Uniquely unique, with reason

by Merriden Varrall

WITH CHINA’S RISE, understanding what the country’s political elite thinks is no longer a matter that concerns just China or China scholars. Chinese students at the China Foreign Affairs University form a key talent pool for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Their attitudes, ideas and convictions will likely have an impact on the behaviour of Chinese foreign affairs diplomats. Teaching at CFAU from 2009–10, I gained insights into how students at the university are taught, not only through the subjects they study but also through the way their everyday lives are organised, to identify as ‘citizens of the Chinese nation’, to quote one of the students.

The students I came into contact with shared a strong conviction that Chinese culture is ‘uniquely unique’, that being Chinese is immutable and that this ‘Chineseness’ fundamentally underpins China’s international behaviour.

I noted three particularly powerful themes central to their notions of how Chinese identity shaped China’s role in the world. First, my students believed without question that China would resume its role as the great country it had been before its natural path was disrupted by the Opium Wars and a ‘century of humiliation’ starting in 1840. The second deeply held belief was that Chinese people and the Chinese nation-state are part of the same family, rather than existing in opposition, as my students understood was the case in the West. They felt that the relationship between the people and the Chinese state shaped China’s views of non-interference and broader ideals of social harmony in the international arena. The third theme was obligation and moral responsibility: who was obliged to whom and under what circumstances. This was based on an understanding that social relations in China are not linear as in the West, but built on concentric circles. Together, these themes suggested a narrative around how China should fulfil its role as a responsible stakeholder on the world stage.

Unlike most major Chinese universities, the CFAU is managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), not the Ministry of Education. Until a few decades ago, only students from CFAU could become foreign diplomats. During my first semester I taught a class on culture and context in foreign policy and, in the second semester, a class on assistance and development. My classes were based on student presentations of reading material, followed by guided discussion. I taught six classes of twenty to thirty third- and fourth-year students across three majors: international law; international economics and trade; diplomacy; and one special class of external students who had obtained a degree elsewhere.

I met Buddy (his name, like the names of all the students I mention, is a pseudonym reflecting his self-selected English name) when he was a junior student. Buddy had come to Beijing from his hometown in south-east China to study diplomacy, as he wanted a career in the Chinese foreign service. He seemed just the right type of young man likely to be among the few graduates selected for the ministry. He was focused, diligent, hardworking and had firm career goals. He pursued every opportunity to extend himself in fields related to working with foreigners or learning about foreign relations, both for his own satisfaction as much as for his résumé.

Buddy was committed to Chinese tradition, particularly Confucianism. He was very clear that in his view Confucianism underpinned contemporary Chinese life as well as China’s behaviour in the international sphere. Buddy was also a big fan of Chinese traditional medicine, particularly acupuncture. He dreamt of one day travelling the world with his mother, an acupuncturist, to treat great sports stars whose ailments might be anything from a sprained ankle to cancer. He was the lead guitarist and singer in a rock band, which had done well in several big competitions, and he enjoyed listening to live bands with his friends and girlfriend. He was also a keen basketball player. He was in essence a good example of the modern young Chinese man.

Some of my other students told me that, like Buddy, they had ‘a burning goal’ to join the foreign ministry when they applied for university. However, Buddy worked harder, both in class and in extracurricular activities. He was regularly involved in meeting and hosting visiting foreign dignitaries, including African diplomats and American university professors. In his final (fourth) year at university, Buddy sat the extremely competitive public service entrance exam. He was not offered a position in the ministry. He did get a job, though, in an affiliated organisation dedicated to people-to-people diplomacy. After several weeks of compulsory military training, Buddy began work arranging and hosting forums and visits by foreign dignitaries.

OTHER STUDENTS WERE not so fortunate. Buddy’s classmate Blue, a bright pupil at the top of the class with a reputation for earnestness, diligence and a conservative stance, did not pass the public service examination despite two attempts. Blue was always quietly confident in his own abilities and that his views were ultimately correct. Blue firmly believed that Chinese foreign policy, like the rest of contemporary Chinese culture, was built on Confucianism, although a version of Confucianism that had ‘adjusted to fit the modern era’. He, like most of his classmates, presumed he would be a natural candidate for the MFA. However, it seemed that Blue’s academic abilities and conservative beliefs were not considered appropriate for the diplomatic corps. Blue went on to take a job helping Chinese students with their applications for overseas universities.

