Of every nine people on the planet today, two are Chinese. At the end of 2000, the World’s population was estimated to be 6,091 million people. The population of the People’s Republic of China was around 1,276 million, of whom 92% were “Han” Chinese alone. Adding the Chinese of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and elsewhere, it would be reasonable to conclude that there are another 80 million Chinese around. Beijing knows these numbers and knows its potential power.
Added to these massive numbers are several other impulses. China’s culture is ancient and well defined – clearly identifiable at a time when the Greeks (the co-founders of Western civilization) were first shuffling into the light of history and the Israelites were just another scruffy bunch sandwiched between Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Yet China as a modern nation-state is very new and was hardly a going concern through the first half of the 20th Century. When it finally tottered upright (under its new Party Dynasty), it still spent about 25 years in relative isolation. While its numbers and antiquity tell Beijing that it deserves deference and power, it does not know what the “rules” are in international behavior (something which was clearly evident during last year’s collision between a hot-dogging Chinese fighter pilot and a US Navy reconnaissance aircraft). Instead, China’s government turns to history rather than to foreign guidelines for instruction, and these tell China’s rulers to expect deference and obeisance because of their power and superior culture.
Additionally, the covenant between the citizen and the state is far different in China from that in the Western world. We understand that the authority of the government derives from the consent of the governed, and that there is a partnership between the two, because the citizen is expected to exercise his or her political power. In Chinese culture, the arrangement is quite different – the government doesn’t need consent so long as it has “the Mandate of Heaven”, and it can enjoy the benefits of power only as long as it sees to the stability of the realm. The citizen is under no real obligation to the government provided that he does not question their authority. If the government appears too weak, then its mandate is obviously failing, and the ambitious or discontented will rapidly undermine it. China’s history is a cyclical one of strong central government alternating with anarchy.
China is large, preoccupied with keeping an appearance of strength, convinced that to do otherwise is an invitation to collapse, absolutely sure of its cultural superiority but inexperienced as a nation state: A formula for disaster, but there is more to add to the mix.
In its urgent quest for the legitimacy bestowed by hosting the Olympic Games, Beijing was desperate to show its best side to the world. It is fairly certain that the IOC contained few people who could speak Mandarin or Cantonese, and were prepared to wander loose in China to listen to ordinary people. A couple of acquaintances of the author (both Northern European in origin) speak Mandarin and have wandered widely in Asia – including much of China. Ordinary Chinese do not expect foreigners to speak their own languages, and tend to take advantage of this supposition.
The correspondence from these acquaintances speaks for itself.
“There are so many terms for barbarian. I am having trouble keeping the ‘monkey people’, and the ‘devil people’ straight, those blonde and red haired barbarians all look alike you know.”
“Actually ‘red fur,’ as they call us westerners (Hongmao in Mandarin and Angmo in Hokkien), denotes that Westerners are not human.”
“What got me was the pointing and giggling, they didn’t know that I knew they were calling me a monkey and an ape”.
“TV adverts play here boasting of immigration companies that can ‘handle the paperwork’ and settle them into pure Han areas in Toronto and Vancouver, without having to deal with mixed (the word is actually like hybrid, mongrel or subhuman) blood peoples”.
“On the street, I often am called a ‘Fan’ or ‘Hu’ [Names of barbarian races that were erased from history over two and half thousand years ago]. The message is to let me know that not only am I a savage, but am to be eliminated.”
“Many times when I was cursed as being a ‘barbarian’ or ‘subhuman’ … Often they would try to placate me by saying that ‘at least whites are less devolved than blacks’.”
“The other day I overheard a civil servant refer to me as ‘a subhuman hybrid’”
“Last week my neighbor was out planting some herbs on his rooftop garden. He asked me if I understood Chinese herbology. Then he asked me if a ‘stone age gibbon’ like myself could comprehend Chinese medicine. He said that he planted Chinese herbs for Chinese medicine that evolved from 5000 years of Chinese culture. I asked him if he used Chinese fertilizer as well, and the conversation came to a close.”
“He [a young child] said that he hated all Americans (which here is a kind of general term for whites), and one day Chinese would kill them all, because Chinese are strong. He said his parents told him all this, and that one day soon there would be no more Americans.”
“On the elevator, I was always getting shouldered and shoved – they didn’t want me in their neighborhood, but would never tell me that to my face, although I was called an ape, and a’ long-nosed backside sniffer’ often enough.”
“People back home should really look at a Chinese map – they claim everything China ever ruled once, and that includes everything east of the Urals down to Afghanistan.”[I] was referred to by family members of people whom I’ve known for almost four years as ‘baibaide, maomaode, chouchoude’ (like whitey, furry stinky one – used for Caucasians), the family joins in snickering gleefully.”
Some observers of China have noted, somewhat euphemistically, that Mainland Chinese are ‘Xenophobic’. True, in the same way that an Alabama Klansman of the 1960s might be considered as being slightly bigoted.
Actually, widespread opinion among Chinese classifies humanity into three groups: ‘Humans’ (Han and the Han-like people who melded with them in the formative period between two and three thousand years ago); ‘savages’ (ethnically Han, but not acculturated – such as Americans or other Westerners of Chinese descent); and ‘devils’ (non-Han). People of mixed Chinese-European descent are usually considered as savages or devils, especially if they were raised outside of Chinese culture – a point that reflects the fact that the Han were originally an amalgam of peoples with a common culture. By the same standard, a Westerner could be anyone of any ethnic background, as it is Western culture (its institutions and ways of thinking) that define our common identity, not ancestry.
In some recent films, usually from filmmakers in southern China, there are some indications that these attitudes are weakening. But these are light comedies and martial arts flicks for an international audience. Other films – such as the government-produced epic on their version of the Opium Wars of the 1840s – are about as innocent as films like “Triumph of the Will” or “Alexander Nevsky” were.
These belligerent and supremacist attitudes are certainly not universal among the Chinese, but they are common enough, most especially among Mainlanders. However, the Chinese government appears to have been encouraging a belief that the 21st Century will belong to China, and that all Chinese, regardless of nationality, are going to be the agents of its ascension to primacy.
China is going to present an enormous security challenge in the 21st Century. With a hegemonic master race instinct tied to all other dimensions of risk, when push comes to shove things may turn ugly indeed.