China’s creation of a new ‘national shame’ narrative|Wang Dan

Published (HKT): 2021.04.08 09:08

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has recently begun to accelerate a new wave of nationalist mobilization, with one of the major directions being the construction of a “new national shame” narrative. In the CCP’s traditional discourse, “national shame” includes the Eight-Nation Alliance’s invasion of Beijing, the Boxer Protocol (Xinchou Treaty) that brought humiliation and loss of power to China, the establishment of settlements in Shanghai by imperial powers, and the Chinese being called the “sick man of East Asia”. As time went by, these “national shame” narratives became somewhat outdated, and have, quite inevitably, lost their appeal after being preached to the public for decades. Thus, it is necessary to create new discourse in an effort to whip up a new wave of patriotism and nationalism. Such an endeavor can be seen in the hype surrounding the “Wang Wei incident” in China recently.

On April 1st, 2001, a US EP-3 reconnaissance plane entered China’s air space in the South China Sea. Chinese warplanes were scrambled to intercept the US military planes, resulting in a collision. 23-year-old Chinese fighter pilot Wang Wei parachuted into the ocean and went missing. Presumably dead, he became a “hero” amid the Sino-US confrontation. What has irritated China more than anything else is that the US has declined to apologize for the incident to this date, which is regarded as a humiliation to China. The death of Wang Wei makes up China’s “Four Grievances” together with the cargo ship “The Galaxy” incident in 1993, the Taiwan Strait military confrontation in 1996 and the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. These “Four Grievances” are the “new national shame”.

A sideswipe at the backwardness of Jiang Zemin era

The Wang Wei incident that had provoked public furor was shortly settled under Jiang Zemin’s pro-US leadership. Today, however, the Chinese state media is revisiting the event and making a fuss about that piece of old news. From the CCTV, Xinhua news, the People’s Daily to the Global Times, the state media is going all out to commemorate Wang Wei citing the 20th anniversary of the Hainan collision. What is noteworthy is that the CCP is stressing that China is “no longer the same as it was 100 years ago”, nor is it “the same as it was 20 years ago”. This is a rather intriguing utterance. Not only does it imply that China was lagging behind and was at other countries’ mercy during Jiang’s presidency 20 years ago compared with China today, but it also signals an intention to “update” the “national shame” by equating “China 100 years ago” with “China 20 years ago.”

What is the most eye-catching in this new wave of propaganda is that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Eastern Theater Command has issued a rare announcement and thrown itself into this anti-American campaign. It has stated that “the incident is being mentioned again because the world is not peaceful and hegemonism still dominates the world.” The South Sea Fleet of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, to which Wang Wei belonged, also published an article commemorating Wang, stating that “the world today is not the place where those with the biggest fists have the final say. The Chinese navy will never allow a repeat of that history.”

At the same time, the government has deliberately fostered an atmosphere of the Chinese people’s refusal to forget the national shame. It has hyped up how Wang Wei’s son has “inherited his father’s unfulfilled ambitions” by becoming a naval officer. It has also quoted Wang Wei’s parents as saying that “the country is getting stronger and stronger and will no longer be bullied”. Not only that, but the Global Times has also published a special article, reporting the presence of a photo of Yang Jiechi, a member of the Politburo, talking tough in front of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during the Sino-US dialogue in front of Wang Wei’s tomb. This article and photo quickly became omnipresent on China’s Internet, bearing the obvious hallmark of a government official technical operation.

This has proved once again that Yang Jiechi’s out-of-character performance in the Alaska talks was a calculated move. It was carefully arranged to whip up a new wave of nationalist mobilization. Furthermore, the building of the personality cult around Wang Wei is yet another orchestrated popular mobilization after the Xinjiang cotton incident.

Nationalist mobilization to consolidate Xi’s status

All signs are indicating that the CCP is, through a string of orchestrated moves, creating step by step the public opinion that “a rising China is facing a new wave of suppressions by Western countries led by the US”. As Biden has repeatedly stated that “the US has no intention of confronting China”, such a nationalist mobilization has another intention: it is not aimed at confronting the US. Rather, it is intended to highlight the fact that China under the leadership of Xi Jinping has become stronger. The ultimate goal is to consolidate Xi Jinping’s personal political status.

(Wang Dan, founder of the think tank Dialogue China.)

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