I also taught several students like Cello, a young woman in the international economics major, who said from the outset that she had no desire to work for the government. She wanted to travel the world and write newspaper columns and magazine articles. Cello was a hard-working, analytical, curious student, who stood out from her peers for her unconventional and sometimes controversial comments in class, such as her criticism of the Chinese government’s role in censoring the media. She asked me questions in breaks and after class, saying she felt she could get into trouble if she asked in front of her classmates. She often asked for advice on what to read on topics such as political philosophy. She felt that she couldn’t ask for that information from her classmates or other teachers.

Cello considered herself as ‘rather unsatisfied’ with university life at the CFAU, saying it was ‘so small and so political’, the atmosphere ‘not very open’ and somewhat ‘pure and conservative and not very tolerant’. A number of students like Cello said they wished life at CFAU was ‘more lively, like at Peking University, where students participated in all kinds of different activities’. It was Cello who pointed out what I was starting to observe myself, that students at CFAU were expected to be citizens of the nation first, above all else.

Like Cello, Primo was intelligent, insightful and analytical, and had no desire to work for government. From a small village in Heilongjiang province, next to the river that delineates the border between China and Russia, Primo was enrolled in the international law major. When he first came into the classroom at the start of the semester, he reacted with considerable shock at how I had moved the chairs and desks from their usual straight rows into a circle. He asked, hesitantly, whether we were going to do this every week and seemed disappointed when I said yes. He cheered up later, however, saying he was happy as long as they would not have to ‘recite socialist theory’, or indeed ‘recite anything at all’. Primo had originally chosen ‘Stanley’ as his English name, but subsequently decided it was too old fashioned and changed it to something ‘more simple and modern’.

At the same time as wanting to project himself as modern, Primo, like almost all my students, was certain that Chinese culture was too ancient and too deeply ingrained for any Chinese person to ever become fully Westernised. Primo also felt that ‘Western-style democracy’ would not be suitable for China in the current period, or for a long time to come, and that a model of ‘Confucian government by gentlemen’ would be more appropriate.

There were other students whose primary concerns were simply about graduating and getting a good, comfortable job so they could get married, have a child (or two) and live in financial security and comfort. This sometimes translated to wanting a job in government, but based on lifelong job security rather than a ‘burning goal’ to pursue a career in the ministry.

Ricky, for example, a Beijing local in the international economics major, said he had ‘few dreams’ apart from wanting to ‘live a happy life’ and had no particular career ambitions. Ricky was not unlike like a significant number of my students who had enrolled in CFAU for reasons other than a desire to forge a career in the MFA. These students’ views provided a foil to ambitious enthusiasts like Blue and Buddy, as well as to the views of the more cynical, like Cello and Primo.

SCHOOLS SOCIALISE STUDENTS – they are institutions well known for creating appropriate citizens. The CFAU taught not only the academic curriculum, but also organisational and life skills considered a requirement for students to be professional and competitive in the job market. In Chinese universities, however, students are selected on the basis of their already demonstrated ability to abide by social rules – otherwise they would not have been able to pass the series of stressful examinations that allow them to enrol. CFAU students are further immersed in appropriate behaviour and attitude for Chinese foreign affairs. The university does this not only through explicit training but also in the way it structures students’ use of time and space.

As a result of the ‘patriotic education campaign’ unremittingly promoted after the Tiananmen incident in 1989, my students were learning the appropriate ways of understanding narratives of time and Chinese history, suitable constructions of self and other, and the correct relationships between individuals and power. Frank Pieke writes in The Good Communist (Cambridge University Press, 2009) how cadre training at Party schools in China takes place in an ‘anti-structural’ environment, separated from normal life, to facilitate forgetting about ‘their position, rank and normal obligations and privileges of family and work’. In a similar way, living and studying at CFAU produced citizens who see it as for their own good to align themselves politically, morally and socially with the Chinese national identity and who, therefore, do so by their own will. In my students’ ‘realm of the undisputed’, placing primary loyalty with the Chinese nation-state was considered in their own best interests, so they did it without further thought.

