China Doesn’t Have to Keep Playing the Victim
The Communist Party has primed the public to expect persecution abroad.
When the Chinese tech giant Huawei’s CFO, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1, Chinese authorities were taken by surprise. Initial indignation soon led to ominous warnings by China of “severe consequences” for Canada, which was swiftly followed up by the sudden arrests of two Canadians, followed by a third, in the country. As if that were not enough, there are also fears of anti-Canadian sentiment and boycotts of Canadian businesses from Chinese.
After Meng’s arrest for charges issued by the United States related to Iran sanctions violations, Chinese media denounced Canada, blasting her imprisonment as inhumane and a violation of human rights.
Ordinary Canadians might wonder how this whole situation has escalated to the point that China has now detained three Canadians and counting—and why the Chinese public appears to be so behind it. Meng’s arrest not only hits Chinese economic and technological power, but it also taps into a profound sense of aggrieved victimhood felt whenever Chinese experience difficulties overseas.
Bizarrely, the closest parallel might be a ludicrously trivial incident from earlier this year that nevertheless became a major diplomatic spat between Stockholm and Beijing.
After a Chinese family arrived at a Stockholm hostel at midnight on Sept. 2, far in advance of their reservation the following night, and caused a disturbance, they were ejected by police. China called on Sweden to apologize for what the Chinese ambassador to Sweden deemed “brutal treatment.” Video footage showed the family of three, two middle-aged parents and their adult son, rolling around and screaming on the sidewalk amid bemused Swedish policemen.
A Swedish TV show, Svenska Nyheter, then ran a parody of Chinese tourists, which China’s Foreign Ministry deemed “a gross insult to and vicious attack on China and the Chinese people.” Despite the show later apologizing twice, China was not satisfied. This prompted the show’s host to then apologize to offended Chinese citizens, but not the authorities.
The continuous criticism of the Swedish authorities and the TV show by Chinese authorities fueled a wave of online fury in China calling for boycotts against Swedish firms like Ikea and H&M, and even Sweden itself.
The behavior of the Chinese tourists might seem over the top, but it’s understandable from a Chinese context. Scams are common on the mainland, including Ponzi investment schemes, fake goods, and men who throw themselves in front of cars and then claim they were hit. That makes for a habitual paranoia that gets even worse abroad. If your countrymen are cheating you all the time, what are foreigners going to do to you?
The Chinese government deliberately reinforces that fear. The rhetoric of victimhood is deeply embedded into China’s official stances. This year has also seen China accuse the United States of bullying after America imposed tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods. The Australian government was criticized for having “ideological biases” against China. China also claimed that the feelings of all 1.3 billion Chinese were hurt when Mercedes Benz quoted the Dalai Lama on its Instagram account, the latest in a long list of instances where China has claimed the Chinese people’s feelings were hurt.
This sense of Chinese victimhood is often attributed to the “century of humiliation” that took place between the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century and the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Many Western scholars, writers and observers seem to accept this narrative and see it as a vital way to understand how China sees the world. Even with Meng Wanzhou, the Opium War has been cited as a possible factor in Chinese anger toward Canada over her entirely legal and transparent detention.
China’s government has become adept at exploiting and exaggerating the “century of humiliation” both to drum up support from Chinese citizens and to accuse foreign countries of taking advantage of China. It’s true that China suffered terribly during the 19th and 20th centuries. But so did much of the world. In other countries, the sour nationalism represented by these kind of victimhood narratives is more easily identified as the politicized tool it is. But many China analysts seem to give disproportionate weight to an idea of suffering that ended generations ago and that is kept alive by deliberate official propaganda, not genuine historical memory.
Take “hurting the Chinese people’s feelings,” a phrase originally coined by Chinese Communist Party government officials in 1959 and used persistently to describe actions that put the country in a bad light. Rather than addressing the criticism or action itself, the phrase casts the people, not the party or the state, as the wronged subject.
It might seem hypocritical for China to keep using this tactic. As the second-largest global economy and arguably Asia’s strongest country, China is hardly powerless anymore. Despite its past “humiliations” at the hands of the West, China has no qualms about victimizing or intimidating Asian nations. It has engaged in disputes with neighbors such as India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and South Korea, and it has occupied much of the South China Sea through militarizing islets. When it comes to its small neighbor, Taiwan, there’s no doubt who’s the bully. China blocks Taiwan from participating in even the most minor of international forums, buzzes its airspace, and claims its citizens as its own.
For the ruling Chinese Communist Party, this sense of victimhood provides numerous benefits. It shifts the blame onto foreigners, mainly the West, for many of China’s problems and focuses domestic anger and scrutiny away from the party. There is never a need to take responsibility and be accountable for your own actions if you can stoke historical grievances like the “century of humiliation.” The Opium War is far more vivid in the historical memory of young Chinese than the starvation of their own grandparents in the Great Leap Forward. The rhetoric of victimhood builds a sense of confrontation with the West that’s useful for a party deeply concerned about ideological penetration by foreign ideas.
That said, even some Chinese think it is time for their country to stop playing the victim card. A Chinese academic this September called on the country to let go of its indignation, saying an ongoing sense of victimhood stirs up feelings of revenge and obstructs China from absorbing “rational values” from the West.
It is time that the West stopped taking China’s victimhood claims at face value. Academics, writers, and China experts need to take a more critical and nuanced view of China’s “century of humiliation.” China can’t use history as carte blanche to do whatever it wants.