Is It Smart to Humiliate China?

By James V. Wertsch,

Building on ideas of Vygotsky, Luria, and Cassirer about the semiotic mediation of human discourse and mind, this short article assumes that national narratives are crucial, but little recognized forces in shaping national memory.  In this case, the focus is on the “Century of Humiliation” national narrative in China that is often in the background as the PRC interacts with other countries.  It is a national narrative that virtually every Chinese person knows, but it remains almost totally unknown in the U.S.  One consequence is that the U.S. sometimes naively wades into some of the most emotionally loaded aspects of Chinese national identity with some grave consequences that are recognized only after the damage of grave insult and injury has been done.  Understanding these issues of national narratives and memory amounts to an exercise in applied sociocultural studies and indeed may be possible only by carrying this out. 

The present article is an earlier draft version of an op-ed published at the South China Morning Post.

By suing China for alleged acts of irresponsibility over the Covid-19 pandemic, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican, started a fight in which everyone will be a loser.  His motives may have been genuine outrage, political ambition, or something else, but the Chinese government and people no doubt saw his action as the just the latest in a long history of provocations by an arrogant superpower.  While the lawsuit was so ill conceived that it is all but certain to go nowhere, it has already caused offense and contributed to unleashing a dangerous downward spiral of U.S.-China relationships.  To see why, it is important to understand something about Chinese national memory.

The sharp, but responsible official reaction to Schmitt’s law suit reflected a deeply felt national narrative in China about the “century of humiliation.”  It is a century that began with the Opium Wars in the 1840s and extended to 1949.   During this period China was forced to accept massive amounts of opium as payment for silk and other exports, and its vehement objections were ignored as Western powers and Japan carved up and occupied its territory.  The last 15 years included especially brutal rule by Japan.     

Today, every student in the PRC is taught the slogan “Never forget national humiliation!” and the significance of September 18th as Humiliation Day, which commemorates the Japanese invasion of 1931.  The steady diet of government-sponsored reminders of the century of humiliation has only grown since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre when PRC authorities started substituting nationalism for Marxism as the foundation for their legitimacy.  

The top-down campaign of PRC authorities, accompanied by unrelenting censorship of alternative sources of information, has clearly had an impact, but the century of humiliation narrative is not some artificially implanted idea that would disappear if government control were lifted.  Instead, its roots run much deeper in the mental habits of the nation.  

This is so first of all because the narrative is based on a painful historical record.  Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the U.S. often went out of their way to humiliate China as they carved up its territory, and Japan was especially brutal in its decades-long occupation.  Like the mental habits that shape national memory everywhere, Chinese accounts of the century of humiliation do not just reflect the objective historical record.  Instead, they have taken on a life of their own.  Americans may find these habits outdated and try to encourage the Chinese to move beyond resentments over the past, but they remain very much in place and need to be taken into account in any effort to engage with this rising superpower.

A striking object lesson about this can be seen in the aftermath of the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.  Flying out of Whiteman Air Force Base in the U.S, B-2 stealth bombers hit what was thought to be a Serbian weapons storehouse, but was instead the Chinese embassy.  The targeting error, which was traced to an inexcusable mistake by the CIA, ended up killing three Chinese nationals and injuring others.  Equally seriously, it was an attack on the sovereign territory of an embassy, something Americans can appreciate by recalling the traumatic breach of international trust they experienced with the hostile takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979.  

What was most striking about the Chinese response in 1999, however, was not the official reaction.  It was the outburst of massive protest in cities across the country.  Tens of thousands of students and citizens turned out almost immediately in highly emotional demonstrations, which came close to getting completely out of hand.  They vandalized consulates and residences of U.S. diplomats in some cities and nearly broke into the U.S. embassy in Beijing before being stopped by Chinese police.  The initial impression in the West was that these attacks were orchestrated by Chinese authorities, but it soon became clear that they were spontaneous expressions of genuine outrage and, if anything, had to be tamped down by Chinese authorities. 

The accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade left President Bill Clinton aghast and dismayed, and he quickly responded by apologizing to China and offering compensation to the victims.  But many, indeed most Chinese refused to believe the bombing was accidental—and continue to do so to this day.  Americans generally had no idea that the outrage in China over such an incident could be so massive and found it hard to believe that Chinese citizens had jumped to the conclusion that the bombing as an intentional attack intended to remind them who is boss—in other words, to humiliate them once again.  They may have found the Chinese reaction to be puzzling and even paranoid, but most Americans didn’t know anything about the century of humiliation narrative, much less its emotional power.

The conclusions to be drawn from this episode in 1999 apply more than ever in today’s setting of distrust between China and the U.S.   As China continues its global ascent, it is reasonable to push it to become more open and transparent about its actions and to call out its failures to live up to the responsibilities of a world power.  Part of honest feedback that Americans can provide is that we know all too well what it is to be criticized as a superpower.  A mature China should get used to this as part of its new status. 

Eric Schmitt’s law suit, filed in a context already fraught by the coronavirus pandemic, amounts to needless provocation.  It is a time that the world needs cooperation, not unnecessary friction.  Such provocations are likely only to produce an emotional outburst of nationalism in China, especially among young people.  The ensuing downward spiral in U.S.-China relations would make everyone a loser in a dangerous game that will no longer be controlled by anyone. 

About the Author

James V. Wertsch is David R. Francis Distinguished Professor and Director Emeritus of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University in St. Louis.  He teaches courses in anthropology and international and area studies.

Artwork by Clara Jornet Tortosa

One thought on “Is It Smart to Humiliate China?

  1. Do you think that Scmitt is ignorant of what you have described here,
    or are the continued provactions part of a larger agenda? It would seem that he would have to know what he was doing.

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