My students understood that all states act on the basis of their own individual and immutable cultural characteristics. They believed in the unquestionable truth that China had been one of the world’s greatest nations until Western powers subjugated it. And they were in no doubt that China’s tradition as a peace-loving country would continue to provide the model for its behaviour in the future. They felt that because China had suffered at the hands of the West in the past, it would never interfere in the sovereignty of other countries now or in the future. They understood China’s commitment to principles of territorial integrity and national sovereignty as deriving from past experiences. It was indisputable, in their view, that China should, and would, resume its former, rightful position on the world stage.

The idea that in the past China had never acted in anything but a peaceful way on the world stage arose often in essays and class discussions. For example, in her mid-semester essay, Melanie wrote:

Historically, China has always had a focus on peace. In the prosperous Western Han dynasty, they followed pro-peace policies. During the Tang period, Princess Wencheng, not the army, was sent to Tibet. In the Ming dynasty empire, Zheng He’s fleets made seven ocean voyages, not bringing aggression but the gift of great power and dignity. The only exception to this peacefulness was the ruling Mongolian Yuan regime. The bloody killing and conquering shocked Europe, but history has proven that such a regime in China is bound to be short-lived – the Mongolian regime only survived for ninety-seven years before it was overthrown.

Like Melanie, many students used the story of fifteenth-century sailor Zheng He to illustrate how the Chinese people are, and have always been, harmonious and peace loving and have never instigated conflict. Most students understood that Zheng He only ever used his maritime power for diplomacy and trade, and never for invading territory. As another student explained:

As the most powerful country in the world at that time, China did not bring cannons or colonisation, but friendliness to Africa. Accordingly, they did not bring back gold or slaves but giraffe as a symbol of auspice. It is just the same today whenever there is a problem.

By drawing on the few historical stories available to them when discussing issues of international relations, students reinforced their own and their peers’ existing convictions that Chinese culture had always been and would therefore always be peace loving.

The trope of China’s glorious past was fundamental to students’ predictions of how it would behave in the international system in the future. Overall, the expectation was that China would resume its former position in the global order and ‘go back to where every country respects us’. As Charity explained:

Because China has always pursued an independent foreign policy of peace, China hopes that we can have a long-term peaceful co-existence with other countries. And we want to get a peaceful and stable international environment. Our country’s implementation of this policy is solemn, sincere and will not change in the long term, because it conforms to Chinese people’s fundamental beliefs. Peace-loving Chinese people abhor aggression very much and will never impose such suffering on others.

The students I taught were adamant that while China certainly wanted greater respect in international relations, China ‘did not want to become number one’, and in no way posed any sort of threat to the international system. Traditional Chinese culture explained how any Chinese shows of strength were no more than demonstrations of renewed dignity. When one student posed the hypothetical question of whether the recent increase in military expenditure may have been motivated by a desire for China to be a strong military power with genuine deterrent capabilities, her classmates at once argued that the issue at stake was actually one of ‘dignity and face saving’. Following the same line of argument, Charity wrote an essay about the US–India military exercise conducted just after the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in October 2009. The anniversary celebrations were an impressive demonstration of China’s wealth and power, and brought many Chinese people to tears of emotion. More than a hundred thousand people participated in the country’s largest ever military parade. Shortly afterwards, when India and the US began joint military exercises in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Charity argued that the purpose of this exercise was ‘very clear’, and ‘just a demonstration, a demonstration against China!’ However, Charity felt that this response was ‘really not necessary’ as:

China’s parade is just the Chinese government wanting to show their country as wealthy and strong to their people. China wants to tell their people that our country is better now, we are not that sick man of Asia anymore. China has made great progress, social progress, Chinese people can live a good life. We do not need to constantly fear others’ aggression, the days of the Nanjing Massacre will never return again!

China has absolutely no intention of demonstrating our power to the world, and we never want to become the world’s hegemon. The Chinese people came from a war, we have had so many terrible and horrible experiences during that war. So China will not bring ourselves into a war again, or put Chinese people into such difficult circumstances. China will not be aggressive or impose this kind of pain on other people around the world, because the Chinese people love peace and the Chinese government’s foreign policy of peace will never change!

