The Worldview of One Chinese Youth

I have been amazed by the rosy images so many Chinese youth hold of the West. Chinese Communist Party (CPC) officials are faced with an unenviable task. The CPC needs to provide jobs and a decent standard of living for the Chinese people, and these goals can come in conflict. The CPC has delivered in terms of improving the economy and pulling hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty. However, the environment has suffered as a consequence. The CPC does not hide this fact (it is after all pretty hard to hide air pollution and water pollution) and publishes regular air quality reports. Complaints about the air quality is a constant refrain among Chinese.

Another conundrum the CPC faces is how to prevent the insidious effects of disinformation without being overzealous in censorship and hindering freedom of thought and expression. Fear of expressing a point of view is another lament I hear in China. Many Chinese seem under the impression that westerners can say what they please and readily access whatever views they please.

How do the next generation of Chinese view matters?

To get a view from Chinese youth, I interviewed Charlie Yang who I first met in Qingdao. He is a thoughtful person who is now a student at the University of Toronto. I dissent from some of his views, but they are important in portraying a Weltanschauung among Chinese youth.

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Kim Petersen: In 1949, as the Communists prevailed in the fight against the Guomindang (KMT), Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) and the KMT escaped across the Taiwan Strait to Taiwan. Since that time there have been two entities claiming to be China. How do mainland Chinese people view mainland China vis-à-vis Taiwan today?

Charlie Yang: Since I have no Taiwanese friend, it’s going to be a mainlander’s view toward the Taiwan issue. For most of the mainlanders, they hold the point of view that Taiwan is a part of China as it always has been in history. The Communist Party of China has always been claiming to the world and propagandizing to its people that Taiwan is a legal and inseparable part of China. On the other hand the Communist Party has been pushing the cultural and economic activities between Taiwan and the mainland. Furthermore, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) set up an office in 2002 dedicated to Taiwan studies, which shows the ambition of the Communist Party of reclaiming Taiwan.

The geopolitical importance of Taiwan to China is obvious: for a country that is striving to become a superpower, or at least a regional superpower, control over territorial seas and access to ocean is significant. Former US state secretary Dulles called the perimeter of the island that surrounds China’s coast “First island chain”, and the mainland knows that the loss of geographical claim on the island chain would lead to the loss of access and opportunities in the era of technological and economic competition.

My family, for example, might serve as an example. Although none of my family members participated in government activities regarding Taiwan, my grandparents and my parents express concerns about Taiwan issues and regularly watch Taiwan related news broadcasted on China’s television network. If they are asked the question whether Taiwan should be regarded as a territory of China, the answer would be a “yes,” for sure, and for most of the mainlanders who are influenced by the Communist Party, the answer would also be a “Yes”.

For Chinese in Taiwan it would be a more difficult question to answer as it relates to crucial questions such as identity and independence.

It is a fact that the majority ethnic groups in both Taiwan and Mainland are both Han which counts for over 90% of the population in both places. Han people, whose ancestry can be tracked to 400 B.C. have been a cohesive and stable ethnic group that stayed in Zhongyuan area (now middle China) for thousands of years. As a lot of traditions and proprieties are shared between Taiwan and the Mainland, it will be difficult for people in Taiwan to have their own identity apart from identifying themselves as Han people.

KP: Taiwan had actually been separated from mainland China for a long time since Japan had invaded in 1895 and annexed Taiwan. Later Japan also occupied parts of the mainland China such as Shanghai, Nanking, and into the northeast of China. The Japanese committed many atrocities against Chinese people and do not fully acknowledge their violent crimes (in fact, Japanese history books sanitize this sordid history) . Given the cover up, the lack of a formal apology, and the acrimony over the Diaoyu/Senkakus how do Chinese feel about Japan today?

CY: Japan today remains a crucial part in communist party’s patriotic education. Patriotic education is what the party relies on to building a “spiritual civilization society” aka the new normative authority invented by the government to mobilize the mass and generate social cohesion of the public. So how Chinese feel toward Japanese, I suppose, is largely depend on how the party conveys the information about Japanese affairs to the public.

Back in my parents’ generation the government had propaganda that conveyed anti-Japan feelings, and our nation’s feeling toward Japan was hatred. Things started to gradually change after the opening up policy in the late 1980s and more tolerant view is obvious in the recent years. No more propaganda was being posted, but newspapers, tv channels, and the internet started to assume the role as reminders of history and conducting patriotic education. Numerous TV series about Japan’s war of aggression were being broadcasted, and during important memorial days a slew of editorial pieces would be published in newspapers. They are not propaganda, but simply act to some extent as a tool for the government to further establish a normative society.

In this way. It doesn’t matter if Japan makes a formal apology or not, the Communist Party still has patriotism serving as a basis for a normative authority.

KP: You speak of “anti-Japan feelings.” I wonder if the feelings are genuinely anti-Japan, or are they anti-Japanese imperialism and anti-the crimes Japanese committed in China? It seems to me that the wording here is important. If, for example, Japan had never invaded and occupied China, slaughtered Chinese citizens, and raped Chinese women would there still have been “anti-Japan feelings”? Given the absence of official apology and reparations from Japan, a nation guilty of aggression, should not the onus of language be on Japan? Was it not the violent actions that were anti-Chinese?

