Why China Won’t Back Down

by Caroline Sutton

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska

It is indisputable that the first outbreak of the coronavirus that has spread across the globe occurred in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China this past winter. Many outside of China who have drawn attention to that fact have found themselves “called out” by aggressive Chinese diplomats. When President Jair Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, recently characterized the novel coronavirus as “China’s Chernobyl,” the Chinese embassy in the country labeled the Bolsonaro family a “poison” for Brazil. China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has pushed a theory that the virus was brought into China by the U.S. Army, and media channels associated with the Chinese Communist Party have launched a propaganda (xuan chuan) campaign to convince the world that the virus was quickly contained within China, suggesting that the country actually helped the world by sharing information about the disease. How can we account for such an extreme reaction to criticism from abroad?


Analysts point out that COVID-19 has struck at a time when China is in a novel position: arrogant, due to its contemporary economic clout and robust geopolitical influence, yet still fastened to deep historical insecurity from its “century of humiliation.” China’s leaders are eager to receive the respect they feel their country deserves and have therefore become highly sensitive to foreign criticism and quick to threaten those who defy them. The country’s status as a major world power is well understood, so we will examine the second half of this equation: the century of humiliation (1839-1949), which led to a national myth that foremost identifies with shame.


The century of humiliation is the most prominent national “story” within modern China. In short, the narrative explains that, historically, China was the most advanced civilization in the world, but over time fell behind the West’s superior technology. When these mismatched societies came into conflict in the mid-19th century, China entered into a tumultuous era in which it consistently experienced domestic strife, lost wars with imperialist powers, and was forced to cede territory. The century began within the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and ended with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Therefore, the narrative states, the CCP is crucial in “rejuvenating” or “reviving” China to its former global dominance. Through developing a deep understanding of what occurred during the century of humiliation, it is possible to better understand the CCP’s actions when their “rejuvenation” narrative is challenged by foreign critics.


At the beginning of the century of humiliation, the Qing dynasty still considered their kingdom to be the world’s preeminent nation, and was somewhat unaware of the advanced military and technological capabilities held by the British Empire. Reports of early Sino-British contact suggest that the Chinese regarded the British Empire as a lowly vassal state coming to offer tribute as the Japanese and Koreans did, while the British viewed the Chinese as “barbarians.” The arrogant and antagonistic attitude shown by both cultures set the tone for the earliest conflict within the century of humiliation—the First Opium War (1839-1842).


"The 98th Regiment of Foot at the Attack on Chin-Kiang-Foo, 21st July, 1842" by Richard Simkin. Brown University Library

The two nations collided when British traders began smuggling large amounts of opium into China starting around 1820. The influx of the highly addictive drug resulted in major domestic social and economic unrest within China. Hostilities began when Chinese officials tried to stop the import trade. In the spring of 1839, the Chinese government confiscated and destroyed more than 20,000 chests of opium, which were warehoused by British merchants in Canton (Guangzhou). Within months of the destruction of the opium, the British government sent warships up the Pearl River to force the continuation of the drug trade—despite the Emperor’s ban. The British navy vastly outmatched Chinese forces, and the conflict ended with the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, the first of many “unequal treaties” throughout the century of humiliation. In this case, China was forced to cede Hong Kong to the British, open new ports to trade, and reimburse Britain’s costs related to the war. China might have had better terms in the treaty, but they initially refused to take part in the negotiation process—likely influenced by their belief in their superiority to the British.


The memory of these unfavorable negotiations still plays a prominent role in Chinese state media. In May of 2018, when American trade negotiators presented their Chinese counterparts with a list of bold economic demands, a media outlet controlled by the government blasted the move and circulated the headline “Is it now 1840?”—a clear reference to the treaty negotiations after the First Opium War.


Within 20 years of the First Opium War, the British searched for ways to gain further concessions from the Qing dynasty. In October of 1856, Chinese police in Canton boarded a ship which flew a British royal flag and arrested a dozen Chinese sailors on suspicion of piracy. The British consul in the area alleged that the officials lowered the British flag in the process of the arrest and demanded an apology. Tensions escalated when the Chinese government flatly refused this request. In the following weeks, the British began attacking Canton by sea. During the four-year-long conflict known as the Second Opium War, the French, Russians and Americans joined in against the Qing forces, and in 1860 Chinese forces were overwhelmed by British and French warships. These forces continued from Canton to Beijing, where they captured the city and desecrated the Yuanming Garden, a grand garden palace thought to be the inspiration for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1797 poem Kubla Khan. The Chinese signed unfavorable treaties with not only the British, but also with the other Western powers they faced in the war. Ultimately, the Chinese were forced to cede more territory, allow more trade with Westerners, and further reimburse their opponents’ war-related expenses.


The specter of European imperialism haunts China’s interactions with the West in the 21st century. One example includes boycotts of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which related to China’s human rights record. Professor Kenneth G. Lieberthal observed at the time that the Chinese interpreted the protests against the Olympics as indication that no matter how much China strives to become a constructive player in the world, “many in the West will never accept that, [and] will seek to humiliate them.”