Charity’s remarks demonstrate the extent to which students believe that traditional Chinese characteristics of peacefulness and harmony would continue to underpin its behaviour in the international system in the future.

As cultural characteristics were considered immutable, foreigners – whose nations had once carved up strategic Chinese ports to divide China among themselves guafen (like a melon) for their own gain – were viewed as greedy and aggressive as far as international relations were concerned. Therefore, Western powers could not help but continue to protect their own power by encircling and diminishing China – in whatever way possible. My students believed that Western powers, particularly the US, would continue to exhibit suspicion of China and counter its rise, regardless of what China said or did to contradict this fear. And, just as China’s inherent love of harmony and peace underpinned its behaviour and would continue to do so, so Japan would continue to be untrustworthy in the future. Students believed that the past behaviour of certain Western powers meant that China had to be constantly on its guard against future threats to it sovereignty.

In this worldview, any external criticisms of China could be interpreted simply as a continuation of inevitable Western bullying and humiliation.

MY STUDENTS UNDERSTOOD the state-society relationship in China as akin to guojia (country-family), in which faults were accepted and excused because that is what love of family means. They felt that the state was not an object external to themselves, but was rather like a father, sometimes strict, but always acting in the people’s best interests. Indeed, they told me that government officials are sometimes described as fumuguan, which loosely translates to parent-official.

As in a family, if the strict father makes a mistake or misjudgement, this is seen as based on the best intentions and not to be discussed or examined in any public arena. Students took any external criticism of China very personally, explaining their often emotional response in terms of being ‘offended’, or of experiencing hurt feelings. In one class, I allocated a chapter of Lin Yutang’s My Country and My People, written in 1935, for students to read. In the chapter, Lin strongly criticises the extension of what he calls ‘the family mind’ to the state. To see if my students would react any differently depending on whether they thought criticism was coming from ‘inside’ or ‘outside’, I gave the reading without revealing the author’s identity. Students’ responses clearly indicated how defensive they were towards outside criticism. They told me that ‘we were so angry when we read it’, but that ‘we changed our feeling when we realised it was written by a Chinese’. As one student, Dart, explained:

Quite a few of us felt offended because we thought it was written by a foreigner who didn’t know anything about China, and seemed only to see shortcomings. Now we know that it was written by Lin Yutang. If we knew it was a Chinese person, we would have had more of an attitude of self-checking, but not when we thought it was external criticism. Outsiders criticising us makes us feel defensive.

When I asked why exactly the same comments would cause anger if written by an outsider, the students explained that it was because China was like a family, in which it is all right to criticise your own parents or siblings, but you would always feel protective and defensive if someone else made the same point.

Sandy, a diplomacy major, wrote:

Chinese people tend to label everything into different groups, including themselves. The criteria for classification may vary from one to another, however all will end up with two groups, zijiren (ourselves), and wairen (outsiders). For those in the category of wairen, he can enjoy the utmost courtesy from the Chinese counterpart, yet he will always be carefully guarded against at the same time. Chinese people will only entrust zijiren with the deepest secrets.

At CFAU, the nation-state was held up as the ultimate social organisation, a conflation and extension of the concept of family. The guojia (nation-state) therefore warranted an extension of the primary obligations traditionally owed to family. Likewise, anything outside of the guojia unit did not warrant any automatic sense of obligation.

Social relations in China have undergone profound disjunctures over the past sixty years. However, the concept of the family as the central social unit and resource is still important. What has changed is the extent to which the nation-state is conceptualised as a natural extension of the family unit. For my students, being a ‘good Chinese’ meant extending one’s natural loyalty to family to one’s loyalty to China. As Fei Xiaotong noted in 1947 in From the Soil, the Foundations of Chinese Society, ‘the path (of obligation) runs from the self to the family, from the family to the state’.

