In my previous blog, I highlighted the ironies – or as one Chinese general put it, the ‘hypocritical behavior’ – that the Chinese press has identified in relation to US cyber espionage in the wake of the Snowden revelations. In particular, the revelations suggest that ‘state capitalism’, or the government use of the private sector to achieve national interests, is a model as applicable to the USA as it is to China. I would suggest, however, that in all this there exists a still deeper irony that may be seen through the prism of the ‘Chinese dream’ – the much-hyped propaganda buzz term introduced last November by Chinese president Xi Jinping.
In his initial Chinese dream pronouncement, Xi stated that ‘realizing the great renewal of the Chinese nation is the Chinese nation’s greatest dream in modern history’. To be sure, it is a nationalist vision that comes from the top of China’s political order, but it also taps into a major thread of China’s national psychology. Not merely aspirationalist and forward looking, it speaks of rejuvenation, of catching up, of redressing historical wrongs, and of rehabilitating the Chinese nation.
China’s current dream-run comes on the heel of what Chinese historiography refers to as the country’s ‘century of shame and humiliation’, beginning with ignominious defeats in the Opium Wars in 1842 and 1860. The ensuing century was littered with a trail of foreign insults, including the establishment of treaty ports, the looting of historical monuments in Beijing; snubbing at the Treaty of Versailles and Japanese invasion and occupation.
The Opium Wars and the series of unequal treaties that followed are perhaps among history’s most devastating examples of the ‘state capitalist model’ or, specifically ‘mercantile capitalism’. In the mercantile capitalist model, European powers waged war and established colonies through commercial joint ventures in order to ensure a favorable balance of trade. In this case it was the British East India Company, which, under royal charter, had exported opium from territories in India that it effectively governed to China. Following a Chinese prohibition on opium imports, the company played a key role in the decision to trigger the Opium War, resulting in the ceding of Hong Kong to the British.
Following his founding of the People’s Republic, Chairman Mao made something of a national sport out of rhetoric blasting the West – and the USA in particular – as ‘capitalist imperialists’. Informed in theory by his own interpretation of Marxist-Leninist thought, such language was informed in practice by China’s own bitter experience at the hands of mercantile capitalism.
Echoing this, and in with wake of the Snowden affair, we now witness within the Chinese blogosphere and state-run press the playful use of such terms as ‘hacker empire’ (黑客帝国), ‘monitoring empire’ (监控帝国) and ‘eavesdropping empire” (窃听帝国) in reference to the US. Such language ultimately contributes to a established narrative within China that places the USA and its actions at the forefront of an historical tradition of malevolent Western capitalist imperialism.
Chinese nationalist discourse is informed by a long collective memory, and in international affairs this is amply reflected in Beijing’s dealings with such nations as Japan and the USA and in its aspirations to be regarded the global power it historically sees itself as. If Beijing had quietly regarded its commercial cyber-espionage practices as a case of historical quid pro quo prior to the Snowden affair, then the recent revelations will only serve to provide a very public vindication. If the Chinese dream is driven at least in part by a need for national redemption over the powers that had sought to subjugate it a century and more ago, then incidents like this will at least surely help to even up the moral scorecard.
Nicholas Dynon is an academic and former diplomat specialising in Chinese soft power. A doctoral candidate at Macquarie University, Sydney, his research has appeared in The China Journal and Place Branding and Public Diplomacy. He is coordinator of the Line 21 Project (www.line21project.org), an online resource on contemporary Chinese state propaganda and public diplomacy.
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