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

The significance of the event today is far better captured by Dr.
Li's capricious recollection than by an accurate record of what was
actually said, and he is in good company in misremembering the event.
On October 1, 1984, Deng Xiaoping drew a similar connection.
"Thirty-five years ago", Deng recalled at an anniversary ceremony in
Tiananmen, "Chairman Mao Zedong . . . solemnly proclaimed here the
founding of the People's Republic of China. He declared that the
Chinese people had finally stood up." Western memories are no more
reliable. Harrison Salisbury repeats the same story in The New
Emperors, and Western video and film records of Mao's speech from the
podium at Tiananmen invariably carry an English voice-over statement
along the lines of "the Chinese People have stood up", over the top
of Mao's statement on the establishment of the Central People's
Government. Regardless of what Mao in fact said on that day, that is
how it has been remembered.

In fact the expression "the Chinese People have stood up" (Zhongguo
renmin zhan qilai le) dates from the title ascribed to a talk that Mao
had delivered a week earlier, to an assembly of old warlords, former
bureaucrats, aging literati, "democratic elements", overseas Chinese
and delegates drawn from all regions of China, all of whom had
gathered to convene the opening session of the Chinese People's
Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on September 21, 1949.
Mao's speech on this occasion bore little relation to anything
uttered at Tiananmen. Its tone was not faithfully captured by the
formal title either. Mao appealed for the unity of the Chinese
nation, made a number of gestures to evoke China's heroic and
glorious past, and paid due reference to Sun Yatsen's contribution to
the national revolution. While he repeated the phrase "stood up"
several times in the course of the talk, he refrained from using the
Leninist term "people" (renmin) in favor of the particularistic "we"
(women), "nation" or "race" (minzu), and "Chinese" (zhongguoren). His
first reference reads, "The Chinese, who occupy one quarter of
humankind, have now stood up." The second refers pointedly to the
humiliation of the Chinese at the hands of other nations: "Our
nation", Mao assured his audience, "will never again be a nation
despised by others. We have stood up." I stress the point because the
universal term "people" does not quite catch the sense of racial or
national pride conveyed in Mao's address.

This should not perhaps surprise us, given that the speech was
targeted not at the "people" but at an aging audience of Republican
functionaries, who were long accustomed to mulling over China's lost
imperial dignity and recent history of national humiliation. At the
same time, Mao's failure to mention these humiliations when he stood
before the "people" a week later at Tiananmen was an omission in need
of correction. The compound memory of these events, as they are
recorded in Mao's collected works, is a curious blend of primordial
racial pride and instrumental Leninist reasoning, mixed by an
imaginative editor whose contribution to history has passed largely
unacknowledged. This contribution involved yolking an earlier
language of thymotic racial pride to a new, depersonalized, Marxist
language of imperialist oppression and national liberation.

Dr. Li was not alone in imagining that these two languages came
together when Mao spoke at Tiananmen. In the years that followed, he
was not alone in attributing to "imperialism" the personal
humiliation that had been etched on his soul as a youth. Nor was he
alone, later still, when he abandoned this official language in favor
of a cruder idiom of national humiliation and personal betrayal to
portray the private life of Chairman Mao.

Saying No: The Rhetoric of Indignation

Thymos, Fukuyama reminds us, compels us not just to "stand up" and be
recognized but also to "say no" to others. The muse of thymotic
resentment has been busy in China in recent years. The books that
have appeared under variations on the title China Can Say No--for
example, China Is Still Capable of Saying No, The China That Can Say
No, Why Does China Say No?--point consistently to the humiliation of
the Chinese people at the hands of foreigners. It is only in terms of
those humiliations, write the authors of the sequel to China Can Say
No, that "we can understand why China's writers have been crying out
to the heavens for a hundred years now: 'When will China become great
and powerful?'" And the answer to that question, it seems, is only
when the country finds the courage to stand firm and "say no."

