China: a 'great nation'?

Li Datong
10 January 2007

The television series The Rise of Great Nations, shown on China's state network CCTV across twelve episodes on 13-24 November 2006, has stirred up a lively media debate in China. Much of the heated public discussion that followed the transmission has focused on the defining terms of the series; "great nation" and "rising".

In particular, the trigger of the controversy stems from the adoption by the series of a new standpoint towards China's history: a move away from the condemnation (familiar in Chinese history textbooks) of "imperialist sin" and foreign powers which "get rich from the blood of others", and towards a more generally positive appraisal of other countries' national experiences. In this revised interpretation, the "sin" of the past has become rather a driving force and a condition for the rise of nations to global status.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and formerly editor of Freezing Point, a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Also by Li Datong in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point"
(12 September 2006)

What's interesting is that this total reversal of the conventional viewpoint did not receive the same negative response as Yuan Weishi's article on "modernisation and history textbooks" in the publication Freezing Point in January 2006. Whereas that article was accused of being "an arrow aimed straight at the Communist Party leaders and the socialist system", The Rise of Great Nations was repeatedly shown on the most widely received form of media. This could be interpreted as a sign that the series was implicitly in line with the current aims of the ruling party.

It could equally be argued that throughout history, China has been a great nation; starting from as early as the Tang dynasty, China was already a "superpower". From this time, China had established a modern civil official system and imperial civil service examination system. Even in world trade, until the opium war in 1840, China showed disdain for independent warlords. At that time too, even post-industrial-revolution Britain could not provide commodities that China was prepared to exchange its goods for, and Britain had only hard currency and silver rather than goods to purchase China's own commodities.

From the middle of the 19th century, the big western powers started using military force to enter China. It was only at this time that China's emperor and her ministers discovered that the Chinese empire, which had always posed as the centre of the world, could simply collapse after one blow. Although magnificent on the surface, the country has long been submerged by the decay of its interior. What does this interior refer to? It refers to its system.

Unfortunately the series The Rise of Great Nations inadvertently managed to evade a fundamental point. Each great western nation achieved its status under various different historical conditions, many of which could not be reproduced today; but all had one thing in common, namely that their rise entailed a constant improvement in the rights of their people, and a severe restriction in the power of their rulers. Without such a foundation, "the rise of great nations" can be dangerous. Hitler's rule over Germany, militarist Japan and Stalinism in the Soviet Union are all examples of mistakes that should be learned from.

How to re-establish China's great national glory of the past is a question that political leaders and intellectuals have been anxiously thinking about for some time. Mao Tse-tung's way of dealing with it was to attack the west; without hesitation, he exhausted China's national strength in order to support this "world revolution". The attempt to keep pace with the rival superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, caused China to suffer a huge famine in the 1950s. As more than 30 million people were dying, huge sums of financial resources were still being used to develop nuclear weapons. The creation of a façade of "great nationhood" to mobilise such a national project can produce fear, but not respect.

Deng Xiaoping was much more prudent than Mao Zedong. He saw that without a developed economy, the lives of the people wouldn't be able to improve, let alone the possibility of establishing a great nation.

When the CCP's ruling legitimacy was on the brink of threat, he encouraged the development of the economy. However, this still did not give the people political rights; during this period the Tiananmen Square massacre happened, shaking the world. Can China, a country that mercilessly massacres its own people become a great nation that commands people's respect? Not in this way it can't.

In any case, for most Chinese people, talk of whether or not China is a great nation and whether or not it is rising is meaningless. What these people are concerned about is the improvement of their own living conditions, their rights, the increase of freedom and the reduction of terror. The size of the country a people belong to has no bearing on its happiness. Making the people pay a heavy price in order to satisfy political leaders' desire to create a great nation is the development pitfall that China's intellectual circles need to be looking at face on right now.

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