A second major Chinese military loss at the hands of Europeans signaled a change in the balance of power to others in the region. Aware of the Middle Kingdom’s vulnerability, a rising Japan sought to control Korea, a traditional tributary state of China. Conflict began in 1894 when a peasant revolt, known as the Tonghak Uprising, forced the Korean leader to petition Chinese troops to subdue the peasants. Japan was reluctant to abandon its burgeoning influence in Korea, and so sent its own troops to quell the revolt—bringing them into direct military conflict with China. Weakened from recent internal rebellions and outside imperial pressure, China was quickly defeated in Korea and expelled from Pyongyang in what would be known as the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). Fighting continued, and the Japanese army marched into Chinese territory. After one year, the Japanese forced China to sign another seemingly unequal agreement known as the Treaty of Shimonoseki. China was required to cede Taiwan, the Liaodong Peninsula, and the Pescadores Islands to Japan, and Korea was converted from a Chinese vassal to a Japanese one. Japan had also traditionally been a tributary state to China, and to be defeated by them was a deeply embarrassing loss. After the defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, Japan joined Western imperialists as the primary enemies of China—a characterization that still exists in the victimization narrative today.


"Illustration of Chinese Generals from Pyongyang Captured Alive” by Migita Toshihide, October 1894. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

These defeats created tension throughout China, as immense foreign influence created resentment against outsiders. To make matters worse, an incompetent Qing government was unable to remedy internal problems like widespread poverty and famine. The response to foreign and domestic pressure came in the form of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), an uprising by Chinese nationalists meant to dispel all foreigners and Christians living in China. After originally emerging in Shandong, the Boxers (as they were known by the British because they practiced martial arts) became active in Beijing and had begun burning down churches and attacking foreigners. Foreign diplomatic missions in the city requested protection from an international coalition of troops, but these troops were blocked from entering the city by imperial troops. The Boxers were allied with the Chinese government, and in response to the arrival of troops the Empress Dowager Cixi ordered that all foreigners within China leave. Fearful that they would be killed during their departure, the foreigners instead fortified their compound. Empress Cixi, angered by their refusal, declared war on foreign powers. In response, eight foreign nations (including Germany, Japan, Russia, France, Britain, the United States, Italy and Austria-Hungary) formed an alliance to defend their citizens. In less than two months these forces were able to capture Beijing from the Boxers and the Qing dynasty. While the troop alliance was initially formed under humanitarian motivations, some soldiers remained in China to loot and pillage for over a year. The alliance forced China to sign yet another unfavorable treaty, the Boxer Protocol, in which pro-uprising government officials were executed and reparations were paid to each member of the Eight-Nation Alliance, as well as Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands.


Zi Zhongyun, a highly respected expert on North America at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, sees parallels between the xenophobia behind the Boxer Uprising and the language used today by Chinese foreign policy officials regarding coronavirus criticisms. “I can say without a doubt that as long as Boxer-like activities are given the official stamp of approval as being “patriotic,” as long as generation after generation of our fellow Chinese are educated and inculcated with a Boxer-like mentality, it will be impossible for China to take its place among the modern civilized nations of the world.”


Foreign armies in Beijing's Forbidden City during the Boxer Rebellion, November 28, 1900. US National Archives

After decades of imperialist pressure and domestic mismanagement—factors which also contributed to the Boxer Rebellion—the dynastic system that stretched back millennia fell and was replaced by the Republic of China in 1912. Japan, strengthened from its winnings in the First Sino-Japanese War and another victory against Russia, sensed a chance to capitalize on the nascent Republic’s weakness and attempted to expand its influence on the continent. In 1915, Japan levied the Twenty-One Demands on the new country. This set of obligations was meant to give Japan regional ascendancy over China and included granting Japan shared control of mines in central China as well as access to Chinese harbors. Chinese president Yuan Shikai was forced to agree to almost every demand. To succumb to such arrogant and comprehensive demands, made by a former vassal state, was perhaps the worst humiliation China had experienced until that point. President Yuan declared May 9, 1915 “National Humiliation Day” for China.


Eventually, Chinese dissatisfaction over Japanese influence became overwhelming, and a strong Chinese nationalist resistance led to war between the two countries.The final major humiliation came with the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), or the War of Resistance to Japanese Aggression, as it is known in China. Historians generally agree that the war began with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, in which a small skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops at a Beijing bridge escalated into a full-blown Japanese invasion of China. The Japanese achieved critical victories in the early years of the conflict. In only the first year of the war, they captured Beijing and Shanghai, as well as the Chinese capital, Nanjing. This last seizure resulted in one of the most horrific events of the 20th century: during the Nanjing Massacre Japanese forces killed over 300,000 Chinese civilians and raped between 20,000 and 80,000 women—an event that is now studied by all Chinese schoolchildren. The Japanese were able to hold almost all major Chinese cities, but in 1939, Chinese nationalist forces launched a major offensive and struck a harsh blow to the Japanese. Many credit the aggressive fighting done by nationalist forces to be a key element in the CCP’s victory during the Chinese Civil War a few years later—the nationalist forces were easier targets after being battered by Japanese troops. In 1941, the war was subsumed by World War II, with the United States and the Soviet Union supporting Chinese forces by fighting against the Japanese and eventually claiming victory in 1945.


