepts cannot fully explain why the rise of anti-Americanism, especially the rising vigilance and suspicions to the United States, happened at a time when China's contacts and exchanges with the U.S. have been greatly increasing. The rapid changes in the context of US-China relationship and the development of globalization have made the two countries more closely connected with other.

Like culture, history and memory are rarely by themselves the direct causes of conflict, but they provide the "lens" by which we view and bring into focus our world; through the lens differences are refracted. The lens of historical memory helps both masses and elites interpret the present and decide on policy. (See Kevin Avruch, Culture and Conflict Resolution, Washington D.C., 1998).  

Through this lens of historical memory, an isolated and/or accidental event (as viewed by the Americans) was perceived by Chinese leaders as a new humiliation. The disputes in question, thus easily touched on sensitive Chinese feelings about Western imperialist nations taking advantage of a weakened China in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

History and memory also provide individuals a reservoir of shared symbols that may be enlisted to constitute contesting social groups. (See Allen Tidwell, Conflict resolved? A Critical Assessment of Conflict Resolution, 1998).

Following the 1840 Opium War, China was on the verge of subjugation and loss of its thousands-year-long national identity. The Eight-Power Allied Forces occupied Beijing in 1900. Japan annexed Taiwan and Manchuria and occupied more than 900 cities from China. Hong Kong, Macao, and numerous small areas became concession zones to foreign powers. The invasion by Western powers and Japan reduced China to the status of semi-colonial society. The Chinese nation was facing a grave threat to national survival.

As represented by China's national anthem, a very strong sense of crisis, or sense of insecurity, has always been an important theme of the national political discourse in China. Thus, the narrative of national salvation depends upon national humiliation; the narrative of national security depends upon national insecurity. There is a popular political slogan in China, "Never let the historical tragedies be repeated." The government therefore asks people to always keep a wary eye on international "anti-China forces." "Heighten our vigilance and defend our motherland" is another political slogan that was particular popular in China during the 1970s. Such kind of remarks on vigilance as we have seen have now become a sign of being "patriotic" and "sober-minded" for the speakers, and especially also during the three incidents we have commented on.

The one hundred year national humiliation has provided the current Chinese leaders a lot of historical analogies to use and they often draw a parallel between a current event and a historical event, as the previous sections have shown. A deep historical sense of victimization by outside powers, a long-held suspicions about foreign conspiracies against China, and the powerful governmental education and propaganda campaigns on historical humiliation, all these have worked together to construct a special Chinese "culture of insecurity." Under this mindset, international confrontations are easily perceived and experienced by the Chinese as assaults on fundamental identity, dignity (face), authority and power. They are also oversensitive to grievances of old (this nation's "chosen trauma"), which renders the country over prone to tantrums at the slightest international offense, real or imagined.

Peter Hays Gries' research on the embassy bombing supports the above analysis. As he wrote: "the tales of the 'Century of Humiliation' which began with the First Opium War and the renting out of Hong Kong to the British in 1842, powerfully shaped the way that Chinese both interpreted and reacted to the Belgrade bombing."  The "sense of victimization" and "suspicion syndrome" deeply affected Chinese people's attitudes, interpretation and judgment regarding the conflict situations. (Gries, "Tears of rage: Chinese nationalist reactions to the Belgrade embassy bombing," China Journal, No. 46, July 2001, p. 26.)

But why did neither Chinese leaders nor the Chinese people seem to believe that the bombing of the Embassy was a technical mistake? Why are there widely-believed conspiracy theories in China regarding U.S. intentions? As we have discussed in the previous sections, history and memory constitute a powerful force over Chinese people's thought, feelings and action. As a result of the Patriotic Education Campaign, many Chinese have begun to confront rather than avoid their past humiliation.

The new focus on Chinese misery during the "one hundred years of national humiliation" has given rise to an outpouring of victim consciousness among the Chinese public. All the three incidents fed into a renowned "Chinese sense 01 victimization," of having been the world's greatest nation only to be humiliated in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The accidental or mischievous behavior on the part of the U.S. caused sufferings (e.g., the injuries and deaths), and therefore touched on sensitive Chinese feelings about Western imperialist nations taking advantage of a weakened China in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Just as Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping drew a parallel between the western economic sanctions in 1990 with eight powers' invasion to China in 1900, so, according to Zhu Wengli's research, when NATO started bombing Yugoslavia, "the historical precedent the Chinese referred to was not the ethnic cleansing against the Jews by Hitler as in the West, but the allied military intervention during the Boxer Rebellion.” (Wenli, How Chinese see America, paper presented at "China-U. S. Substantial China Dialogue," November 1, 2000.)

