I met him last year, on a quiet and rainy evening as we gathered to celebrate Marsha P. Jonhson, an American gay-liberation activist, drag queen, and an essential figure in the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. While we spoke of our experiences and personal preferred sexual expressions, I was immediately intrigued by the way he verbalized his opinions. No wonder, he studied Linguistics, and so more than everyone in the room, not only had he managed to tame the scary monster that is the Japanese language, but he was also able to transmit his thoughts in a manner so clear that left me wanting more.
As I got to know him, different aspects of his life began unveiling before me. I discovered that he was born in Shanghai, had lived in Japan for a number of years, as well as having briefly lived in the United States.
Because he’s Chinese, and I’m a Politics student — and I just generally like to watch shit burn — I kept poking at him with the occasional questions about Hong Kong, Taiwan… I guess the essential question, or my primordial intention, was to get to the bottom of what China is truly all about.
It doesn’t help that I often drown myself in endless articles, books and insufferable nights in our fluorescent campus library indulging in Chinese politics. But I was yearning for something a little less book-ish and a little more human. I invited me to my research lab for a conversation.
Things kicked off on a trip to Taiwan, in 2018. It was within the academic space of — a conference–, that he began to think deeply about Asianism and representation.
Feeling Familiar in a Foreign Place
At the end of the conference, the host delegation showcased the culture and heritage of the Gāoshān people, an indigenous group comprising of approximately 530,000, or 2% of the population in the island. This is one of the 15 officially recognized tribes in Taiwan, who are dated to have lived on the island for as far as 15,000 years, and have, throughout history, overcome colonization by the Spanish, Dutch, Ming and Qing Dynasties of China, and, most recently, the Japanese.
In China, the term “ethnic minority” is explicitly reserved for the non-Han people, which some sources estimate amounts to 8.6%, as opposed to the Han who are believed to represent 90% of the Chinese population. Besides the Han, China recognizes 55 ethnic minorities, including, of course, the Uighurs and Tibetans, who are believed to have resisted the Han culture of assimilation.
On the following day, he boarded a train from Taipei on the very north, to Tainan on the South-West coast. With the reflections of the previous day still in mind, he began noticing how eerily similar the train experience compared to the Japanese Shinkansen. Everyone proceeded to their seats in an orderly fashion, train staff with well-ironed uniforms and soft-spoken announcements to soothe the passenger’s ears. “Wait, I live in Japan, and I’m a Chinese citizen, I know what’s going on here”, he thought.
“There were Chinese people around me, they were speaking Mandarin, and yet I felt like I was getting a Japanese service.” I confess, I don’t quite understand what he means by this at first. Is he referring to some sort of corporeal dissonance? Is this one of those Fanonian moments, you know the “Black Skins, White Masks” Chapter 5 kind of moments, the “Look, a negro!” kind of moment… there was clearly some dissociation at play, he continued:
“Because we grew up being told that Taiwan was a part of China, it’s natural that I would expect more similarities than differences. That same day, my friend took me to a night market in Tainan, the name is Huāyuán Yè Shì. It felt just like, you know, a Japanese matsuri (festival), but at the same time, they had foods I remember eating as a kid in Shanghai, and games from my childhood, and comic books I grew up reading. It just didn’t feel foreign.”
I decide to spend some time exploring this experience. I was curious to understand how one reconciles the memory of being in a different place one expects to feel familiar, only to be confronted with unanticipated differences, and then end up with the feeling that this place may as well be an alternative, kind of like what things could look like in a parallel universe.
“Maybe Taiwan is the solution, the model. It manages to reconcile past and present, and in these moments I wonder, what if China was Taiwan, and Taiwan was China? What if the Guomindang (Chinese National Party) won the war, and took over the mainland, as opposed to retreating to Taiwan? I sit around and think of this alternative, in a silly sci-fi kind of way!”
“Under Construction”: The Impossible Impermanence of Shanghai
Bu it isn’t. In ways more than one, China and Taiwan stand separated by more than an ocean. Yet I’m curious, and I ask him, what is China like after all?
“First of all, so chaotic”, he begins to describe the complex undertaking of boarding a train in busy Shanghai, “you have to understand, Shanghai is a central city, economically, culturally, and in many other aspects. If you look at the geography of it, you’ll see the Yangtze river runs right by it, combined with the Chinese policy of development, a type of development that prioritizes the harbour cities, and once those are established, aims to develop inland. All the transport systems lead to Shanghai — and other coastal cities — , so you have many people coming in and out from the countryside, everyday.”
