China’s Identity Crisis: The ‘People’s Republic’ May Soon Buckle Under the Weight of Its Own Contradictions
Ever since Thucydides’ “manual for statecraft” portrayed the starkly divergent strategic cultures of Athens and Sparta, the need to comprehend one’s own and other nations’ identities has been indispensible. But in recent decades, discussions of national character have been scorned as politically incorrect and non-quantifiable. Yet a national identity crisis can be seen in one place after another, like in the Arab world, the European Union, and Russia. Of all the identity problems today, China’s is the most severe. The Bo Xilai scandal that has riled the leadership succession, the Chen Guangcheng human rights standoff, and tense situations from Xinjiang to Tibet to the South China Sea all contain manifestations of this underlying phenomenon.
China seems always to have been fully formed. The Chinese tell the world, and scholars in the West reinforce the idea, that the People’s Republic today is serene, self-assured, the product of thousands of years of Confucian calm and virtue, the practitioner of a patient, nuanced, subtle statecraft designed to succeed without confrontation or warfare.
Yet China’s history from remotest antiquity to modern times has been as turbulent, unpredictable, and violent as any other major civilization on earth. And through the most recent centuries, the question of “Chineseness” itself has come to the fore. The Beijing regime, led by the Communist Party, seems preoccupied with the matter of Chinese identity as it launches one campaign after another to try to explain to the Chinese people who they are and what China’s meaning to the world should be.
The incongruity between the eternal cultural image and its currently contested reality suggests that modern China’s long “search for a political form” has not yet ended, and the status of traditional Chinese thought and practice remains uncertain.