He QingLian is a Chinese journalist, famous in her own country for fearless criticisms of Chinese government policy. Her book, The Pitfalls of Modernization, is currently being translated by Lawrence Sullivan of Adelphi University. She has been visiting the U.S. to meet with other journalists and China scholars and recently had lunch with me in midtown Manhattan.
Things went all right until we got to what I think of privately as the National Question. The occasion of Ms. He wanting to meet with me was an article I wrote some months ago for this magazine, dealing with the independence movement in Xinjiang (Hell, No, Uighur Won’t Go, TWS 12/5/99). Ms. He laid into the article with vigor. It was “nonsense.” I should read some Chinese history. Xinjiang had been under Chinese influence for thousands of years. It was now an inalienable part of the motherland. Same for Tibet, which my article mentioned en passant. How would Americans feel if Hawaii suddenly demanded independence?
QingLian had a copy of my article and said it was disgraceful for me to use the phrase “Chinese Imperialism.” China had been a victim of imperialism! How could China herself even think of practicing imperialism? Disgraceful! I made some obvious responses with, of course, no effect at all.
We had, in fact, hit the wall. You always do hit the wall with Chinese people when the National Question comes up. It makes no difference if you are talking with Communists or Nationalists, old or young, government flacks or dissidents: you will hit the wall. I found Ms. He formidably articulate, with opinions she defended with the force of a strong intellect. I doubt she is a CCP stooge. It makes no difference.
This experience is very familiar to me. I have been here scores of times, and reflected on the phenomenon often. You are sitting there kicking ideas around with some friendly, witty, well-educated and worldly people. Then the National Question comes up, and suddenly the façade of reason and sophistication drops away and you are confronted by something cold, hostile and atavistic — the reptilian brain stem. The attachment of the Chinese to every inch of the territory of the old Manchu empire is rooted so deep it cannot be touched by reason or argument.
The same applies to the resentment Chinese people feel for the humiliations inflicted on them in the nineteenth century by Japan and the European powers. To an outsider, this seems a little unfair. By far the larger part of the Chinese people’s sufferings this past 200 years has been visited on them by their own countrymen. The greatest calamity to afflict China in the 19th century was not the depredations of foreign imperialism, but the Taiping rebellion, an entirely Chinese phenomenon.
Similarly, if there is a prize awarded in hell for murdering Chinese people, the easy winner for the 20th century division is Mao Tse-tung. All this is forgotten in the fixation on foreign wickedness. A well-adjusted Chinese citizen is expected to have “moved on” from the horrors of Maoism (1949-76) but to be fuming with indignation at the Opium Wars (1839-42).
The usual reaction of foreigners to this massive sense of national grievance is to grovel. Yes, indeed, we foreigners did very wicked things in the past. Poor, poor China! I used to take this line myself, but no longer do so. To respond in this way is, I believe, to feed a dangerous psychosis. For all their veneer of sophistication and modernity, the Chinese are trapped in a pre-modern, almost prehistoric view of their own nationality — a view that has been cultivated very carefully by the communists. The modern history syllabus of mainland schools is more or less constructed around it. State-produced TV documentaries and movies, novels and stories, newspaper and magazine articles and even highway billboards deliver constant reinforcement of the message. China has been wronged. Our territory is sacred; but foreigners still have designs on it. I have not the slightest doubt that the Chinese government could easily whip up their people into a war frenzy on behalf of the “recovery” of Taiwan, or the retention of Tibet, or the re-conquest of Outer Mongolia.
Those who favor closer engagement with China speak of the importance of exposing Chinese people to our notions of democracy, openness and free enterprise. I have bad news: no Chinese person — not even the best-educated, most worldy of them, like He QingLian — really gives a fig for our ideas about these things when such ideas collide with their own atavistic nationalism. One of the clear lessons of modern history is that no power of the imperial-despotic type can attain political modernity until it has shed its colonial possessions and the mental attitudes that go with them. In the case of China there is no sign that this is happening: not the merest, slightest, faintest sign.