“People have to leave their community so that the city can develop.”
At this point, we pause to discuss, imagine and compare cartographic images of China, Taiwan, and Mozambique. “Transport networks means economics”, and I become curious about this intersection between movement, economics, and the convergence of people in Shanghai.
Indeed, it is clear that the concentration of transport networks in the coastal cities gives people little option other than to migrate to the coast, as a prerequisite to mobility. In Shanghai alone, China’s most populous city, I identity two main migration routes: 1) those coming from the outside of the urban centres, which represent, as of the 2010 census, 10% of the Shanghai demographic, and of these 10%, 80% coming from rural areas; 2) the remaining inhabitants, divided in long-term migrants and those born in the city, who use public transport in their daily affairs. Because of this quasi-symbiotic affair between country and urban peoples, there is a conflict that arises from encountering different cultures, ways of being, and hygiene habits in Shanghainese life. For example, you might come across people in your train who haven’t washed their hands in the past 2 hours. Not because they have no regard for hygiene, but because their labour (i.e. farming) makes it redundant to wash their hands often, since their hands are always bound to get dirty in the field. These farmers, they are not of the city, they are simply passing through — because that is the available migratory route. Should they be expected to assimilate into a different behavior pattern simply because they are exercising mobility?
Taiwan’s geography is advantageous. A circular migration route allows people to move from one point to the other around the island, but not truly across unless by buses and more localized means of transport. Because people aren’t all being directed to a central place, so to speak, the chance of such confrontations of different habits are significantly less frequent than those felt in Shanghai. Maybe ethnic groups feel as if they have more “space” to exist in, and flourish in their cultures without having to assimilate.
The case of Mozambique is also interesting. The project of independence, which began in the late 50s as a decolonization discourse, saw the unification of the country as a key aspect of anti-colonial struggle. Because securing, and liberating different regions was a key strategy of the entire mechanics of the armed struggle, there was an early preoccupation in encouraging mobility from the liberated zones to the rest of the country, so as to mobilize and create a unified front. I often tell everyone, that it is very unusual to meet a 20-something Mozambican whose parents are born in the same city, because mobility and migration became such a essential post-colonial project. Its railway map of course leaves much to desire, since, in practice, roads are often target battlegrounds for militias and re-ocurring armed conflicts, but while it is clear that, like China, our government has invested in the development of the coastal cities, there is, at least, an indication of recognizing that mobility should be extended to the places further inland.
This entire cartographic detour leads us what he shares with me next, almost woefully, that “people have to leave their community so that the city can develop. Shanghai is going through drastic change in a very short period of time. It’s always under construction, and it’s losing its authenticity. Development comes at the cost of local cultures, local stories. This is why Taiwan felt like a solution to what we’re facing in my hometown. They managed to keep the old, while also having the new.”
Revisiting History: The Opium Wars and its Effects on China’s Political Culture
I probe further, what does that mean? What is the “old” that you are referring to? Do you mean ancient China? Do you mean 70s China? Communist, Cold War-Deng Xiaoping-China?
He wants to talk about the Opium Wars. I admit, I don’t know much, apart from a few sentiments shared by a tour guide in Hong Kong, while we overlooked the harbour upon which tons and tons of opium arrived in British ships. There were two wars, and they greatly destabilized China, undermined its role in global politics, and caused a humiliation so severe it is still felt in this day, ever so far as becoming a central element in Chinese self-identity.
“In Europe, modernization happened through industrialization: workers were replaced by machines, which explains the increased production of goods. Up until that time, China had been a largely self-sufficient, self-reliant, feudal society. China was big on agriculture, and the West depended on China for certain goods like tea, silk, porcelain.” I’m following, “but then the European countries started producing more than what China was importing. We didn’t need those produced goods. But Europe was losing out, because they were importing our goods more than we were importing theirs. This created an imbalance within the trade.”
I’m transported back to the North Point, a bay in Hong Kong island, where the mechanics of the opium trade took he centre stage. On this tour, the Hong Kong guide explained how the British purposefully introduced opium in Hong Kong against Chinese laws, in order to retain, and exponentially increase their profits after realizing that China simply didn’t see the need to keep importing British goods. The Opium War, he explained, claimed the lives of an entire generation of Hong Kongers. It was destructive, unjust, and cruel.
