A renewed, passionate debate on China’s proper attitude towards relations with foreign countries in the light of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s special focus on shielding China from pernicious foreign ideological influences has broken out in China. Beijing correspondent Mathias Kamp discussed this new debate in Switzerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung on September 23.
Presented below is a slightly human-adjusted DeepL German-English machine translation of Kamp’s article, adding formatting, notes and links including to River Elegy on YouTube. That 1980s documentary, which created a sensation in China at the time, is germane to this debate because it argued just the opposite of the Party line in the current debate: that, to quote the Wikipedia article that:
The film asserts that the Ming Dynasty‘s ban on activities is comparable to the building of the Great Wall by China’s first emperor Ying Zheng. China’s land-based civilization was defeated by maritime civilizations backed by modern sciences, and was further challenged with the problem of life and death ever since the latter half of the 19th century, landmarked by the Opium War. Using the analogy of the Yellow River, China was portrayed as once at the forefront of civilization, but subsequently dried up due to isolation and conservatism. Rather, the revival of China must come from the flowing blue seas which represent the explorative, open cultures of the West and Japan.Wikipedia article “River Elegy“
This translation blog has several translations of Chinese articles by Chinese scholars on China’s foreign relations including:
- 2020: Shen Zhihua on State of Chinese Research on Relations with Neighboring Asian Countries
- 2021 Yan Xuetong: Development of the Discipline of International Relations in China
- 2019 Party Discipline Advice: Take History as a Mirror
- “History and Experience of the Chinese Communist Party’s Engagement with the United States”: A Lecture by Professor Zhang Baijia
- PRC Diplomatic History Scholar Shen Zhihua
- DPRK, USSR and China: Historians Shen Zhihua and Li Danhui at Wilson Center Book Launch
As often happens in China (and in other countries as well) interpretations of history are seized upon as ammunition in arguments about the present. Critics of current policy, particulary in China, sometimes seize upon arguments about the past to cryptically criticize the present, hoping thereby to avoid exposing themselves overmuch to punishment from Party guardians of orthodoxy or even from police equipped with electroschock cattle prods or other instruments of torture. More recently, Party aligned academics have been criticizing some people who advocate an unapproved take on China’s history as historical nihilists and warn against a growing “school of historical nihilism” in China [ 历史虚无主义思潮] . See, for example, 2016: CASS World History Institute Director Zhang Shunhong in Party Theoretical Journal Warns of Historical Nihilists in Pay of Capitalists Deny China’s Achievements, Belittling its Leaders
China’s relations with foreign countries may get more attention because over the past decade foreign views on China have turned negative, largely as a result of China’s worsening human rights deficiencies and other bilateral irritations (sharp-fanged wolf warrior diplomatic work aimed largely at pleasing the chief wolf in Beijing rather than on diplomatic relations) under Party General Secretary Xi. See the June 2022 Pew Research Center report Negative Views of China Tied to Critical Views of Its Policies on Human Rights.
Debate about China’s Proper Relationship with Foreign Countries Breaking Out in China
State and party leader Xi Jinping wants to seal off his country from the West. A recently published academic paper defending China’s isolationist policy during the Ming and Qing dynasties fits in well with this – and is now stirring up a passionate debate.
Matthias Kamp, Beijing
Sept. 23, 2022
China’s government is apparently trying to reinterpret the country’s history. The isolationist policies pursued by emperors during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1636-1912) dynasties were by no means the reason for China’s relative economic decline at the time, write the authors of a recent academic paper. Rather, the isolation, such as the suppression of maritime trade and foreign trade in general, served to keep “aggressive Western colonial forces” at a distance and to defend China’s “territorial cultural integrity.”
Until now, the consensus among Chinese historians was that state-imposed isolation at the time was the main reason for the loss of China’s power and influence. The article, published in late June, was commissioned by the Chinese government and written by historians from the Chinese Academy of History, which was established in 2019.
[Translator’s note: This was the lead article in the journal Historical Research dated June 2022 [2022/3] entitled “Research Group of the Chinese Academy of History: A New Inquiry into the Issue of “Cutting the Country Off from Foreign Contact” During the Ming and Qing Dynasties” [中国历史研究院课题组：明清时期“闭关锁国”问题新探]
The policy at the time defended “national and cultural security,” the essay says, and was a “self-defense strategy” against the backdrop of an “external threat” from aggressors. From today’s perspective, the question of the degree to which a country opens up is a matter of national sovereignty, the authors write, criticizing alleged attempts by the West to portray Ming and Qing dynasty China as backward and isolated.
Strong Criticism Online
The article went online in late August, prompting some fierce criticism. One user on the Chinese Twitter counterpart Weibo called the post “typical neoconservative.” Another user wrote on WeChat that the rulers had not sealed off the country to defend national security, but to protect themselves and their interests.
