Emerging from history's humiliation

China's contemporary rise from insular poverty to emerging superpower has been meteoric.
Before China's relatively recent economic and political resurgence, Chinese historians and ideologues believe, the country endured '100 years of humiliation' at the hands of Western powers and Japan, from the mid-19th century onward. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)
China's contemporary rise from insular poverty to emerging superpower has been meteoric.

In the late 1970s, when senior leader Deng Xiaoping famously proclaimed, "to be rich is glorious," much of the country was poor, ravaged by recent history. Illiteracy was rampant, and few had access to television, radio, books or ideas beyond the thoughts of the late Mao Zedong.

Today, it's safe to say Deng's aphorism is taken to heart by China's 1.3 billion people. Getting rich is all the rage. Chinese goods flood world markets. Students from around the globe study at universities in Beijing and Shanghai. China has arrived.

So has national pride. 

The Chinese people are proud of their country's resurgence, and they cheer on its athletes and business executives alike.

Yet many in this vast land worry that the world doesn't respect them as it should.

"A particularly important element in the formation of China's modern identity has been the legacy of the country's 'humiliation' at the hands of foreigners," writes journalist and East Asia scholar Orville Schell in the New York Review of Books.

'100 years of humiliation'

In Chinese schools, students learn about "100 years of humiliation" by Western powers, from the virtual takeover of Chinese trade by European countries and the U.S. in the 1800s to Japan's brutal invasion of the country before and during the Second World War.

The late Chinese Communist Party Leader Mao Zedong led China from 1949 to his death in 1976. ((Associated Press))
For Canadians, this is ancient history, but Chinese civilization is thousands of years old, and recent centuries seem like yesterday, says Jan Wong, a former Beijing correspondent for the Globe and Mail.

"In Canada, our history is so short," Wong says. "We've never been really invaded or occupied.  We don't know what it's like to lose control of our borders.  We just don't get it."

After the Communist takeover in Beijing in 1949, the West recognized Taiwan's government as the legitimate representative of China. That, combined with Mao Zedong's zealous drive to mould a revolutionary society out of centuries of feudalism, helped isolate Asia's largest country for generations.

Those memories still smoulder in China and help explain why Western concerns about Tibet, human rights and even pollution in Beijing often raise hackles.

Pro-Tibet protests during the Olympic torch relay to Beijing were to many Chinese yet more foreign interference in their country's internal affairs, just like the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century.

Hosting the Olympics was a dream of China's elite for more than a century, according to sports historian Xu Guoqi of Kalamazoo College in Michigan, a chance to show the world that the country mattered.

'Sick man of Asia' no more

"It would mean that China could finally put the 19th-century label 'sick man of Asia' behind it, " Xu told, "and demonstrate that it must be treated as a major international power."

The Chinese charcters forming the word 'weiji,' which means crisis or, literally, 'danger-opportunity.'
Xu reaches into the subtle and nuanced world of Chinese calligraphy to explain how the Olympics are viewed across his country.

The games, he says, are a weiji, a word formed from two Chinese characters — wei for danger, ji for opportunity. Literally, weiji means crisis, but it also takes its definition from its two root words.

"There are dangers [in hosting the Games]," Xu says, "There's pollution, traffic, the threat of terrorism and the possibility of mismanagement. But there's also great opportunity for China to shine. That's weiji."

Westerners often misunderstand the subtleties and nuances of China, says Daniel Bell, a Canadian who teaches philosophy at Beijing's Tsinghua University, mistaking Chinese nationalism for blind obedience to authority.

'There are dangers ... but also great opportunity for China to shine.'—Xu Guiqi, Chinese sports historian

"People here are aware of the problems their country faces, now and in the coming years," says Bell, author of China's New Confucianism, Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society, "They are very self-critical, and many see the Olympics as a chance to show the world a friendly face, confident, not bullied by foreign powers, but not chauvinistically nationalist either."

Tone down nationalism: authorities

Some China experts are pessimistic though. Charles Burton of Brock University in St. Catherines, Ont., says hosting the Olympics could in the long term make China more dangerously nationalistic.

"It could embolden [China] to try to reassert what's seen as its natural role in international affairs, the role it occupied over 1,000 years when it was militarily and politically dominant in the world," Burton says.

For months, the Chinese authorities have told local sports fans to tone down nationalism in the stands at the Olympics, to behave with decorum and respect, even toward nationals of countries that have antagonized them in the past.

How the world reacts to China before, during and after the Games will be just as crucial as the outcome of the Games, according to some experts.

Xu Guoqi of Kalamazoo College says Chinese people will be watching media coverage and comments from foreign governments closely, and what's perceived as anti-China sentiment could have lasting effects on how the country relates to the rest of the world.

Yiyi Lu of Britain's Royal Institute for International Affairs agrees.

'There is potential for a nasty backlash.'—Yiyi Lu, Royal Institute of International Affairs

"As globalization and China's development bring more people into contact with the West," he wrote in Britain's Guardian newspaper, "there is the potential for a nasty backlash. Managing the expectations of the Chinese people is therefore an important task ... if they don't want to see anti-Western feelings grow."

There's evidence that Chinese intellectuals share these concerns. A recent commentary in the Beijing magazine Nan Feng Chuang warns that rising tides of chauvinism can only harm the country.

"To constrain and tame nationalism, to neutralize and confine it to reasonable proportions, we need to safeguard complete openness towards the outside world. This is the best and only way to prevent nationalism from spinning out of control," says the essay.

China rising... and rising

About one thing there is no dispute: the economic and political resurgence of China will continue and intensify. Chinese investors are active in markets everywhere; rising Chinese demand for food, oil, minerals and consumer goods has driven up prices — and often incomes —around the world. Beijing is a key global player at the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and other international organizations.

China matters, and managing relations between Beijing and the rest of the world has never been more important and more demanding of subtlety or insight.

According to Jan Wong, whose latest book is Beijing Confidential: A Tale of Comrades Lost and Found, economics, culture and communications are changing the nature of how the Chinese relate to the world, and this is a good thing.

"There is so much going on right now. There's business, tourism, student exchanges, a huge degree of cultural cross-fertilization," says Wong.

"Everything is moving so fast in China."