Monday 4 February 2013

"Sinocentrism" is not an ideology

I enjoyed this piece in today's Washington Post (H/T Rectified Name) describing what they see as the possible reasoning behind the hacking of the New York Times' computers after their publishing of an article disclosing the massive wealth held by the family of former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (AKA the loveable 'Grandpa Wen'). The piece essentially says something very familiar to China watchers - that Chinese nationalists see outside criticism of the Chinese government as basically a form of attack on the country, and that as such it is permissable to take measures against such criticism which would, were such measures directed by foreigners against Chinese, draw accusations of meddling in Chinese affairs.

All the same, what they refer to as 'new Sinocentrism' (let alone the potentially tautologous nature of the word 'Sinocentric') is an extreme over-complication of a very simple phenomenon. Every powerful country in history has, with varying degrees of justification, been accused of seeing themselves as the centre of the world. The mere fact that some Chinese have a world-view that applies different rules to China than to other countries does not mean that they have developed an internally consistant ideology around that idea. In fact, it may just as easily be considered an example of how the Chinese government still lacks such an over-arching ideology and must instead rely on nationalism that comes more from the gut than anywhere else. A country operated according to an established ideology does not need to control debate in countries that do not subscribe to that ideology because that debate created outside the context of that ideology is invalid.

Just as important, such a 'Sinocentric' view is not 'new' in any meaningful sense of the word, because China's leadership never ceased seeing things this way. Even during the Mao years, the theory of "unequal treaties" (that is, treaties forced on China following a military defeat) formed the basis of all negotiations with former colonial powers and their successors, despite China's reliance on treaties which were, to all appearances, also formed 'unequally'.


Cathy Liu said...
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Cathy Liu said...

I think it might be "new" from an American/Western perspective that it is different from the relatively friendly, cooperative and "no argument" period of the 90s (and early 00s). Another new issue is the source of this confidence - while in Mao era, like today's North Korea, it was mainly Communism and ignorance, today it is the new found wealth that's supposed to give the regime legitimacy despite the lacking of a coherent ruling ideology.

Gilman Grundy said...

Agreed - it's only new if you haven't encountered it before, although this stuff has been said for domestic consumption for some time. It's the blurring between the difference between what's said outside and inside China caused by the internet that has brought this into focus.

Ji Xiang said...

I have read the original article. I must say that I don't really see the need to talk about an ideology called "Sinocentrism".

The Chinese tend to see the world as being divided between the Chinese on the one side and everyone else on the other side. To an extent this sort of provincial, ethnocentric point of view exists everywhere, but it is especially strong in huge countries where most people never have the need or the chance to go abroad or speak with foreigners, like China, India, Russia and the US.

The Chinese certainly can be very nationalistic, but this doesn't constitute a special ideology which nobody else shares. And the Chinese government wants to do its best to curtail or challenge negative depictions of the country around the world. Again, I don't see how this means that there is a special ideology called "Sinocentrism".

It is just a matter of pure, old-fashioned nationalism, and of the government wanting to deflect and suppress criticism, something which hardly necessitates a special ideology to explain it.

I do have one point to make on the original article: demanding that the Japanese present the Second World War more honestly in their textbooks is not really an unreasonable interference in another country's affairs, since the historical issue clearly concerns China too, and it is recent and important. South Korea demands the same from the Japanese after all. On the other hand asking Japan to kick the right wing parties out of their government is obviously unreasonable.

justrecently said...

There's nationalism, but there's also something more to it, in my view. I don't think that anger alone can explain the hacking, i. e. obvious encroachments. It's what people are used from their own government - no limits to manipulation or coercion, if it "serves the nation", or the collective.

It seems to me - but the "Huanqiu Shibao" threads are no reliable base for judgment, obviously -, that those who blow their heads about "negative" foreign coverage are also the first to blow their heads about smug people in power. The latter kind of anger, however, won't usually result in hacking the CCP (I guess).

Gilman Grundy said...

@Ji Xiang - I would have no argument about the history books issue if it were addressed with any sense of proportion. The truth is that the books which sparked the protest are only used by, at most, 18 schools in a country of 120 million people. For me, a much more obvious example of Japanese acts which are deserving of criticism are the visits to the Yasukuni shrine - something that has been compared to a German Chancellor visiting a war memorial on which the names of Herman Goring and Heinrich Himmler are included.

Again, though, it should be recognised that this has continued to be a subject of protest even whilst Japanese Prime Ministers have refused in the strongest terms to visit the shrine - in fact the majority of Chinese commenters talking about the issue over the past few years seem to be under the impression that the visits were continuining. In fact Hatoyama, Kan, Noda - all refused to visit the shrine, but were characterised by the Chinese media as being just as 'rightist' as every other Japanese leader with no recognition of this difference. Shinzo Abe will almost certainly now visit the shrine and this will be portrayed as simply a continuation of established policy.

Cathy Liu said...

There are media outlets pointing out the differences - but I agree it's not as prominent as the portrayal of a continuance right-wing policy. Commentators either say even those people didn't really "向中国人民谢罪" or basically controlled by rightists like Koizumi from behind the scene. Another chicken and egg issue is whether the anti-Japanese sentiment is a genuine public opinion or a deliberate manipulation on the government/media elite's part. I read a research article a while ago saying people who distrust their neighbours tend to view foreign nations in a negative manner,and take the position that the anti-Japanese sentiment results from the inability to address tensions in Chinese domestic policy (similar to JR's position above).

Anonymous said...

I agree, the problem isn't just the history textbooks in themselves, but a general unwillingness of most of Japanese society to address what happened during the war.

