I wrote a piece for The Interpreter last month about Chinese worldviews. I argued that a majority of Chinese people share a powerful belief in several 'truths' about China and its role in the world.
These include that China would in time inevitably resume its natural role as a great country, having been shoved off that path by colonial powers in the century of humiliation starting in the mid-1800s, and that the Chinese people and the Chinese nation-state are part of the same family, rather than existing in opposition, as in the West.
In the latest edition of the Griffith Review I explore that argument more deeply, examining how the Chinese Party-state deliberately constructs and perpetuates these perspectives, and what that means for our understanding of China's foreign policy behaviour.
There are a number of ways an individual can be socialised into a particular worldview. Schools and education are a particularly powerful mechanism. My research focused on a particular Chinese university training students to become diplomats and foreign policy actors, as universities teach not only a carefully designed curriculum, but also 'correct' attitudes and behaviours.
The university does this through explicit training, the way it structures students' lives and their use of time and space. Most students live on campus for the duration of their tertiary education, sharing cramped dormitories with around five others. They also share many of the same classes, schedules, meals and extra-curricular activities over the course of several years. Deliberately removed from 'normal life', students are taught to think of themselves primarily as members of the great 'Chinese family', and place their primary loyalty with the Chinese nation-state.
This is not to say that young educated Chinese are mindless automatons with no will of their own. Debates certainly exist around issues such as corruption and the environment. However, the long tradition of what was officially known as 'thought remolding', up until the 1980s when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced the term would be removed from the official lexicon, remains a powerful force.
After the Tiananmen incident in 1989, the Party renewed its push for educating the minds of the Chinese people. While there seemed to be some increase in openness under former President Hu Jintao, it appears that this is being systematically rescinded under President Xi Jinping. This means that while there are far more areas open for discussion than even 10 years ago, very often the conclusions (among these particular educated elite at least) are to a large degree predetermined.
So the conversation between the students often goes: corruption is bad – but the Party-state is doing something about it. Environmental problems are terrible, but that's because of local businesses and Party members – and again, the Party-state is on to it. The Central Government isn't perfect, but it's synonymous with, and inseparable from, what 'China' is.
Where there is real cynicism and dissatisfaction, the tendency seems to be resigned acceptance or to leave the country. It is very, very rare to find Chinese people in Beijing who think challenging the system as a whole is in any way worthwhile.
For the most part, where young people are socialised to believe that the state is not a power to be resisted and that their own best interests are served by being aligned with the Chinese nation-state, strong incentives exist to consent to and operate within the system, rather than struggle against it. Benefits derive from maintaining, not challenging, the social order. Educated elites are taught to internalise the 'truth' that aligning with whatever the prevailing state stories are is the right thing to do.
CCP dominance, and the strength of these particular worldviews, go hand in hand. Cultural explanations for beliefs and behaviour should not be removed from their political context, but need to be understood as constructed, created and utilised by those in power – this is true around the world, and certainly in China. While the Chinese population is overall growing wealthier, travelling more, being educated overseas and generally more exposed to the world, we must not assume this will bring a change in ideas and worldviews.
Many in the West continue to assume that China needs to become like 'us', as did Nixon when he argued in 1967 that 'taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbours.' We are then disappointed and frustrated when China does not seem to want to engage with the rest of the world except on its own terms – we want China to be a 'responsible stakeholder' – according to our norms and values.
While we need not accommodate or appease China where these values and norms differ, it is not impossible to influence and dissuade, if we understand the whats, hows and whys of how Chinese policymakers think and act the way they do.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Zixi Wu.