YINGJIE GUO. China finding its place in the world.

How Chinese National Identity Impacts Relations with Australia.

What is most striking about Chinese national identity is its stability in the pre-modern past and its fluidity in the modern era. Its dramatic transformation since the mid-19th century is part of China’s tumultuous socio-political change under the impact of traumatic encounters with foreign powers. 

This process continues unabated in Xi Jinping’s New Era and has taken yet another turn in response to his “Chinese Dream”. The redefinition of national identity by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and its repositioning in relation to the nation, have far-reaching consequences including for relations with Australia.

To China’s early modernizers, the country was weak and backward largely because it lacked a strong national identity. The first President of the Republic of China Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), described the Chinese as a “sheet of loose sand.” Historian and politician Liang Qichao (1873-1929) lamented the dominance of familism and the absence of nationalism in Chinese contemporary culture.

They were right to say that the nation was yet to develop a public spirit ready to be tapped in the project of political modernization, which would transform the declining Chinese empire into a modern nation-state and its passive subjects into active citizens. They would have been aware though that the nation had a consolidated ethnic and cultural identity already clearly articulated in the 4th century BCE. For millennia, this identity and China’s cultural-moral order survived while dynasties came and went.

Chinese identity was able to survive in part because it was rooted in an embedded set of ideas, beliefs and values and in part because the government of the day endorsed, promoted, tolerated or failed to eliminate these ideas and practices. China’s cultural identity, together with its enduring value system, constituted a “super-stable structure” sustaining notions of national unity over millennia and holding the nation together amidst recurrent political division and social chaos.

The Chinese nation’s identity is shaped by Confucianism more than anything else. The Way of Man is believed to be modeled on the Way of Heaven. At its heart is the concept of benevolence or humaneness, which is not only a spiritual ideal but also impacts on everyday life as propriety, rightness, loyalty, consideration, filial piety, brotherly affection, faithfulness, sincerity and reverence.

When “all under Heaven” (i.e., the Chinese world) has the Way, Confucians believe, moral principles prevail and there is harmony between individuals, within the family, in society and between states. Confucius taught, “Let the lord be a lord, the subject a subject; the father father; and the son son.” In other words, if society follows the Way and operates like a harmonious organism, its members will work in harmony for the common good.

In the 20th century, however, Confucianism was rejected and an anti-traditionalist ethos began to shape national identity, national self-confidence and perceptions of foreign others. China’s progressives and revolutionaries blamed China’s weakness and backwardness on incompetent governments and also on Confucianism and Chinese systems of beliefs and values. They believed that Confucianism was too bookish, inward-looking and obsessed with personality cultivation to produce an enterprising, competitive or adventurous spirit that would enable the nation to survive in a social Darwinist world. China must get rid of its Chineseness, they insisted, before it could join the modern world of nation-states. The CCP maintained this anti-traditionalism.

Anti-traditionalism later declined, in the wake of the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, as the CCP launched a campaign to counter waning patriotism – identified as a root cause of discontent. Love of country was expanded to include love for cultural traditions. Traditionalism has gathered force since then right up to the Xi Jinping era and Confucius and Confucianism have come to the fore since 2013. Xi described Confucianism as a definitive marker of national identity and “the national characteristics of the Chinese as well as the historical roots of the spiritual world of the present-day Chinese.”

CCP leaders understand the usefulness of the Confucian code of conduct and notion of communal identity for nation-building and state-building. Marxism-Leninism cannot facilitate nation-building, as it is anti-traditionalist and divisive, negating the nation’s past and setting social groups against each other. In fact, the CCP has departed from Marxism-Leninism, although it continues to pay it lip service, and society is generally apathetic about ideology, especially Marxian theories of class struggle and insistence on abolition of private property.

The Party’s new conception of the nation is premised on the assumption that people are what they are due to ideas, values, norms and cultural resources inherited from their ancestors. Xi Jinping reiterates, “We’re Chinese first and foremost because of our distinct Chinese spirit and the values we practise every day without realising it.” Xi has in mind the broader pan-Chinese nation, including all the “sons and daughters of the Yellow Emperor,” not the class-nation that Mao Zedong created. Mao’s nation excluded those who did not belong to “the people,” the industrial proletariat, peasantry, petit bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie.

In identifying with the pan-Chinese nation instead of the class-nation, the current CCP leadership redefines the identities of the Party and the state. The Party is no longer just a class organization, or the “vanguard of the proletariat,” but also a national party representing all Chinese. Accordingly, the PRC becomes a nation-state instead of a class-state, or a “people’s dictatorship led by the proletariat and based on the alliance of the workers and peasants.”

In this context, the CCP must align the State with the nation and ensure the State’s “core values” are consistent with the nation’s traditional value system. Hence, the Party is going back to Chinese cultural roots and has warmed to traditional statecraft. One consequence is the convergence of political and cultural streams of nationalism that had been at odds for over a century.

Cultural nationalists in the post-Mao era have claimed that 20th century anti-traditionalism and Marxism led China astray from its Heaven-ordained path and damaged national identity, unity and harmony. Their former opposition to the CCP has weakened as the Party has in effect abandoned Marxism and embraced Chinese traditions. Though radicals in the group refuse to be co-opted by the Party, most moderates see it advantageous to work with the State and promote cultural Chineseness through it. What is more, the Xi leadership has tightened political control and tuned up pressure on scholars to toe the Party line and contribute to its project of nation-building. The two groups are thus working together to restore the cultural Chineseness of China.

This Party-led campaign has had some effect on the identity consciousness of overseas Chinese. As Australia and China engage ever more closely in commerce, diplomacy and cultural exchange, it is important to understand how Chinese people both here and in the People’s Republic of China understand their identity and how diverse and complex these beliefs are.

Yingjie Guo is Professor in Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney. He received his MA from Shanghai International Studies University, China and PhD from the University of Tasmania. His research focuses on China’s cultural nationalism and Chinese cultural identities, and the discourse of class in post-Mao China. See also:

  • Guo, Yingjie. (2004) Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary China: Searching for National identity under Reform. Routledge.
  • Guo, Yingjie. (2016) Handbook of Class and Stratification in the People’s Republic of China. Edward Elgar.
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