One notable feature of the genre is the casual displacement of
Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought by unadorned ressentiment. While
many of these works refer to Mao's reported statement that "the
Chinese People have stood up", they draw little further inspiration
from his voluminous speeches and writings. They waste no effort, for
example, reiterating the old Maoist explanation for China's
historical condition that would attribute blame to international
capital or feudal forces of reaction. They offer instead a simple
catalogue of grievances set against a crude inventory of recent
economic achievements. On the whole, the authors resent the fact that
China is not treated with the dignity that they believe it deserves
in light of its size, its history and its present rate of economic

All the same, Qin Xiaoying reminds us in his foreword to China Is
Still Capable of Saying No (1996) that Mao's place in history is
assured. Many foreigners appear to believe that economic reforms and
the opening to the outside world initiated in 1978 marked a clean
break with Mao's New China, he continues, but in this they are
mistaken. China is simply accelerating its quest for status. Hence
the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping are read as enabling China to
rise in the twenty-first century as firmly as it stood up in the
middle of the present one:

"As our chief architect, Deng Xiaoping, once pointed out: 'When did
the Chinese people stand up in the world? It was in 1949. In years to
come, once we have achieved modernization, the Chinese people won't
be merely standing up. We'll be flying up!'"

In the literature of national humiliation, then, Deng emerges as
Mao's equal, because he helped China to straighten its wings and "fly

The achievements of Deng's economic reforms are valued for enhancing
national self-esteem. "There is no dignity to be had in poverty",
complain the authors of one of these books, "no matter what country
you come from." If it came to a choice, they would have the country
raise its standing in the world before it raised its GDP another
percentage point. We tend to assume that the legitimacy of the
present regime rests largely on its capacity to deliver the good life
to China's citizens. But little respect is shown in China's
literature of complaint for a government that would deliver
prosperity at the price of national dignity. Its tone confirms one of
Fukuyama's stronger statements: "The nationalist is primarily
preoccupied not with economic gain, but with recognition and dignity."

The favored metaphor for economic growth--that of stretching one's
wings and flying up--is now framed in the idiom of "national
self-respect." It is not the "people" who fly up but the Chinese
nation. Qin Xiaoying, for example, records that Deng once remarked at
a meeting with Richard Nixon that "a country lacking in national self
respect [minzu de zizunxin] and failing to cherish its own national
independence, can never straighten itself up [li bu qilai]." Like Li
Zhisui's memoirs, the China Can Say No books remind us that the
anti-imperialist, anti-feudal model of Maoist nationalism overlies an
earlier form of nationalism, one grounded in personal experience of
racial or national humiliation, rather than general and anodyne
recollections of political and economic oppression. Again, like Li
Zhisui, the authors inadvertently acknowledge that their loss of
dignity has been institutionalized in perpetuity by the Communist
Party state.

Neither the party nor the regime is presented with any appreciable
sympathy in this literature of complaint. While its "no" is directed
explicitly against foreigners, the present government is held
implicitly to account for yielding too readily to foreign political
and commercial demands, and for surrendering China's national dignity
in the process. Even more pertinently, the texts shed light on a
parallel struggle for personal dignity within China itself. They
demonstrate a significant loss of self-regard among people within
China, and reluctantly acknowledge that this loss lies exposed for
all the world to see.

Basically, the "say no" authors appear to resent the twist of fate
that delivered them into the world as citizens of a state that cannot
afford the liberties that citizens of other states take for granted.
None concedes that the time is ripe for democracy in China. None
questions the wisdom of the armed suppression of democracy activists
in 1989. Yet none can draw comfort, either, from the knowledge that
they belong to a state that refuses to acknowledge their dignity as
individual citizens. By abandoning hope for civil liberties, China's
nationalists have discovered shame. This appears to be the indirect
source for much of the resentment driving the China Can Say No
phenomenon. It is sired by the anger of a nation not taken at its
worth, and the shame of a people who tried to stand up before their
own state and discovered that it could not be done.

Essay Types: Essay