Clearly, historical analogies function as important information processors. They help resolve conflicting incoming information in ways consistent with the expectations of the analogy.

Just as the Cuban missile crisis was a "cultural production", in which the official U.S. state narrative marginalized alternative understandings of these events, so the three US-China incidents were also "eultural produetions". The Chinese official state narrative of past humiliation, the "sense of victimization", and "suspicion syndrome" both constituted three incidents as crises and marginalized alternative understandings.

In fact the central myth of the ruling party today is that its historical "sacrifices and contribution" have "put an end to the history of humiliating diplomacy in modem China." The legitimacy of current China's rulers is thus highly dependent upon successful performances on the international stage. The CCP leadership is responsible for maintaining China's "national face" in its dealings with other nations.  Therefore, whenever an international incident might be perceived as a new humiliation, it immediately became a test for the ruling party. To Beijing, each of the three incidents was much more than a simple violation of Chinese sovereignty: it was seen as a test for the Party-not a test-of-will for power competition, but a test of the ruling party's legitimacy and "political credibility." The Chinese government needed to be able to show the people, the public, that it would not allow humiliation again. Being tough and aggressive thus became the natural choice of the Party. Otherwise, they would not pass the "test."

For all the three crises, there existed other options for response, there were also some international practices for handing these kinds of incidents. For example, a "normal" response for handing the EP-3 plane collision accident could be that the 24 crew members of the EP-3 would be allowed to return home in the first several days, China might hold the plane and then the two countries start to negotiate about compensation and settlement. For the embassy bombing, if the same kind of incident happened between the U.S. and another country, it would certainly arouse a very strong response in many countries of the world, even an ally. Emotional demonstrations were almost certainly expected to happen. However, for most countries, the demonstrations would be spontaneous, the governments would not organize them and should also try their best to prevent the protesters for destroying U.S. property or besieging the U.S. ambassador and staff. Although the anti-American demonstrations in response to the bombing were overwhelmingly voluntary, they were still indirectly endorsed by the government: in a single-party regime, only the government would be able to provide transportation, to loosen security procedures allowing the masses to apply for demonstration permits, and to tacitly tolerate physical damage to the US Embassy in Beijing.

Similarly, if the decision that the Clinton administration made to issue Taiwanese president the visa to visit the U.S. reversed a 16-year-old U.S. practice, diplomatic protests, including even actions such as recalling ambassador could be choice of options, but the responses should be kept in the diplomatic sphere. But China's responses in 1995 and 1996 were three rounds of large-scale live-ammunition military exercises with ballistic missiles flying over Taiwan. Table 6.2 is a summary of China's conflict behavior during the three crises contrasting with the hypothetical more "normal" diplomatic practice.

The historical memory variable helps explain why Chinese leaders did not choose to resolve the three incidents through cool diplomacy. When the incidents were perceived as bullying, and when the central myth and the legitimacy of the government are highly dependent upon maintaining China's "national face," it became natural and understandable that the government needed to be "tough." "Cool diplomacy" would not pass the domestic test and therefore was eliminated as an option.

In case of the embassy bombing the instrumental stakes were too high, and the assault on Chinese self-esteem was too acute. Popular nationalists had taken to the streets in protest, and Chinese diplomats were forced to take a public posture of rejecting American apologies and explanations. Like a father refusing his son's repeated prostrations of forgiveness, rejecting America's repeated apologies was one of the few ways China's leadership could seek to restore Chinese self-esteem in the eyes of the Chinese people.

Through the lens of historical memory, isolated and/or accidental events were magnified and rendered emotional. Diplomacy between the two states therefore quickly became games. Both Clinton's full apologies and Bush's two regrets--translated by the Chinese as full apologies-were skillfully "dressed up" by the Chinese official media as diplomatic victories. In the EP-3 ease, at the juncture when Beijing could not get what they wanted (the full apology from the U.S.) and might lose the competition, linguistic differences between the two countries were creatively used to create a solution.