Those external to these in-groups are waiguoren. Students tended to see other countries, particularly developed nations, as part of a greater ‘non-Chinese world’ in which all particularity was subsumed within the catch-all term waiguo (abroad). When considered at all, other countries were conceived of as peripheral entities, relevant only in terms of how they may or may not relate with China. Students felt strongly that China was doing its best to be a responsible global actor – for example, in its development co-operation – but that ‘responsibility’ meant different behaviours than expected in the West. They viewed Western criticism of China as not fulfilling its obligations as frustrating and unfair, but almost unsurprising given that, as they saw it, the West would always continue to try and keep China from regaining its historic place in the world system.

IN EXAMINING HOW and why CFAU students adhered so strongly to a national logic to understand the world, it is important to consider individual agency. How can we know whether my students genuinely held these views or whether they simply expressed them because they thought they were expected to do so? For the most part, my students closely aligned themselves with official, state-sanctioned narratives. It is possible they were simply lying to me as the outsider, a foreign teacher, and on occasion to their own classmates. But a critical element of my students’ training as diplomats at CFAU was the internalisation of the belief that their own best interests were aligned with promoting the best interests of the Chinese state.

When the state is understood not as a power to be resisted, but as society (following Frank Pieke), as it was among my students, strong incentives exist to consent to and operate within power rather than struggle against it. Students believed that success could not come from resistance or struggle against the system. Connection and participation provided the most benefits. For students, doing and saying what was expected of them was at the foundation of their identity. In their social imaginary, not conforming would not yield positive results. Because benefits derived from maintaining social order, students consented to consent. For my students, genuinely believing was both a personal and professional imperative. They had strong incentives to conform to official versions of truth and, as a result of the conflation of their interests with the state’s, were willing participants in the production of their own conformity.

What students told me in class, and in front of their classmates, was not simply a matter of professing whatever opinions they thought would gain respect or good grades. I believe my students adopted an approach of ‘self-directed self-control’ as the most effective means for achieving success and happiness. Students chose to align themselves with the prevailing discourses of the state for their own good.

The students in my study represent an extreme case of conformity with official narratives of the nation. This does not imply that other young Chinese people would necessarily display the same profile. However, given that my students were in training managed by the MFA to become official representatives of the Chinese state, the way they saw the international system has implications for any perspective that China’s rise will inevitably lead to a clash with existing powers.

Commentators like John Mearsheimer argue that, based on the unchangeable exigencies of the international system, China simply cannot rise peacefully. Mearsheimer and other structural realists, whose views form the intellectual core of many nation-states’ foreign policy approach, assert that as China becomes more powerful, the country will inevitably want to dominate the world system. In 2010 he wrote: ‘You can rest assured that as the country gets more and more powerful, and its military more formidable in twenty or thirty years…you don’t think they won’t push when they’ve got muscle?’

In fact, my students’ understanding of China’s role in the world was very different to how mainstream Western discussions presume China’s rise will impact the current global order. The three themes I’ve illustrated underpin a clear view among future Chinese elites of what the world looks like and what China’s role in it should be.

These students believed that China would inevitably recover its ‘rightful position’ as a dignified actor in the world system. They felt that China had no interest in challenging existing powers in order to become sole superpower, or even sharing global leadership in a ‘G2’ with the US. China had no interest at all, in their view, in accumulating relative power gains at the cost of other international actors. They felt that the world was evolving towards a multipolar system in which China would represent the voices of other developing states as the largest, and only, developing country at the table. Students felt that China would be, and was already being, a responsible player in this system.

As China would become more economically influential, my students believed the country would use this strength for the good of the world, particularly by representing and providing a voice for other developing nations in international forums. The students’ optimism about China’s resumption of its former status in a multipolar and peaceful world co-existed simultaneously with the strongly held sense that Western powers would inevitably harass and bully China and try to contain its growth.

It is my view that in order to understand how China fits into the world, we need to move away from the usual dichotomous question of whether China’s rise will constitute a material threat or opportunity for the international system. As others before me have recommended, we need to ask who China is and how it socialises itself into a particular view of itself and the world. China’s national identity needs to be foregrounded for a deeper understanding of its foreign policy motivations and behaviours.

Insights into the worldviews of future Chinese elites enable reassessment of currently influential understandings of China’s motives as ‘a rising power’. To respond constructively to the changing international situation, we need to be aware of the values underpinning China’s decisions and behaviour.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 49: New Asia Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.