“In Guangzhou too”, my friend adds, “Opium was illegally introduced through India, and sold to smugglers in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and took over much of the Chinese bay area.”
By the 1840s, a full blown war had erupted, with British troops on Chinese land, demanding that the Qing government pay reparations and retributions after having ceased significant quantities of illegally traded opium in China. (absurd, much?) The end came with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, which included the capture of Hong Kong by the British administration, therefore its subsequent from China. For China, losing Hong Kong to the British at the cost of peace after the first Opium War was a painful sacrifice. Further on the list, the Qing government was indeed made to pay reparations to the British government, as well as 12 million dollars in war reparations to the Queen’s nation. Other concessions also included the unavoidable opening of new trade ports to the West.
The Dialectics of Democracy: Can it be Non-Western?
Now that we’ve completed the necessary task of revisiting history, we can begin to imagine a future, and deconstruct the present. I ask him, do you feel as if the world thinks of China in a particular way? You know, if we think of the U.S., I propose, I feel as if people are able to look at several aspects of the country: there’s the democrats, and they believe in x, an the republicans who believe in y. Generally speaking, I feel like we understand that different times may mean different things for that country. But when it comes to China, I continue, I feel as if we’re stuck in this extremely one-dimensional view of understanding Chinese affairs.
He recalls his year abroad as a student in the United States:
“I felt pitied on. I felt pitied on for being Chinese, like, they’d look at me and feel bad that because I “didn’t have democracy”(…) as if the kind of freedom they had, It could only be achieved [there].”
We have an insightful exchange about ideologies, values, and alternative forms of political organization. I remember thinking about comparative theories of democracy in my final year as an undergraduate student, reading a paper about early political systems among the Nuer people, who are concentrated in South Sudan. Democracy isn’t necessarily western, but we find it difficult to dissociate the political regime with the connoted values of freedom and personal liberties which, granted, seem to be a priority in democratic regimes — at least on paper. In practice, we know that there are minority groups who are suffering greater lengths of oppression in the world’s most “democratic” countries, as compared to the daily affairs and personal lives of those living under authoritarian regimes. Unfortunately, these things don’t seem to factor in our common discourse around values. We desire the concept of freedom, and we’be been made to believe that freedom can only be achieved in a democratic regime, but not just any democratic regime; the American style, the epicenter of democracy. In fact some historians argue that this is the core of Americanism, a belief that steered much of America’s foreign policy during the Cold War era.
We get it. It’s easy to think this way, because American politics is predictable. Partisan politics plays an important part here. The Senate, composed by 100 members, has only 2 delegates identifying as “Independent”, who caucus together with the Democrats (47 Delegates). In the House of Representatives, the majority (238) identify as Republicans, followed by 201 Democrats, and 5 vacant seats. In the entire history of American Presidents, very few, if not none, have been nonpartisan. People want a leader in whom they can trust, and whose positions are consistent with what their party represents.
In China, the concern is that sometimes, a policy regarding a particular issue does not presuppose a similar policy concerning a different but parallel political problem. As it is in Mozambique, the political culture is simply different. In Mozambique, we haven’t yet experienced having the opposition or alternative parties in governance, so the liberation movement remains in power. This means that our current government acts as a quasi-omnipotent father figure to the people, a father whose decisions you have little influence over, but in whom you must nonetheless deposit your trust and hope that they keep your interests at heart.
“China is like a strict father, who wants his family to succeed and regain its dignity.”
I understand what he means in his metaphor. A father figure, the eternal paternalism in political discourse and understanding that has dominated international relations theory and affairs. This is when I have an epiphany of my own, that re-imagining China begins here.
What Constructivism and Feminism Tell us About China
- Step One: Reconsider How You Think
Up until, and throughout the Cold War era, rationalism was the preferred theory in interpreting and explaining historical facts. It can be broadly described as the idea that states are sovereign entities, and since sovereignty is bound to be violated by other states, war and conflict are inevitable. It proposes that the root of power politics lies in the lack of a central authority, an inherently anarchical state of being.
An alternative theory is constructivism the idea that states are not merely reacting to provocations and defending their territories, but that foreign policy is influenced by the people that make up that state. The leaders, the voters, the public and private sectors, all of these state actors represent identities, interests, norms and ideas that are contested, and eventually crystallized into a moral attitude that governs state action, and interaction with other international actors. History is neither linear nor deterministic, but is instead shaped by changing socially constructed ideas.