There is apparently a museum inside the Yasukuni shrine complex, which is the only museum in Japan to talk about the Second World War at all. It presents a revisionist narrative, in which Japan was forced to go to war and just wanted to liberate its neighbours, and it glosses over the massacres of Chinese and Korean civilians. If the only museum in the country to address the Second World War does so in these terms, it is obvious that Japanese society's attitudes are highly questionable.

The Chinese media certainly doesn't shine for objectivity or depth in their reporting on these issues, but then again I think the resentment against Japan would die down if only mainstream Japanese society recognized the truth about their involvement in World War Two. This would also take away a great propaganda tool from the hands of the Chinese government.

Anonymous said...

Mao's Famine is described by Dikotter and fellow travellers the worst catastrophe anywhere.

They are quite wrong. The mortality rate during the worst year of the GLF (1960), while exceptional by the standards of socialist China, was quite unexceptional when compared to the mortality rates of the two other big Asian countries, Indonesia, and India of the time (26/1000, 24/1000, 25/1000 respectively). In the other years of the GLF the mortality rate was actually less than that of India (refer work by Patnaik).

Furthermore, pre-revoultionary China, consistently had mortality rates which were at or exceeded the rates of the worst year (1960) of the GLF.

The GLF was a catastrophe relative to the otherwise tremendous accomplishments of the new regime in reducing mortality and raising life expectancy.

Dikotter is patently dishonest. He calculates excess deaths based on deaths over 10/1000. 10/1000 was the mortality rate of advanced countries like the US at the time. Yet Banister puts the mortality rate at 38/1000 in 1949, only 8 years before the GLF. If the communists really had achieved a 'normal' mortality rate of 10/1000 by 1958 (the same as the developed countries), then they surely deserve all the credit for saving millions of lives, up to that point.

If you accept the massive excess deaths calculations of Dikotter and you then have to accept that mortality in revolutionary China was normally extremely low for a developing country – and then credit the number of lives saved to Mao.

The fact is that the number of people (as a proportion of the population) who died in the three or four years of the GLF was less than over any chosen consecutive three year period in pre-revolutionary China. More people died in India as a proportion of the population than in China, over the same period as the GLF.

So how can one logically proclaim the GLF to be humanity's greatest catastrophe?

In fact the most rapid increase in China's population happened under the Mao era — but in a time of falling fertility. Why? Obviously the only possible explanation is a dramatic decline in mortality. Amartya Sen calculates 4 million excess deaths on average for the Indian 'democratic' experiment over China's socialist system. I trust Sen over Dikotter anyday of the week. He is a Nobel prize wining economist.

Mao's system probably saved close to 100 million lives (refer Chomsky on Sen's work). That is had China followed the development model of other backward countries, one hundred million more people would have died than under the Maoist system. Thus it could possibly argued that Mao was the greatest humanitarian in history.

Scottie said...

Not sure what your last paragraph really means. Though one must also point out that from the 19th century onward till the present-day, sinocentrism has generally taken a huge hit given the Western dominance. I think there are more Chinese who lack confidence about China than the other way around (this has been true for a long time now). This can also be one of the many reasons as to why many Chinese have this love and hate relationship with the Westerners, since most Chinese (though not all) still feel rather inferior to the Westerners and such feelings can breed resentment. I suppose one can say the same thing about the CCP.

As for hacking, who knows what's really going on there? But it is true that many Chinese are frustrated and angry about a slew of things. One can get a good sense of this by just looking at some of the Chinese internet comments.

As for Japan, some of these anti-Japanese sentiments are genuine, others, fueled by the CCP. So it's a mixed bag.

Scottie said...

Forgot to add that I've seen some Chinese (online) discussing the Japanese textbook controversy by pointing out that most textbooks did mention the atrocities committed by Japan in WWII. So there are certainly more objective, reasonable discussions among the Chinese about this issue and others related to Japan.

Anonymous said...


I don't think "unequal treaties" really fit into sinocentric attitude. Abolishing these treaties as a part of China's foreign policy negotiations in the past is normal, whether it's during Mao years or other periods. Though I am also not sure if the theory of unequal treaties was what drove Mao's foreign policy. Perhaps you are suggesting something else here? I am not sure I understand that part of your post very well.

Anyway I think Mao's foreign policy while based on China's national interest, also tried to fit China into this 3rd world resistance framework. So it's also hard to say if it is necessarily sinocentric.

As for China's foreign policy now, given the country is more confident than before, of course she is going to be more assertive. However, whether it can be called "sinocentric" is difficult to say. The CCP has been teaching its citizens about world peace and friendly cooperation and equality among all people since its founding. However, at the same time, it also taught them anti-western imperialism, especially in Mao's era. These days, as you know, the CCP is advocating Chinese nationalism on the domestic front. So there have always been several different, conflicting ideologies going on at the same time throughout the PRC era, including the present-day. This makes it difficult to judge about the sinocentric attitudes among the Chinese, be it the people or the government and its leaders, both in the present and the past.

Finally, whether Chinese Nationalism equates Sinocentrism is also an interesting question. It is something worth pondering.

Scottie said...

One more thing: Neither the ROC nor the PRC had formally demanded war reparations from the Japanese government. Both ROC and PRC renounced it. The reasons are complex and you can certainly find many Chinese discussing this issue. And some Chinese are certainly not happy about it (just search it online and you will see).

Scottie said...

I meant to say both ROC and PRC formally renounced and hence did not receive any war reparations from Japan. This is perhaps another reason why some Chinese are still unhappy about this whole situation between China and Japan. Of course there are other reasons as well.

I do agree that PRC's official media reporting doesn't help the overall relationship between China and Japan, though.