China and the Quest for Dignity

March 1, 1999 Topic: Society Regions: Asia Tags: AcademiaCold WarMutual Assured Destruction

China and the Quest for Dignity

Mini Teaser: Dignity is an essential concept that connects two objectives usually regarded as conflicting in contemporary China--individual rights and self-determination within its discourse on national rights.

by Author(s): John Fitzgerald

That the people is without shame means that the state is without shame.
--Kang Youwei, c.1900

Marxism has completed its historical tour of duty. Thus although the
relationship between Marxism and nationalism has hardly been
exhausted as a subject of theoretical inquiry, it barely seems to
matter any longer in contemporary China. What does beg analysis now
is the relationship between liberalism and nationalism in
contemporary public life.

In recent years, the respective--and, to both participants and most
Western observers, conflicting--claims of individual human rights and
collective national rights have been thrown into relief by the
publication of Wei Jingsheng's Letters From Prison alongside a series
of books that have appeared in China under variations on the title
China Can Say No. In his letters, Wei recounts his struggle for
individual dignity over almost two decades of internment and
intermittent political activism. His message is that the state should
recognize the inherent dignity of individuals. The authors of the Say
No books, on the other hand, have no time for "individualism" or for
"American-style human rights." Instead, they rise to defend China's
dignity as a nation, and brand local human rights activists as
foolish if not treacherous for conspiring with foreign governments to
obstruct the country's rise to great power status. For all their
differences, both are concerned with the same issue: that of dignity.

This, however, does not mean that the differences between liberal and
nationalist discourses in contemporary China can be reduced to a
simple conflict between individual and national dignity. For both
sides share a concern for the national dignity of China. Wei wrote
his first articles on democracy precisely to show that the Chinese
were not "a bunch of spineless weaklings", and that when individual
citizens learned to straighten their spines China would stand tall in
the world. Similarly, there is no lack of concern for individual
dignity in the writings of his nationalist opponents. The resentment
that surfaces in the Say No literature is grounded in deeply etched
personal experiences of national humiliation.

Liah Greenfeld has argued that the politics of indignation, or
ressentiment, drives nationalism. I shall argue that ressentiment,
grounded in personal indignation, also drives the struggle for
individual dignity and human rights. The motive we commonly ascribe
to China's drive for economic development and its citizens' struggle
for civil rights is the rational pursuit of self-interest--variously
described as the self-interest of a party seeking to maintain its
legitimacy in an ideological vacuum, or of a government intent on
maximizing revenues and authority, or of citizens hoping to multiply
options for the pursuit of life, liberty and personal happiness. We
make too little allowance for the possibility that China pursues
wealth and power for the sake of asserting national dignity, and that
citizens demand rights, not in pursuit of liberty or happiness, but
out of concern to preserve personal dignity. If this is indeed the
case, then personal resentment and nationalist ressentiment appear to
be fused in a complex and explosive mixture.

The most volatile element in this mixture is what Francis Fukuyama
has termed the struggle for "recognition." In The End of History and
the Last Man, Fukuyama identifies the passion that drives people to
make war against one another with the longing that drives them to
fight for democracy. This he terms (after Plato) thymos, or the
"desire for recognition." Thymos accounts for a "propensity to feel

"It is like an innate human sense of justice. People believe that
they have a certain worth, and when other people treat them as though
they are worth less than that, they experience the emotion of anger.
Conversely, when people fail to live up to their own sense of worth,
they feel shame, and when they are evaluated correctly in proportion
to their worth, they feel pride."

In the field of China studies, the idea of recognition has been
tainted by association with a discredited nineteenth-century
ethnography of "face." As Fukuyama defines it, however, thymos is not
a particular cultural trait but a universal characteristic of human
societies, and he appeals to it in order to answer one of the
critical political questions of our time: Is there a necessary
connection between the pursuit of national wealth and power, on the
one hand, and the attainment of liberal democracy and human rights on
the other?

