China’s Frenemies

Beijing incorporates all of the contradictions of Chinese society.
A neon box-canyon in Yanta district of Xi'an.
A neon box-canyon in Yanta district of Xi'an.

My knowledge of Chinese culture was limited to some ancient history and 90s Kung Fu films so I wasn’t able to make much sense of what I was seeing. However I did notice oddities when it came to foreign affairs. For me the most noticeable contradiction lay in the very kinky love/hate relationship that China appears to have with the United states.

In China US society is widely regarded as a benchmark for success. American brands are symbols of status and US companies have branches throughout the city. KFC is the country’s most popular restaurant chain, Buick is the top-selling car. Half of the top ten highest grossing films in China have been Hollywood blockbusters. 300 million Chinese play and watch basketball. On the surface the relationship is one of adoration. But if you go below the surface you get a different story. On the subway I found myself watching some sort of promotional video for the Chinese army where US cities were displayed as targets in order to illustrate the range and yield of China’s latest generation of ballistic missiles. Meanwhile the same Communist party officials that send their children to Harvard and Yale publicly vilify and blame the US for domestic problems. Clearly China’s relationship with the USA is complex.

Hutong night scene Sunset over the streets of Beijing.



Then there’s the decidedly more simple hate/hate relationship that China has with its neighbours to the East.

China did 340 billion dollars in trade with Japan last year.  They import more products from Japan than any other country and Japanese pop-culture icons are emblazoned on backpacks and t-shirts worn by teenagers all over the country.  Yet even as trade increases the Chinese media has been stirring up anti-Japanese sentiment on a constant basis.  The China Daily, which is the state-sponsored english-language newspaper, seems to run a serialised account of Japanese atrocities in WWII the way western newspapers rehash Garfield cartoons.  Their website has a section devoted to China-Japanese relations and has helpfully charted the freeze/thaw cycle of their relationship in the footer above sections on ‘sensitive issues’ and ‘special coverage’ of ‘the unspeakable cruelty of wartime japan’.

Which is not to say that their news media is exaggerating the nature of those crimes. It just seems odd that, even after 70 years, there’s still such a readiness to open old wounds.  From an article in The Conversation by political scientist Mark Beeson.

There is no doubt that Chinese people are entitled to feel aggrieved about both the actions of the Japanese in places such as Nanjing, and about the failure of Japan’s leaders to take responsibility for them and express genuine, unequivocal remorse.

But the attitude of China’s leaders and the public more generally seems out of proportion when we remember that these events occurred 70 years ago. Rather than forgiving and forgetting, however, China’s leaders and the vast majority of the population are actually ramping up the outrage and resentment, even though very few of them have any personal knowledge of the events themselves.

The Dean of International Studies at Peking University,Wang Jisi, raised the issues of nationalism based on victim-hood in an interview published in the Japanese newspaper  Asahi Shimbun:

This kind of sentiment is a very interesting combination of superiority and inferiority. On the one hand, some people say we are stronger than before, China is a rising power and China may dominate the world in the future. On the other hand, when unpleasant things happen they say China is being humiliated and still a victim of world politics.

When it comes to the human rights record of Communist China the story becomes more complicated.  The Tiananmen Square massacre, for example, is a sort of open secret- at least for educated and middle-class Chinese (there’s even a museum to the Tiananmen protest movement in Hong Kong).  Many Chinese students are at least broadly aware of what went on. Others know the history of participation through their university or through activists and government critics.  It’s easy to assume that, under an authoritarian government, the general population would be more critical of such events.  Instead it seems as if Tiananmen and other acts of state brutality are more a source of shame than outrage.

A comparison can be made with the darker aspects of Australia’s history.  Most Australians have only a dim idea of the extent of the massacres, kidnappings and displacement during the white settlement of Australia. Few people would be aware of the massacre at Conniston in 1928 to take just one example.  Much like in China, the lack of awareness is partly due to how history has been recorded and partly driven by a reflexive tendency to not dwell on shameful episodes in the nation’s past.

Murals on apartments in Yanta district Xi'an Beijing highway traffic Apartments towers in Beijing


But the strangest contradiction was one of the first I came across.  Getting off the plane in Chengdu I noticed special arrival gates and immigration signs for people arriving from Taiwan.  The island of Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) has been an independent state since 1945 when the Kuomintang anti-Communist forces staged a massive evacuation to the island taking millions of people, a large number of historical artifacts and most of China’s currency reserve.  Unable to reclaim the island, but unwilling to give it up, the Communists simply refused to recognise its existence as a sovereign state.  I’d grown up hearing reports of US Aircraft carriers patrolling the Taiwan Strait while communist China waited, poised to re-take the territory if the opportunity arose.

China had threatened in the past that any formal declaration of independence by Taiwan would be grounds for military action. As it turns out, relations between the two Chinas have been gradually improving over the last decade or so. The last few coalition governments in Taiwan have pursued a diplomatic policy of ‘deliberate ambiguity’.  According to Wikipedia:

Former ROC President Ma Ying-jeou has advocated that cross-strait relations should shift from “mutual non-recognition” to “mutual non-denial”

In 2008 the first commercial flights took place between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland prompting both countries to come up with a Kafkaesque travel permit system.  Again, from Wikipeda:

Taiwan residents cannot use the Republic of China passport to travel to mainland China and Mainland China residents cannot use the People’s Republic of China passport to travel to Taiwan, as neither the ROC nor the PRC considers this international travel. The PRC government requires Taiwan residents to hold a Mainland Travel Permit for Taiwan Residents when entering mainland China, whereas the ROC government requires mainland Chinese residents to hold the Exit and Entry Permit for the Taiwan Area of the Republic of China to enter the Taiwan Area.

When I left Beijing was preparing for an epic military parade.  The official title of the event was the ‘Commemoration of 70th Anniversary of Victory of Chinese People’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War’.  Most western news reports of the parade treated it as an aggressive bit of saber rattling from the Chinese authorities.  But amidst thousands of tanks and soldiers it was easy to miss the signs of progress.  For the first time ever the parade included veterans from the Kuomintang as well as US airman who served in China in WWII – little gestures of compromise tucked into a much larger gesture of dominance.

In such a short time it’s almost impossible to get a real sense of any country- let alone one that comprises 20 per cent of the world’s population.  Expectations colour what you see while the language barrier and the chilling effect of state censorship make it difficult to get below the surface of a society.  That being said, the overall impression of China I took away was of a country governed more by practicality than ideology.  Harmony and social cohesion are the goals and it doesn’t appear to matter that the methods are not consistent.  Certain people will be re-assured by military posturing.  Others want confirmation that China is building trading partnerships and distributing foreign aid.

In a way China’s national identity is like that of any other country – constantly evolving and adjusting to internal and external forces.  I’m curious to see what another ten years of tourism and trade between China, Taiwan, Japan and the US will yield.

Interview with Dean of PKU School of International Studies Wang Jisi in the Asahi Shimbun – Transcript
Jane Teufel Dreyer’s account of Sino-Japanese relations – Middle Kingdom & Empire of the Rising Sun
Article in The Conversation by Mark Beeson – China: taking history seriously


Chinese characters inscribed on a wall in Beijing, China. Beijing National Stadium


Roof awnings on the Llama monastery in Beijing, China. Postcards from Beijing in the Xicheng District of central Beijing Beijing lanterns in the Xicheng District, Beijing, China. Chinese propaganda posters A neon box-canyon in Yanta district of Xi'an.

Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.

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