Chinese government fosters 'victimisation syndrome'
BEIJING // Standing in front of ruins in the Old Summer Palace park in north-west Beijing, Yan Shuo admits he feels "angry with this situation".
"Before it was a beautiful park, but now it's destroyed. It's such a pity," said Mr Yan, a 22-year-old student.
The park's state of disrepair is not recent and not a result of neglect, and Mr Yan's anger is no accident.
Rather, it is precisely what Chinese authorities intend, for they have chosen not to restore the palace so its crumbling remains can serve as an object lesson to each generation of Chinese youth of the destruction and humiliation visited upon the country by foreign powers.
Described in state literature as a place for "patriotic education", the park's once grand palaces were plundered by British and French forces in the 19th century. More than 100 years later, You Wei has not forgotten his country's persecution.
"I learned about this place when I was at primary school," said You Wei, 27, an engineer from Anhui province who lives in Beijing.
"It's a sad thing for China. They were destroyed by foreign powers. It's important for the young generation to come here to learn."
The Old Summer Palace is in some respects an unlikely illustration for the depredations carried out by foreigners on Chinese soil. Much of the architecture was not Chinese, and after the foreign troops had finished looting and burning, the Chinese themselves inflicted further damage. The zealots of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution later did their share, too. Yet this is rarely mentioned.
The reason for this selective history is that while China is a fledgling superpower, its persecution by foreign powers is an historical scar it wears prominently on its sleeve.
According to Xu Guoqi, a specialist in modern Chinese history at The University of Hong Kong, and author of China and the Great War: China's Pursuit of a New National Identity and Internationalisation, Chinese people suffer from "victimisation syndrome".
"Their feelings about foreign invasions, especially Japanese ones, are still very strong," he said.
Many feel the country's rulers fan nationalist sentiment. In a speech last month to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, talked of how "foreign powers stepped up their aggression against China" in the 19th century.
He also spoke of China's "5,000-year" history, a statement that is scientifically and historically dubious but which inspires some Chinese to revive the glory of the past.
"To fan a Chinese sense of victimisation is a very important part of nationalism and therefore the legitimacy of the party," Mr Xu said.
In a policy paper published last year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), said China's "culture of humiliation" was fueled by a party that "regularly instructs the citizenry never to forgot" wrongs suffered from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries.
"School children are versed in the details of Japanese atrocities and Western discriminatory acts during this period," the report said.
"Adults, in turn, are reminded of it by a steady flow of new books, plays, films, documentaries, museum exhibitions and theme parks, many of which receive CPC [Communist Party of China] or government funding."
The state media also play a role, often criticising "foreign media" for being anti-Chinese and publishing cartoons that portray the country as a victim of the West, usually the United States.
By contrast, any mention in the media of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, in which hudnreds of protesters are believed to have been killed, or other instances of the abuse of power by Chinese authorities is taboo.
Nationalism is used by the party to "suppress dissenting voices", said Ting Wai, a professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. "They always say the same thing: 'We should be united. If we have too many dissenting voices, it's in the interests of the West.'"
The drumbeat of pro-nationalist and xenophobic messages in the media has produced a sea change in public attitudes towards the outside world, with many younger Chinese far more nationalistic than their elders in their 50s and 60s, said Mr Ting.
"For a very long time they had an inferiority complex. Now they have a superiority complex," he said.
There have been signs of rising nationalist sentiment in recent years, most notably anti-Japanese protests in 2005 and demonstrations outside the Carrefour hypermarket chain in 2008 after human-rights activists disrupted the Beijing Olympics torch relay in Paris.
The government also has done little to steer clear of diplomatic spats with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines over disputed territories
Mr Ting said nationalism was "a double-edged sword" for authorities, who are worried that if they are not assertive enough internationally, "youngsters will turn against the Chinese regime".
For the moment, the strategy appears to be working.
Chinese youth seem to revel in their government's diplomatic disputes. At least some also welcome double-digit growth in the country's annual defence spending, seeing it as a guarantee against a repeat of China's past humiliations.
"There's an old Chinese saying that if you are poor, if you are weak, other people will force you to do what they want," said Zhang Naiyue, 18, while standing among the Old Summer Palace ruins.
"The most important thing is to make China strong so it won't be harmed by other countries."
Published: August 22, 2011 04:00 AM