Some have argued for a mechanical, functional connection between the
two, on the assumption that democracy alone is capable of mediating
the tangled web of conflicting interests created in the course of
developing a complex modern economy. Fukuyama disagrees. Others have
argued for a managerial relationship, suggesting that as autocratic
regimes degenerate over time, elites responsible for managing the
state come to assume a leading role in liberalizing it as well. Again
Fukuyama disagrees. Another well-known line of argument is that
democracy arises when successful industrialization produces an
ascending middle class that develops an interest in defending its
class position by institutionalizing its rights. Yet again Fukuyama
disagrees. Democracy, he argues, has no simple economic rationale.
"The choice of democracy is an autonomous one, undertaken for the
sake of recognition and not for the sake of [material] desire."

Fukuyama's emphasis on thymos presents a serious challenge to the
analysis of national development and international politics, for it
undermines the rational, empiricist assumptions of Anglo-American
political philosophy, while celebrating the triumph of its political
achievements. Basically, Fukuyama--and Isaiah Berlin, too--argues
that the impetus for both national economic development and liberal
democracy is best explained by reference to "irrational" forces
arising from the struggle for recognition, not as an outcome of the
rational pursuit of self-interest. The drive for economic
self-improvement is not the engine of political development; both are
by-products of an even deeper impulse.

This hypothesis presents a particular challenge to students of modern
China. Fukuyama presses us to identify with precision the processes
whereby rising prosperity may lead to political pluralism. Of itself,
the economistic argument that economic development leads to democracy
is abstract and dehistoricized. "It papers over the interval until
the calm of wealth prevails", Eric Jones has observed, "a time that
in reality has to be struggled through" [emphasis added]. We need to
consider the forms such struggles may assume in different historical
instances--in particular, the forms assumed by thymotic desire for
national and personal dignity in China today.

National dignity clearly held a prior claim over individual dignity
in public life when the Chinese people "stood up" in 1949. The two
were momentarily congruent: when the state was without shame, the
people who made up the nation were without shame as well. After the
Cultural Revolution petered out in the 1970s, space emerged in public
life for people to challenge such congruence. Jonathan Spence caught
this moment in his foreword to a translated collection of Chinese
short stories published in 1983:

"There is extraordinary agreement among these writers about the loss
of dignity that afflicts all Chinese denied privacy, in housing as in
thought, forced forever to jostle and bargain and plead until the
shouts become cries and the cries blows."

For many people, the loss of private dignity casts the achievement of
national dignity into doubt. What is the good of a whole people
"standing up" in the world if they cannot "stand up" as individuals
in their own homes? This question has left its traces in biography,
essays, wall-posters and letters produced in China over the past
decade. In this essay I select a sample of recent literature touching
on the subject of dignity--Li Zhisui's memoirs, The Private Life of
Chairman Mao, examples of the China Can Say No genre, and selected
writings of Wei Jingsheng--to highlight the incongruence between a
China that "stood up" in 1949 and the felt experience of a people
reduced to jostling, crying and trading blows at home. The same body
of literature hints at the potential for reconciling the claims of
individual and national rights around the idea of dignity itself.

Are there grounds for hope for China in this respect? I shall argue
that a common ideal of dignity lies at the heart of nationalist
discourse and liberal democratic theory alike. I shall argue, too,
that, inadequately, Chinese nationalism has inadvertently incubated
an ideal of individual rights and individual self-determination
within its discourse on national rights. For almost half a century,
official nationalism has developed a popular language of
exploitation, oppression, dehumanization and humiliation through
which people could explain and resolve affronts to China's dignity.
Today, they can appeal to an identical language to press their claims
for individual rights before the state. The politics of individual
dignity, far from being antithetical, appears to be parasitical on
the idea of national dignity. Paradoxically, then, resurgent
nationalism does offer ground for hope that China's wheel is turning,
slowly but surely, to recognizing the inherent dignity of the

Standing Up: The Rhetoric of National Dignity

Li Zhisui's The Private Life of Chairman Mao is infamous within China
for divulging intimate court secrets about the founder of the
People's Republic. In passing, however, Dr. Li also discloses the
personal ruminations of an educated Chinese doctor from a comfortable
family background who happened to be traveling abroad before becoming
Chairman Mao's physician. Dr. Li was in Sydney, Australia, in January
1949 when news came through that the People's Liberation Army had
occupied Beijing. He was elated that "China could finally assume her
rightful place in the world" and within six months had resolved to
return home to devote his life to his people and his country.

Essay Types: Essay