Photo by Sha Fei depicting members of the Eighth Route Army fighting on the Great Wall in Laiyuan, Hebei Province, China, 1938

While the PRC was technically victorious, the Second Sino-Japanese War can still be considered a humiliation because of its heavy casualty count (it is estimated between 10 and 20 million Chinese civilians died during the struggle), the atrocities committed during the Nanjing Massacre, the early loss of key Chinese cities, and the fact that the Japanese were only defeated with the assistance of the Allied forces. Key events from this time period are still heavily featured in modern state media. Recently, the Xi government ordered that Chinese history textbooks describe the Second Sino-Japanese War as the “14-Year War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression,” rather than describing it as lasting eight years as was previously the norm in China. Under the new CCP guidelines, the war will have started in 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria. This move is seen as a way to raise nationalistic passion, as it emphasizes Japan as China’s enemy. The Marco Polo Bridge is also used by the CCP to fan nationalistic fervor, such as in 2014 when Xi Jinping warned during a speech at the site, “if anyone wants to deny, distort or try and beautify this history of invasion, Chinese people and people around the world won’t accept this.”


“The Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation”


The century of humiliation has been a piece of Chinese leaders’ propaganda since the early days of the Republic of China (ROC), when National Humiliation Day was first declared. Under Mao Zedong’s leadership, China’s fresh memory of imperial occupation influenced Chinese foreign policy. The PRC provided military assistance to the anti-colonialist movements in Asia and Africa, such as in the Viet Minh’s war with France until 1954. As part of the “Three Worlds Theory” of the 1970s, the PRC advocated Chinese leadership of the third world based on a shared colonial past. Perhaps the greatest benefit from the century of humiliation appeared after economic reform led by Deng Xiaoping, who acted as China’s paramount leader from 1978 to 1989. “The Communist Party has faced a slow-burning threat to its legitimacy ever since it dumped Marx for the market,” asserts Geoff Dyer, former Beijing correspondent for the Financial Times. Constant reminders of China’s humiliation creates “a sense of unity that had been fracturing, and [defines] a Chinese identity fundamentally at odds with American modernity.”


Mao Zedong en route to northern Shaanxi Province, China, 1947

The idea that there was a century of humiliation which brought down a once great nation allows the CCP to broadcast a “revival” narrative, where, as long as the CCP is firmly steering the ship, China will soon return to its former prominence/prestige . The national memory also provides a convenient group of enemies of the Chinese people: Western and Japanese imperialists, as well as domestic “traitors” who would disrupt the revival process. Since China did not come back under domestic control until Mao’s Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the CCP is cast as the heroes of revival and the natural conduit for a return to power, no matter the Party’s other mistakes.


How has the century of humiliation been transmitted in recent years? Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he has used the term “Chinese Dream” to describe his vision for the country. The term was first introduced in a speech at the National Museum’s “Road to Revival” exhibit, a propaganda display which traces modern Chinese history from the 1950s to present and signals that the Chinese Dream is a promise to return China to past glory. The specific goals therein are fourfold: a “civilized China” of high culture, a “harmonious” and domestically peaceful China, a “beautiful” China free of pollution, and a “strong” China which leads technologically, militarily, and economically.


Donald Trump shakes hands with Xi Jinping during a visit to Beijing, November 9, 2017. Official White House Photo

In the early years of Xi’s chairmanship, some Western analysts argued that, now that China was a world power, the country must “move forward” from national humiliation and embrace a new narrative. Even those within China remind us that the late Qing dynasty was a corrupt and incompetent administration and argue that it does not deserve to be mourned, especially more than 100 years after its defeat. But these commentators miss the point. The century of humiliation has been the dominant national myth of modern Communist China, and nearly every leader has told some form of the retribution or revival story that Xi is telling now. In all recent cases, there is a clear implication that only the CCP can provide that rejuvenation and provide a better life for the Chinese people. There is, therefore, very little incentive to move past the century of humiliation.


China’s aggressive posturing on the international stage seems to be here to stay, as the factors which encourage this type of behavior show no signs of receding. With this in mind, it is more important than ever for the rest of the world to understand the way that China sees itself and its trajectory as a nation returning to greatness. At a time when China is taking an increasingly assertive stance in their foreign policy, the world watches anxiously to see where their humiliation mindset will lead.



Caroline Sutton's writing centers on political communication, technology, and public diplomacy. She currently resides in Wilmington, North Carolina and is a graduate of the MSc Program in Politics and Communication at the London School of Economics.

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INTERZINE | 2020