The “Century of Humiliation” describes a period in Chinese history from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, when China was diplomatically and militarily dominated by Western colonial powers. Ending at the close of the Chinese Civil War and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the period remains a major component of “modern China’s founding narrative.”
Under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s overriding national goal is setting to right the injustice of the century of humiliation by achieving “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Since he entered office, authoritarian President Xi Jinping has widely promoted the “Chinese Dream” of achieving rejuvenation. Called fuxing in Chinese, this rejuvenation is an end state in which China has overcome the humiliating handicaps of colonial history and become strong and powerful enough to prevent its recurrence.
China’s first century of humiliation was forced upon it by colonial powers. Now, China is at the beginning of a second century of humiliation, albeit of a much different kind. This time, Xi and the CCP will bear responsibility. Xi’s China is a norms-busting, human rights-violating bully and thief among the community of nations. A poor nation that behaves as China does would be shunned, but China has become rich. China’s newfound wealth has bought a place at the height of global power, but the conduct of Xi and the CCP will ultimately bring China a new century of shame.
A great irony of China today is that in seeking to overcome the injustices of history, the CCP is turning China into the 21st century’s great antagonist. The first years of Xi’s leadership have put to rest a lively debate about how China will conduct itself in the modern world. Those who argued that engagement and acceptance would induce China to become a contributing member of the rules-based global order have admitted defeat.
Xi is set to rule for life, should he wish to do so, and has recommitted China to hard-core Leninism, reasserting the control of the vanguard party over every aspect of life. Occasionally, Xi’s CCP experiments with neo-Maoist myth-building exercises, usually around significant political events. For example, following the March session of the puppet National People’s Congress that allowed Xi to rule for life, China’s state media granted him the title “helmsman of the nation,” an allusion to Mao Zedong’s “great helmsman.”
In terms of sheer numbers, Xi is the most accomplished human rights violator alive today. Xi’s CCP governs 18 percent of humankind, depriving them of freedom of speech, political rights, religious freedom, independent media and open internet access — all of which should be fundamental components of modern society. Political indoctrination is being reinserted into Chinese curricula, and an Orwellian “social credit” system is being developed to more closely control individuals’ every behavior.
Additionally, the CCP continues its efforts to wipe out the ethnic heritage of Tibetans and Uighurs, with recent reports confirming the existence of massive internment camps in Xinjiang province.
As he turns his homeland into a dystopia, Xi is also playing the villain globally. This is seen most clearly in a series of huge lies Xi has attempted to sell the world — lies that have global consequences. These lies, and the conduct they seek to cover, will also bring shame to Xi’s leadership.
In 2015, Xi stood beside U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House’s Rose Garden and pledged that “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of the South China Sea. By this time China’s construction of artificial islands throughout the disputed territory was already well underway. Though the military implications of these facilities were always obvious, it has become increasingly clear that Xi’s Rose Garden promise was a bald-faced lie.
At the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that “despite China’s claims to the contrary” the placement of weapons systems on artificial islands in the South China Sea “is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion.” China has emerged as a modern maritime power under Xi, but instead of using this power responsibly, he has instead applied it to push around China’s smaller neighbors.
Xi has also lied to the world about China’s economic engagement and trade policies. At the World Economic Forum in January 2017, he delivered a speech that made headlines across the globe, portraying China as the world’s new champion of globalization and open markets. Casting the United States as a protectionist and isolationist force in global trade, Xi alleged that “China must have the courage to swim in the vast ocean of the global market. … China took a brave step to embrace the global market.”
Our national debate over trade notwithstanding, the argument that China will become the world’s leading force for economic globalization is preposterous on its face. Xi presides over closed and protected markets, has instead injected greater party control into even private business, and shamelessly promotes plans for tech dominance through protectionism, forced technology transfer and outright theft. The CCP uses China’s massive consumer market to intimidate private industry in furtherance of its political goals, such as when individual companies are targeted for simply recognizing the reality that Taiwan exists as a distinct political entity. Xi intends not to lead the global economic order, but to leech its benefits while avoiding its obligations.
Xi has sought to portray China as a positive influence and democratizing force on the world stage, when in reality his signature foreign policy initiatives rely on the predation and abuse of less powerful countries, and seek to undermine global democracy. At the 19th CCP Congress in November 2017, Xi said that “China stands for democracy in international relations and the equality of all countries, big or small.”
Yet in the very same speech, Xi promoted China’s authoritarian system as a “new model” for the developing “nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” The implication is that in exchange for their loyalty, China will help the world’s petty strongmen attain the benefits of economic growth, without the need to democratize.
Xi regularly promotes the “Belt and Road” initiative, a massive westward infrastructure program, as a “win-win” undertaking that will fill infrastructure gaps in less-developed countries for mutual profit. But major components of the Belt and Road have proven to be debt traps that endanger participants’ sovereignty and increase China’s political influence, while benefiting corrupt officials and bringing few opportunities to the average citizen. In some places, like Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Pakistan, it’s also apparent that the Belt and Road is a cover for military expansion.
Xi’s leadership seeks to advance China’s interests not within the prevailing global order, but at its expense. For now, it is working. China has no peer competitors along its immediate periphery to be concerned about, and plenty of cash to advance its interests in other parts of the world. But in making himself into an emperor, Xi has ensured that the world will come to realize he has no clothes. Xi’s totalitarianism inside China is severe, and China’s international conduct is drastically out of step with global norms.
Eventually, and probably quite soon, the world will refuse to accept it any longer. Xi’s egregious conduct will alienate China from the rest of the world, and the story of China in the 21st century will be one of humiliation.
BY TED S. YOHO