Last year, the Chinese Communist Party marked 100 years since its founding in 1921. Yet, in a speech to mark the occasion, President Xi started his history lesson, not in 1921 but instead in 1840, some eight decades before the founding of the Party. Xi then took his audience on a whistle-stop tour through China’s 19th Century and 20th Century history before arriving at the present day.
by Matthew Hurst
While Xi' main audience was domestic, the Party would have known that the speech was also going to be read by an international audience. It was to this international audience that Xi issued a warning: “We will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress or subjugate us. Anyone who attempts to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by 1.4 billion Chinese people” (CGTN 2021). Together with Xi’s emphasis on a history of almost 200 years, the speech may have been baffling to some observers.
On the one hand, the Party’s official history can limit its options in international relations and negotiations; on the other hand, the Party’s ability to change the narrative should not be underestimated.
However, when we put Xi’s speech into context it becomes clear that the Party’s approach to international relations and negotiations is heavily affected by the Party’s official version of history. This becomes clear when we look at how the Party’s vision of China’s past was conceived and changed over time, and how a nationalistic version of history has collided with negotiations and international relations. On the one hand, the Party’s official history can limit its options in international relations and negotiations; on the other hand, the Party’s ability to change the narrative should not be underestimated.
Look back in anger
Xi’s allusion to China’s 19th Century experiences is part of a wider trend of Chinese leaders playing on a politicised sense of history to garner support. This discourse, known as the Century of Humiliation, reminds Chinese citizens of when China was victimised by foreign powers. By playing on nationalist feelings by resurrecting China’s historical traumas, this selective use of history seeks to direct public sentiment.
To stop the British from flooding China with opium, the Chinese Emperor sent Lin Zexu to the south where he ordered the disposal of enormous quantities of British opium.
China’s Century of Humiliations began in the 19th Century when China was carved up by foreign powers. The first major blow was the Opium War. To stop the British from flooding China with opium, the Chinese Emperor sent Lin Zexu to the south where he ordered the disposal of enormous quantities of British opium. In retaliation, the British launched a war against China. With superior naval power, Britain defeated China and was able to extract financial and territorial compensation from China in the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, including the ceding of Hong Kong Island to Britain in perpetuity.
Over the next hundred years, China’s history is one of defeat and conquest by foreign forces. It is important to recount a few of the incidents that befell China during this period. Firstly, the 1858 Treaty of Aigun, in which Russia gained control of a chunk of northeast China (modern-day Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang). Secondly, less than 20 years after the First Opium War, in 1860, British and French forces raised the prized imperial gardens to the ground and Britain gained Kowloon in the 1860 Treaty of Peking. Thirdly, following the First Sino-Japanese War, China lost Taiwan to Japan in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. Fourthly, in 1919, China was disappointed and enraged when the Treaty of Versailles did not return German-held territory to China but instead gave it to Japan. Lastly, the Guomindang government had to abandon the then-capital city Nanjing and was pushed west during the Second Sino-Japanese War that lasted from 1937 to 1945. In short, for around a hundred years starting in the 1840s China was a patchwork of areas under the control of foreign powers: a Century of Humiliation.
Throughout the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, intellectuals and warlords alike perceived the Qing Emperor as weak and the Emperor was eventually overthrown in 1911 (Zarrow 2005). Outrage at the outcome of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference sparked public protests and accusations that China had been betrayed by its wartime allies (French 2014). The sense of humiliation China felt was marked by a day of reflection: National Humiliation Day. The National Salvation and National Humiliation societies established this day in 1915 and it was co-opted in 1928 by the Guomindang government as a national holiday (Callahan 2010). National Humiliation Day and other forms of Guomindang propaganda and discourse looked to China’s past in an attempt to explain the situation China found itself in. Such analyses focused on China’s ‘chosen traumas’: past events that have turned into almost mythological stories and that invoke “intense feelings of having been humiliated and victimized by members of another group” (Volkan and Itzkowitz 1994). China came to identify itself as a victim of its past and a collective memory of historical humiliation was formed.
There is little doubt that China’s future leaders were exposed to this self-victimising discourse, growing up as politicised youths during this period. Deng Xiaoping grew up in 1910s China before studying abroad and becoming a member of the Chinese Communist Youth League while studying in France in the 1920s. Mao Zedong read voraciously in Beijing and attended Communist meetings in the anonymous alleyways of Shanghai’s urban life where eastern and western products, technologies, and ideas mixed. The feeling that China had been humiliated by foreign powers would later motivate these leaders in their decision-making (see, for example, Yang and Mao 2016).