CY: I would describe this feeling as a mixed feeling resulted from both past Japanese invasion and Communist party’s patriotic education. Japanese invaded China, true; they slaughtered our people and raped our women, also true. However history is history and it’s not a forever hatred lie in Chinese hearts. I’ve met French people and Jewish people in different occasions and I also asked them if they hate German or not. The answer was no for both of them.

Remembering the history is not the same as hating the ones that made the sin. The Chinese Communist Party’s propagandas are “remembering the history” however, it made Chinese people continually hating Japanese people for 70 years with TV shows and newspapers. The emphasis on patriotic education, as I stated, is believed to be a way for Communist Party to establish a new normative authority to generate national cohesion and fill the moral vacuum. (Feng Chen, “Rebuilding the Party’s Normative Authority.”)

planeIn the photo to the left, taken from a TV series with the theme of anti-Japanese war, the Chinese threw a grenade and destroyed the fighter plane above him.

Nevertheless I hold the point that the emphasis on patriotic education should be moderate; today the status quo is like the government dumping distorted WWII anti-Japanese war TV shows to the public, and they are no good.

cutIn the photo to the right, a Chinese warrior tore a Japanese soldier apart with bare hands.

For educated adults, they might be able to distinguish ridiculous stuff from truth; but how about children who watched this largely exaggerated TV series? And there are a lot of series like this on TV.

KP: In 1950, China entered the war being waged in Korea and repelled the US from near its border back to the 38th parallel. Korea remains a divided country and US forces remain in the south. Today the US continues to excoriate the government in the north while refusing to do a peace treaty. How do you think most Chinese people view North Korea and its situation?

CY: In the age that ideology is no longer the guiding force of national policies, the attitude of indifference by Chinese people toward North Korean people has grown day by day. To China, North Korea today only possesses a geopolitical importance but not an ideological one. China nowadays, unlike forty years ago, is no longer a comrade in the communist bloc. Throughout my 12 years of education under communist rule, there was nothing about North Korea being China’s comrade taught to my classmates and I; neither was it in the news.

However, it is a commonly known fact (my uncles, aunts, and parents are all concerned about it) that North Korea plays a crucial geopolitical role for China, just like the role of Taiwan. As a country in the “First Island Chain”, North Korea serves as a breakthrough point to China when US is blocking access to the ocean.

With the fading comradely relationship, a Sino-DPRK relationship is typically regarded as two countries taking advantage of each other. Both sides will gain from cooperation, but China will gain more.

The US military is encircling China with a chain of air bases and military ports. (Source)

The US military is encircling China with a chain of air bases and military ports. (Source)

KP: The United States has a history of intruding into China’s sphere. Today China finds itself encircled by US military bases in Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Thailand, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan. In 1958, Chairman Mao Zedong said, (Speech at the Supreme State Conference, September 8, 1958.)

US imperialism invaded China’s territory of Taiwan and has occupied it for the past nine years. … The United States has set up hundreds of military bases in many countries all over the world. China’s territory of Taiwan, Lebanon and all military bases of the United States on foreign soil are so many nooses round the neck of U.S. imperialism. The nooses have been fashioned by the Americans themselves and by nobody else, and it is they themselves who have put these nooses round their own necks, handing the ends of the ropes to the Chinese people, the peoples of the Arab countries and all the peoples of the world who love peace and oppose aggression. The longer the U.S. aggressors remain in those places, the tighter the nooses round their necks will become.

How applicable do you find Mao’s words today? And how is the US viewed by Chinese today?

CY: Chinese patriotism, like all patriotism elsewhere in the world, remained strong during the times that the nation was relatively weak. I personally don’t find Mao’s words applicable in an era of peace except for the role of triggering nationalism. During Mao’s era, an ideological power and personality cult dominated China, hence Mao’s words triggered patriotism and increased national cohesion. It is true that the US national defense budget remains the highest in the world and is higher than the budget of the next 32 countries after it combined, but that doesn’t mean US military spending on its overseas bases gives China any advantages.

KP: I don’t see why US military spending should give China advantages, do you mean give the US any advantages?

CY: From my interpretation of Mao’s remark, he was trying to say that the increasing number of US military bases and US military forces around China would “put these nooses around their necks”; which I don’t see as a truth.

Frankly, China is giving the US a hard time by having taken advantage during the 2008 financial crisis and pumping money into the US market and holding US national debt to help China itself maintain the fixed exchange rate. With its economic success, China’s GDP has kept growing by double digits up until 2015. However, in terms of its military side, the US didn’t reduce its military bases around China but increased the number of the bases while closing its bases in Europe.

Today Chinese no longer view the US as US imperialism but as a respectable rivalry. The Chinese system is not necessarily bad, and the US market economy is not necessarily good. We hang Mao’s painting on the wall, and the US people carved their presidents on a mountain. To most Chinese, China is chasing the US both economically and technologically: we do not regard the US as our enemy; it is just our competitor that we would like to surpass.

There is now both competition and cooperation in the Sino-US relationship. Chinese no longer calls the US “imperialist,” and we no longer regard the US as an imperialist country. This complicated relationship brings along: increasing US constraints (fleets, bases) around Chinese seas to cut off Chinese access to the Pacific. On the other hand, for the money market, China in recent years has swallowed a considerable amount of US national debt. Holding such a huge amount of US debt will 1) benefit the US government as we are lending money to it; 2) benefit the Chinese government as we are intentionally keeping our currency stable in the international market. Holding US debt would allow China to use USD to buy in Chinese RMB in the international market, hence Chinese Central Bank is able to keep the Chinese currency stable.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer and former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.