Li Liangyu, a professor of history at the prestigious Nanjing University, went further. It is reprehensible to defend isolationist policies and portray them as reasonable, Li said, according to Caixin magazine. The corrupt rulers of the Ming and Qing dynasties had exploited the people, refused to communicate and opposed modern civilization, he said. The left in China, on the other hand, cheers the article.
The timing of the article’s appearance – a few weeks before the 20th CP Party Congress, at which Xi plans to be elected for a third term as party leader – is unlikely to have been coincidental. Xi sees China threatened by Western, liberal-democratic states. These, he believes, want to put the brakes on what he sees as China’s inevitable rise. Ahead of the major event in mid-October, Chinese are to believe that this is not only the case today, but that China’s rulers, first and foremost Xi himself, have the right instruments to avert this.
Xi places “the renewal of the Chinese nation” as he seeks it with his policies in a historical context. “History is like a mirror for people to draw wisdom for modern times,” Xi said recently, calling on the country’s scholars to “learn even better from history, recognize historical laws and correctly understand historical trends.” Only in this way, he said, can China regain the strength the country once possessed.
China as a Global Fixed Star About Which All Else Revolves
But Xi does not so much envision China as an equal part of a globalized world, even though he always emphasizes the importance of globalization for China’s development. Rather, Xi’s vision is based on a belief in a powerful China as a global fixed star around which all other countries revolve – ultimately fomenting a crude nationalism.
In order to rally the 1.4 billion Chinese behind him, Xi always emphasizes in public appearances the uniqueness of traditional Chinese culture, the special “Chineseness” that distinguishes the country from all other countries. In their work, in their studies, indeed in everything they do, people should be guided by their own traditions and less by ideas from the West. But here, too, the party sets the direction in case of doubt.
At present, the state media are overflowing with articles praising the uniqueness of Chinese cultural tradition. Entertainment formats based on Western culture, such as pop culture, which have become increasingly popular among young people in recent years, are increasingly disappearing from the traditional media and the Internet.
The recently published essay fits seamlessly into Xi’s foreign policy course. In talks with Western heads of state and government, China’s strongman always emphasizes that China remains integrated into the global economy and the world community. In fact, however, Beijing is increasingly distancing itself from foreign countries, and some experts say that the country is closing itself off. Three years ago, Xi invented the concept of “two cycles” for the economy. Within the framework of the “external cycle,” China continues to trade with other countries; in the “internal cycle,” the domestic economy, China is aiming for self-sufficiency. Xi, it seems, is drawing a fence around his country.
A National Security Issue
For Xi, the relationship with foreign countries is also a matter of national security. He sees his country surrounded by enemies from the West, with the U.S. by far the biggest enemy in his eyes. “Xi’s expanded vision of national security institutionalizes an enmity toward the foreign and the new,” writes Jude Blanchette, a China expert at CSIS in Washington, “at the very time when China actually needs both to modernize its economy and governance.”
China’s attitude toward the West and toward potential risks from foreign influence has not just been a topic of contention since yesterday, but has been the subject of controversy for centuries. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, China’s intellectuals argued about whether Chinese culture and Confucianism were the reason for China’s backwardness vis-à-vis the West and whether the country should not completely open up and westernize itself, i.e. throw its own traditions overboard.
In the context of the so-called self-strengthening movement during the second half of the 19th century after the Opium Wars, China tried to prevent foreign domination by appropriating the technical, especially military, skills of the West, but leaving out Western values and culture.
A Controversial Television Documentary
When China’s state broadcaster CCTV aired the six-part documentary “Heshang” (“River Elegy”) in 1988, the debate about the connection between China’s supposed backwardness and the country’s cultural traditions flared up again. The title of the documentary refers to the Huanghe — the Yellow River — which is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization.
The film’s authors, like the online critics of the recently published essay, argued that the isolationist policy of the Ming emperors, intended to shield China from Western influences, had done great harm to the country’s development. The Confucian traditions preserved as a result, they argue, are responsible for keeping China in stagnation. The filmmakers advocated an outright “abolition” of Chinese culture and the Confucian regulatory framework, and called for a more modern and open culture.
The six-part series was well received by China’s intellectuals and led to intense discussions about China’s path to modernity. Many Chinese praised the filmmakers for their courage. Critics remarked that the film was little more than the “grumbling of the elite.” Those who deny their own culture, was the credo, have no future.
After the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were crushed, China’s rulers condemned the documentary as a “propaganda coup for bourgeois liberalization” that caused unrest among students. A senior official of Chinese state television had to publicly self-criticize – the passionate discussions died down. Even in today’s China under Xi Jinping, a documentary like “River Elegy” would probably no longer be possible.