However, when Mao came to power in 1949, he sought to move away from China identifying itself as a victim. Upon founding the People’s Republic, Mao announced: “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation” (Mao  1977). In line with this statement, National Humiliation Day was not reinstated under Mao, as it had been dropped from the calendar during the War of Resistance (Callahan 2006), and no new books about national humiliation were published during Mao’s leadership (Callahan 2006). Furthermore, the Party-approved version of history shifted the focus and tone of the narrative: China was cast as a victor by selectively emphasising chosen glories and deemphasising chosen traumas (Gries 2004).
The Party’s official history moved away from allowing China’s past humiliations to define its national identity.
For example, retellings of the War of Resistance against Japan deemphasised the suffering of Chinese people and placed the Party and the Red Army in the centre of a victory narrative (Barnes 2019). This retelling of history also dismissed the role of the Guomindang and Allied forces, focusing on the CCP as leading the resistance (Mitter 2014). While the Soviet Union was initially included in this history, following the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s the Soviet Union was largely ignored (Coble 2007). The telling of the War of Resistance had become a political matter and the approved narrative at any given time reflected the wider political circumstances (Mitter 2003). The Party’s official history moved away from allowing China’s past humiliations to define its national identity.
Exactly when the focus of the Party’s historical narrative switched back from victor to the victim is a matter of debate. For instance, Callahan argues that “national humiliation history education was suddenly revived” as a “response to the Tiananmen movement in 1989” (Callahan 2010). However, other research suggests that the switch occurred much earlier than 1989, most likely following Mao’s death in 1976 and Deng’s ascension to power in 1978. For instance, Jones found that Century of Humiliation education was restored to history syllabuses from 1978 (Jones 2002). My research has uncovered a 1982 educational campaign that was launched to educate army personnel looking through the frame of historical humiliation (Hurst 2021). Though the phrase ‘Century of Humiliation’ (bainian guochi, 百年国耻) was not used in the source located, the reference to China’s hundred years of humiliation is unmistakable.
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, China embarked on a project of ‘new remembering’ (Coble 2007). Funding was channelled to research into China’s past, while at the same time national campaigns were launched aimed at reviving the enemies of China’s history. Perhaps most significantly, a day remembering national humiliations was placed back on the official calendar in 2001.
In resurrecting the past through a Party-approved account of China’s history, the Century of Humiliation discourse not only filled history textbooks but also defined a nation (Zheng 2020). A sense of national identity was promoted in direct contrast to the Qing leaders of the past and the imperialist powers who set upon China almost 200 years ago. Furthermore, political leaders have sought to justify their continued power by reminding citizens of China’s historical enemies to deflect anger and garner support. Through a careful retelling of history, the Party nationalised public sentiment and collective memories.
Beijing acts with the same awareness of its history today as it has throughout the 20th Century (Metcalf 2020), and many commentators agree that there is no sign that China will stop “playing [the] ‘victim’ card” any time soon (Adlakha 2021). But the story China tells itself about its past has impacted international relations and political negotiations as officials often see contemporary issues through the frame of the humiliation discourse. This has sometimes led to tensions between the expectations placed upon officials in virtue of China’s nationalistic version of history and China’s diplomatic relations.
Take for instance China’s stance on Hong Kong. Hong Kong became a British colony following the Opium Wars of the 19th Century and was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. In 2019, Beijing promulgated a national security law for Hong Kong that Britain and its allies condemned. Britain subsequently relaxed the rules around British Nationals (Overseas) passport holders, giving them easier access to routes into the United Kingdom (Gov.UK 2020). The Chinese Foreign Ministry replied in speeches littered with references to history. “The UK’s historical link with Hong Kong,” said one spokesperson, “arises from the period of invasion, colonialism and unequal treaties” referring to the Opium Wars of the 19th Century (Chinese Foreign Ministry 2020). For this and other reasons, relations between China and the United Kingdom have spiralled downwards with each side retaliating by withdrawing infrastructure contracts, expelling journalists, and willingly letting the relationship deteriorate.
Another case in point is the increasingly tense situation across the Taiwan Straits. The Party says that Taiwan was returned to China from Japan following the Second World War and that the Party won the Civil War against the Guomindang, therefore the Party is the rightful ruler of Taiwan and the administration on the island is a renegade. China has sought reunification with Taiwan ever since: Mao attempted to retake Taiwan by force, Deng by enticing Taiwan with the ‘one country, two systems’ concept, and more recently Xi through a combination of economic interdependence and military threat. Taiwan is woven into the Party’s official version of Chinese history: the preamble to China’s very constitution reminds readers that China considers Taiwan “part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China” (National People’s Congress 2004). But as China focuses on the recent historical events which led to the present situation across the Taiwan Straits, the way forward is clouded by memories of the past.