- Step Two: Listen to What China Tells You About Herself
A constructivist approach allows us to ask questions such as, “How does China identify itself?” and “How does it see its future?”
Yaqing Qin is a Politician and expert in Chinese Foreign Affairs. Among his academic contributions on international relations theory (IRT), he proposes that in order to fully grasp the motivations behind China’s political patterns, it is necessary to look at IRT from an explicitly Chinese point of view, this is, using Chinese political and philosophical texts as the backdrop of interpreting political events.
In his 2012 paper, “Culture and global thought: Chinese international theory in the making.”, he notes that IRT became a topic of fascination for Chinese scholars in the late 1980s, during the Cold War. There was a rush to translate western classics, and “catch up” with all sorts of theories so as to decode the nature of events taking place at that time. However, Chinese scholars soon realized that the western mode of thinking and experiencing power struggles didn’t always apply to non-western situations, notably the political history of China, which dates back to as far as 5,000 of indigenous, extremely particular, forms of political organization.
Qin explores evidence-based approaches to IRT according to Chinese concepts, of which the nature of relationships is worth a mention. If we agree that states are made of people, then international relations is a network of relationships between various actors. Qin brings up the Yin Jing (The Book of Change), which explores the concept of the yin-yang relationship. In Chinese dialectics, he continues, the Zhongyong (the Middle Course, or the Mutually Inclusive Way), is what solidifies Qin’s own theory of relationality. Unlike Hegelian dialectics, a key component of rationalist theory, the Zhongyong argues that relationships between two poles aren’t necessarily conflictual, and can eventually evolve into harmony. This emphasizes the connectivity, and one-ness of things –of political states. The time it takes for this harmony to come into existence is precisely the middle course, and there should be no rush or will to avoid it, as it is a necessary part of relationship building. Can this help us understand the ambiguous nature of the relationship between China and Taiwan? Or Hong Kong?
When it comes to self-identification, a process that may at time appear subsconscious, but that is in fact at the heart of political elites’ agenda,
Chih-yu Shih, a Taipei-born Political Scientist defines states’ self-identity in two categories: role and ego states. Role states characterize countries whose identity relies on how other states and institutions perceive them, whereas ego states aim to strengthen their sense of identity, often at the cost of their international standing and reputation. While role states are quicker to adhere and conform to international norms, and thus end up reproducing existing international systems, even if they undermine them, ego states on the other hand often exclude themselves from international relations, since they tend to prioritize internal, domestic affairs. In strengthening their sense of identity, they may act to dominate other groups.
This does’t justify acts by the government against minority groups, but perhaps it sheds some light into the importance of the concept of Chinese-ness, and the extent to which the political elite is willing to go to safeguard, protect and, to a certain extent, promote their collective sense of self, something that was affected in the recent brutal past.
- Step Three: A Much Needed Feminist Approach
The “strict father” metaphor is much too common; in fact, the whole political discourse is patriarchal at its core.
In the fourth Chapter of her book, “The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses“, Nigerian scholar Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí writes that colonization is a process of “taking away of the manhood of the colonized“. She goes on to write that yes, even colonization as a process is, at core, a gendered one. It’s evident in the writings of many decolonial thinkers, that they fall into the trap of only narrating the male experience. Very rarely do we hear stories of how colonization and oppression was felt in female bodies.
When we speak of states, or of China in this case, we speak of a man who has been beaten down, weakened, humiliated, mocked. The image of a man having his power and dignity taken way immediately awakes within us a need for vindication,
A feeling that if left unchecked results in the assumption that violence is not only inevitable, but the only way of achieving justice. No wonder modern politics is obsessed with nuclear launches and twitter threats.
If we re-imagine China as a female, then we are forced to re-evaluate how we feel about its history. Is this female similarly beaten, weakened, humiliated and mocked? Is her response to become a strict disciplinarian?
My vision of China as a “her”is a leader who values strategic thinking, but understands the nuances of the human experience. She moves slowly but decisively, and is not bound by the expectations of parenthood, and so does not treat her constituents as children. At the same time, someone who values perseverance, and knows that patience is a virtue.
At the end of the day, China understands that not all battles are worth fighting, and some comments are best left unspoken. This greatly upsets our loud, offensive and male-charged political system, so at the end of the day, I’m relieved that China is simply, and irrevocably, China.
Feature image, courtesy of SupChina