The dark side of powerful China — its repression — can benefit US

The successful landing of the Chang’e 4 spacecraft on the dark side of the moon is a remarkable achievement for China, but negated by the suppression and imprisonment of members of the Chinese Uighur minority in Xinjiang. Uighur detainment in concentration camps demonstrates — with brick, mortar and barbed wire — the return of bad ideas to international politics. As China becomes more dominant, the world should expect increasing incidents of the “China paradox,” spectacular scientific achievement forever twinned with wholesale repression of its Muslim and Tibetan minorities and its odious hyper-nationalist beliefs.

China’s treatment of its minorities is a product of a pernicious hyper-nationalistic ideology, Han-centrism, which asserts that the dominant ethnic group in China, the Han, are culturally and racially superior to other groups in China and outside of it. Han-centrism is a form of Chinese racialized nationalism and advances ideas, beliefs and policies that will allow the country to reclaim the dominant position China occupied before the “Century of Humiliation.” This is usually delineated by the start of the First Opium War in 1839 until the communist victory in 1949, when the country was too weak to protect itself from European, American and Japanese colonial depredations.  

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Han-centrists perceive many enemies, foreign and domestic, and have been supportive of China’s aggressive posture in the East and South China Seas. Equally worrisome, this movement supports a fundamentally new international system — a China committed to changing the rules, norms and practices of the established international order to suit China. This movement actively seeks to replace the United States as the dominant state in international politics.

The rest of the world has a problem with this aggressive nationalism. Too little attention has been paid to group identification, historical memory and the racial discourses associated with such aggressive nationalist sentiment, which can be found throughout the Chinese blogosphere and during protests against Japan and the United States, or purportedly recalcitrant minority groups within the country such as the Tibetans and Uighurs.

In a competition with China, the United States must explore all of its advantages and all of Beijing’s weaknesses in the “war of ideas,” or political warfare, that already has started between Beijing and Washington. Consider five strategic consequences of Chinese Han-centrism:

It provides empirical evidence of how Beijing will treat other international actors. A key insight into Chinese future behavior is its behavior when it was the hegemon of Asia, the known world as far as China was concerned. For the Han-centrists, China is the center of the universe and other states and peoples are inferior, with varying degrees of inferiority. Because such an ethnocentric and solipsistic belief is not an attractive model to win allies and influence, it provides a significant advantage for the United States in its diplomacy to counter China’s influence.

It allows the United States to undermine China in the global South. China portrays itself as an apolitical rising superpower that does business in your country, pays a fair price for your commodities, and invests and builds your infrastructure with no strings attached. The reality is far from this, as the negative “debt trap” experiences of Sri Lanka and Pakistan caution. The United States can counter the expansion of Chinese influence by illuminating the costs of engagement with China, including the important point that there is no culture of anti-racism in China, and so there is little hope for change in Chinese attitudes.

It permits a positive image of the United States in contrast to China. The stark fact is, when compared with a hyper-nationalistic China, it is rather straightforward to convey to the rest of the world the message that the United States is open and inclusive, whereas China is not. This is because such openness is in accord with the principles of the United States and its history, and especially so since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. There is no chance China will go through a civil rights movement.

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It strengthens political and ideological alliances of the United States. Political alliances, particularly with the developing world, are an obvious benefit. Equally important are the ideological alliances that the United States may augment. Intellectual circles in Europe, Canada and the United States value multiracial, multicultural societies. Journalists and media opinion-makers frequently share such vision of their societies as well. Yet, thus far, they have not treated the problem of Han-centrism with the attention it deserves, given China’s power.

It is a cohesive force for the Chinese government. While Han-centrism does benefit the Chinese Communist Party, it also gives the United States an advantage. The failure of the Chinese government to self-reflect on the outgrowth of hyper-nationalism means there is little to no motivation to address it. Accordingly, a powerful message is that China will not change because it has no desire to do so.

Han-centrism is complex, and contains many risks for the Chinese government and people, while also yielding advantages. For the United States, it is a major asymmetry to exploit with key allies, countries in strategic regions such as Africa, as well as with important opinion makers in international politics. Those who have a vested interest in the present order, especially advocates of racial equality and human rights, need to consider the implications of the rise of a hyper-nationalistic China for their political ideals, principles and values.  

What the China paradox means for the world is this: What is good about China’s great power status, technological advances and wealth is offset by the bad, the suppression of minorities and the return of an aggressive hyper-nationalism.

Bradley A. Thayer, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at the University of Texas, San Antonio. John M. Friend, Ph.D., is a visiting scholar with the Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawaii. They are the authors of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics” (Potomac, 2018).