More recently, anti-Japanese nationalist sentiment has helped the Party garner support for its position on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that lie to the south of Japan and on which both China and Japan lay claim.
Relations with Japan are also blemished by the spectre of history. Following Japan’s 19th and early 20th Century invasions, tensions flared in the 1980s when China objected to what it perceived as Japan obscuring its history of aggression towards China in textbooks (He 2007). Museums commemorating Chinese who died in campaigns against the Japanese opened in large numbers throughout the 1990s. More recently, anti-Japanese nationalist sentiment has helped the Party garner support for its position on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that lie to the south of Japan and on which both China and Japan lay claim (Xie 2015). However, carrying resentment for Japan’s past actions threatens to frustrate attempts to develop common ground for the future.
Though the Party gains support by tugging on nationalist heartstrings, it also becomes constrained by the expectations of its domestic audience as framed by the Century of Humiliation discourse. Putnam’s two-level theory helps us to understand the effects of such pressure on political actors (Putnam 1988). On the one hand, actors seek to maintain smooth relations at an international level; on the other hand, expectations of the domestic citizenry put pressure upon those actors whose continued political legitimacy relies upon public acceptance.
It would be a mistake to think that China is an exception to this. While the Party controls the history syllabus and the media and maintains a watchful eye over its citizens, their acceptance of Party rule is based on the Party’s continued performance. Yet Party performance is itself framed by the acute awareness of China’s history. The continued use of the victimisation discourse, therefore, threatens to determine the direction of China’s international relations and force diplomats to see contemporary events through the frame of the past, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which China’s enemies in history can never become its friends in the future. “Beijing is trapped in this story,” wrote Kerry Brown, referring to Taiwan: “For China’s identity, this curative experience of being reunited is part of the story it tells in order to be itself” (Brown 2019).
However, I argue that nothing is inevitable. The idea that the Party has put itself into a corner by the historical line it chooses to promote forgets how flexible the Party is and has been throughout its history. Though seen by some commentators as a lumbering giant, the Party had undergone remarkable chameleon-like transformations in both its composition and orientation as well as its use of history for political purposes. While the Party might not be able to control every sentence written or uttered, the extent of its reach means that it can ultimately direct the narrative at a macro level.
While the self-victimising narrative of China’s historical humiliations currently frames, and sometimes collides with, China’s diplomatic relations, the Party could refocus this narrative if it so wished. We have seen this done before in China’s history: Republican era discourse focused on China’s traumas; Mao-era Party-approved history shifted that focus to the Party’s historical victories; and under Deng, China turned back to the self-victimisation narrative that currently characterises contemporary discourse. More recently, new technologies have been employed to clamp down on versions of history that the Party has not approved (Cadell 2021). Perhaps it serves the Party to evoke the Century of Humiliations discourse today, but tomorrow the Party may turn away from this focus on victimisation to make the forging of friendships with its enemies of the past more acceptable to China’s citizens.
In conclusion, the Century of Humiliation discourse that currently dominates Chinese international relations comes with drawbacks. Foreign diplomats and negotiators must understand how history frames international relations for their Chinese counterparts. Moreover, they must also understand that the Party-approved version of history can itself change. Knowledge of history is one thing; understanding how history impacts the Chinese position during a particular period has proven to be quite another.
Meanwhile, China under Xi is focused on telling China’s story to a wider audience (Xinhua 2021). So far it has achieved hard power advances with an economy and military to rival the United States. But hard power can only go so far: filling wallets and twisting arms is a less sustainable means of achieving global objectives than winning hearts and minds.
It remains to be seen whether the story China tells about its past will serve it well in the future. China’s contemporary diplomatic relations and soft power suffer under the weight of historical luggage, where nationalistic official history collides with pragmatism and forward-thinking, but by changing the story it tells about itself China also stands to change the direction of its future international relations.
Matthew Hurst holds a Masters in Contemporary Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford and a Bachelors from the University of Manchester. Before returning to academia, his professional background focused on UK-China projects spanning the consultancy, media and charity sectors. He has travelled in delegations, presented at conferences, and written articles for print and online media on the topic of UK-China relations.