The three US-China crises should also be understood in the context of the rising nationalism in China after the June Fourth tragedy and the end of the Cold War. In the previous part we discussed how the state-led "Campaign of Patriotic Education" has promoted the "national humiliation education" and greatly contributed to the rise of nationalism in China. The rise of nationalism did help Beijing to regain its ethical and moral legitimacy.

The communist party dressed itself up as a nationalist party ever since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of "international" communism. The three incidents cut "perfectly" into the emerging "victimization narrative' in China and thus provided the fuses to touch off Chinese popular nationalism. However, the rise of nationalism is also a double-edge sword. During all the three crises, the government not only negotiated with the U.S. government, but had to "negotiate" with its domestic audiences too. The rise of nationalism put pressure on the government's policy-making. The government needed to be tough to maintain its legitimacy. Through the lens of history and memory, the three events were perceived and experienced by the Chinese as assaults on fundamental identity, dignity (face), authority and power. The beliefs of history and memory thus justified the escalation of the conflict and the course of its development. Being tough and aggressive thus had ethical and moral correctness. This helps to explain why many of Chinese government's actions in external affairs are regarded as "harsh" by foreigners but perceived as "soft" by much of its domestic audience.

And finally, the three crises share a striking similarity. Escalation from an international incident or accident to a serious crisis was in each case caused by China's unexpectedly strong reaction to accidental or mischievous behavior on the part of the U.S. In other words, it appeared as if China intended to escalate the crisis. Oddly, however, at the same time during the course of each crisis, China also desired to develop a better bilateral relationship. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, especially the overthrow of the Romanian regime, has had a particularly chilling effect on Chinese leaders. The subsequent sanctions and pressures from the West have further added to Beijing's anxiety and nervousness. In general, China's leadership in the 1990's has tried hard to avoid direct conflict with the West, particularly the United States-in contrast to Mao's approach. China's leaders in many cases have adopted moderate stances on many occasions, and at times even submitted to what they considered insulting demands. For example, China allowed the United States to search publicly its Yinhe vessel for chemical weapons in 1993, even though there were no such weapons on board. China also began to cooperate with the US in the field of arms control, agreeing to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1991, acceding to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 1992, and agreeing to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. China has steadfastly attended multilateral negotiations on arms control and disarmament, and has signed or ratified almost all the multilateral arms control treaties, making a positive contribution to the progress of international arms control and disarmament. China signed the WTO entry agreements with U.s. even though many of its domestic critics drew parallel between the WTO treaties with those 'unequal treaties" that the Qing Dynasty signed with the western powers one hundred years ago. Why did China cooperate with the U.S. in the same period of time on some issues but turn aggressive on these other issues?

To answer this question, it is necessary to compare the three non-conflict US-China events (WTO Negotiations, Arms Control Negotiations and the Yinhe Incident) with the three conflict cases (1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, Embassy Bombing Crisis and the EP-3 Crisis). To put the first three cases into the category of "non-conflict" does not mean there were no disputes or confrontations in the three cases. The US-China WTO Negotiations, for example, took thirteen years and experienced many setbacks and serious disputes during the processes. However, China's main approach of handling the three events was cooperative, trying hard to avoid the escalation of conflict. There was also some cooperation between the two states during the three conflict incidents. For example, as we discussed earlier, at the last stage of the EP-3 crisis, the two governments, somehow were cooperating tacitly with each other to. But yet in all the three cases, China intentionally escalated the crisis.

One similarity uniting all the six cases was they concerned sovereignty issues. The WTO negotiations and the arms control negotiation were about China's two vital interests: trade and security. The six cases have three major differences:

(1) Emergency

The WTO negotiations and the arms control negotiation both involved long processes. But the other four cases happened suddenly as emergencies. Five 2000-pound Joint Direct Attack M4J1itions (JDAMs) attacked the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999; On April I, 2001, a V.S. EP-3 Aries 11 airplane collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter jets and made an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island at Lingshui; The Clinton administration unexpectedly made a decision to issue Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui the visa to visit the United States; On July 23, 1993, the CIA alleged that a Chinese container ship, the Yinhe, was carrying chemical weapons material to Iran and three U.S. military ships began to chase Yinhe in the public sea. Meanwhile U.S. pressure persuaded Gulf countries not to permit the ship to dock, unload cargo, or take on fresh food and water for twenty days.

