China, the limits of exception

China's leaders present two stories about their country to the world. The gap between them is a recipe for growing tension.

Kerry Brown
19 November 2014

Many contradictions can be found in the Chinese government’s view of the country it rules, and of that country's role in the world. This is hardly surprising. Previous versions of China have a long history, but the People’s Republic of China itself - which has existed only since 1949 - is young. After six and a half decades of tumultuous change, it is still finding its way. 

That uncertainty is revealed in one of the starkest contradictions: between what might be decribed as its global inclusiveness and its nationalist exceptionalism. On the one side, China's current leadership promotes the country as a super-attractive economic entity, able to shower benefits on everyone who engages wth it; on the other, that leadership employs a grand language of national and cultural pride that insistently highlights China'a exclusive character. The disjunction between these two ideas is striking. Which China are outsiders being asked to buy into?
This is fundamentally a question about the nation-state - or rather, about what "nation-state" means in a Chinese leader’s mind. This is not China's dilemma alone. After all, Europe has wrestled with it ever since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and the birth of the notion of legal state sovereignty. The great French philosopher Simone Weil expressed in her essay "The Power of Words" what this process entails: the state's transition from a mere combination of economic interests used to further the influence of oligarchies, cliques and tribes to one where the State (with a capital "s") becomes a sort of transcendent entity able to bind various interests, sentiments, histories, identities, and to meld them together.

Modern China has certainly learned that a state where oligarchies are allowed to take over easily leads to fragmentation, weakness and impoverishment. The experience of Russia after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 is a powerful lesson for the the ruling Communist Party (CCP). The party has sought to avoid this fate by seeking to forge a highly unified sense of national identity. This is seen as wholly specific to China; rooted in its history, its language, and its culture; and overarching all the ethnic and social complexity that "China" as geographical entity now embraces. The CCP has with dexterity managed to create a powerful emotional loyalty to this vision far beyond the Communist Party itself.

It might look, then, as if the party has been able, after a fashion, to "fix" a version of Simone Weil's transition. But this only takes the contradiction between global inclusiveness and nationalist exceptionalism to a higher level. For, again, the view of national identity promulgated by Chinese leaders mixes two claims: China is unique and sui generis, but also part of the global vision of modernity. In practice this means that every notion travelling across the border into the PRC needs the tag, "with Chinese characteristics", to really get accepted. If Chinese leaders see benefit in the idea (usually of an economic  kind), they allow it in, saying it must be applied to national conditions. When they dislike or fear the idea (such as universal human rights for individuals), they scupper it, saying it does not suit China at all.

The wall between

It's true that almost every other country on the planet plays a "pick-and-mix" game of this kind, at least in rhetoric. What makes China different, judging from Beijing's consistent words and actions, is that Chinese leaders really do feel they are in charge of a place that is materially different - not just one culture amongst many, but a special, indeed unique one.

This creates repeated communication problems with other states. Evidently, the world "gets" China's economic story. Leaders from abroad such as Barack Obama or David Cameron can visit China, transact business, and have a reasonable grasp of why relations with China in this area are important. But once they slip towards the other story - of China's view of itself, its values and beliefs, and of the world - the potential for tension and misapprehension grows.

There is nothing wrong with a country wanting to be appreciated and understood. But many people trying to make sense of China face the retort that their ideas and concepts are inappropriate. For one thing, they don't take account of China’s exceptionalism; for another, they are guilty of imposing the western disease of universalism. The result can be the limbo of having no language to talk to each other. No wonder, then, that foreign leaders - unable to navigate the disjuncture between China's stories about itself - often seem to use two registers about China: economically warm, politically and culturally cool.

In this respect, the choice by both President Obama and prime minister Cameron, at the G20 summit in Brisbane, to dare speak the language of values and ideas in the presence of Chinese leaders is right and welcome. This doesn’t need to be done in a judgmental way - at least, not initially. Rather, it can be a means of asking Chinese leaders to spell out what, far beyond economic matters, their country believes it is. And if the answer is that China is exceptional, unique, and impossible to understand, then outsiders have the right to say that this is not good enough, and that Chinese leaders need to try again.

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