(2) Public awareness

The Chinese Communist Party maintains a tight control of all the media in China. Public awareness of a particular international incident therefore is dependent on whether the Party allows the media to report this event or not. However, for some international crises or emergencies that happened in China, especially the events with casualties and injuries, it is difficult for the Party to hide them, even though the Party can still control the flow of information and filter the news. For example, the embassy bombing happened at midnight on May. 8, but the Chinese official media did not report it until noon of the next day. The media did not report Bill Clinton's first apology on May 8 because the government needed to flame the public' s hatred at the early stage of the crisis. During the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, Beijing actually carried out a media blitz against the U.S. and the Taiwanese leader. The EP-3 Incident was called "Spy Plane Incident" in Chinese media. The official media gave detailed reports about the accident and why it was the EP 3's fault, as well as and the humanitarian treat that China provided to the V.S. crew members.
For the 13-year WTO negotiations and the 6-year arms control negotiations, the Chinese people were aware of the ongoing negotiations between the two countries. However, they did not know about any detail about theses negotiations. For example, even today, ordinary people do not have access to the WTO treaties the two countries signed, even though some of them have changed their courses of life. For most Chinese people, the Yinhe Incident is an unheard name. There were almost no official reports about this event. Why?
First, this incident did not happen inside China, so the government could hide it from public awareness; second, for the first one or two weeks, the government itself was not quite sure whether there were chemical weapons material in this container ship or not; third, if the media were allowed to report it, the public might think it was a humiliation to China for allowing the U.S. to conduct an open inspection of this Chinese ship.

(3) Negotiation mode

All the six cases involved negotiations and finally were settled that way. But there were differences in the negotiation modes that distinguish the three non-conflict cases from the three cases of escalation. The negotiations of "the first type were conducted mainly among the professional experts of the two countries. For example, the Chinese team participating in the arms control negotiations was composed of nuclear experts, officials from the Arms Control Bureau of the Foreign Affairs Ministry and scholars on arms control issues from government think tanks. The Yinhe Incident was negotiated solely by the officials of the Arms Control Bureau of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. The negotiations of the other type, however, were meanly political and very public. Not only were the diplomats of the two involved, but also the military, the U.S. congress and even the media were indirectly involved in the talks. The top leaders of the two countries made open statements and exchanged letters during the processes.

The three U.S. China crises were actually China's only "hot" conflicts with foreign countries after the end of the Cold War. However, during this period of time, China had territorial disputes with some ASEAN countries. In the late 1990s, as a new strategy of strengthening their territorial claims, Philippines and Vietnam took the lead to intensify the situation by seizing and attacking Chinese fishermen and fishing boats in the South China Sea. However, the Chinese government demonstrated a very restrained response to these provocations. In 1998 too, Chinese government expressed only verbal concern but did not take any actions during the massive anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia. It seems that China treated different countries differently when dealing with conflicts.

Comparing the above mentioned three non-U.S. cases with the three US-China Crises, the six cases share three important similarities:

(5) Each of them involved Chinese casualties and injuries. Compared with the three US-China crises, the Chinese casualties and injuries were even much bigger in the three non-U.S. cases. For example, Indonesia's ethnic Chinese were the main target of the bloody Jakarta riot in May 1998. According to Indonesian government sources, over 1,000 Chinese people died during these riots, many women were raped, 2,479 shop-houses, 1,026 ordinary houses, 1,604 shops, 383 private offices, 65 bank offices were destroyed. (http://en. _1998_ Revolution)

(6) All of them were emergencies. The leaders had to make decision quickly.

(7) Each of them was related to sovereignty issues. The South China Sea disputes were about territory. Even though the Indonesian ethnic Chinese are no longer citizens of People's Republic of China (China does not accept dual citizenship), however, supporting and protecting citizens who live abroad should be the responsibility of any state.

For the public, the Chinese official media did report about the South China Sea disputes and the Indonesia riots, but without providing any details. During the Indonesia riots, many photos of the riots were spread on the Internet. Some Chinese people, mainly students and intellectuals who had access to Internet, strongly criticized the government for being cold and detached toward overseas Chinese.  


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