China struggles to forge new national identity

China’s struggle to define itself today is similar to what we as a nation experienced after the Revolutionary War. The models and dreams we adopted defined us as a people and a nation. How China articulates and presents its new order is as important to China and its people as it is to the rest of the world.

The 60th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution will be in 2009. CPIG, China’s largest international publishing group, recently met to discuss how it will be “Presenting China” as part of this national celebration. I participated by comparing America’s identity struggle in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s with China’s today.

National identity became crucial as feudal systems collapsed and countries justified their legitimacy on ideological grounds. After the American Revolution, we then, like China today, faced the need to overcome adolescent insecurities about the past while trying to erect a new political, economic and social order.

America, in its infancy, was viewed as a land created by religious extremists, convicts and adventurers, a human refuse pile of political, economic and social undesirables, whose only use was as a pawn in the global game to control resources and trade routes.

To say you were an American was to invite speculation as to which undesirable element you belonged. Even after the revolution, America struggled with its inferiority complex internally as well as externally. Half of the people living in the colonies were against the revolution, and were it not for Britain’s bungling would have fought against it.

China today, despite its economic successes, is struggling with its identity. The Revolution ended the “century of humiliation,” but it did not restore a lasting sense of confidence or national character. Enthusiasm for the grand plan was often blunted by economic setbacks and political changes. The introduction of capitalism blurred the ideological lines and has led many to abandon collective ideals in favor of self-serving rationales.

America, trying to escape its past as a second-class citizen in a colonial empire, legitimized its new political, economic and social order using the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The challenge was that it was a country without a past where the social order included people with incompatible ideological beliefs and disparate cultural backgrounds. Far from being a haven of tolerance, the records reflect that in Boston, Quakers and Catholics were persecuted and fined for not observing Puritan laws. In addition to imprisonment, beatings and public humiliation, those who did not or could not pay their fines were sold into indentured servitude.

China broke with its dysfunctional feudal past first by using the principles of socialism and then by adopting the mechanisms of capitalism. The pragmatic mix of seemingly incompatible ideologies has created rapid economic changes, but the political and social structure has struggled to articulate the meanings and consequences of these changes.

In comparison to post-revolutionary America, China today faces similar and different challenges. Similar, in terms of needing to knit together a disparate people with longstanding cultural and linguistic differences. China has 10 major distinct languages, still spoken today, which are divided into thousands of local dialects. It has 54 recognized minority races and even the majority Han population is fractured along local, district and provincial lines. Different, in that where America struggled with its lack of history, China struggles with how to sort through and integrate 5,000 years of history into its modern incarnation.

America’s answer was provided in large part by Benjamin Franklin. Undoubtedly one of the most influential Americans of his time, not only because of his personal accomplishments as an inventor, statesmen and businessman, but because he gave what was a divided rabble of humanity a positive identity they could embrace as Americans.

Through his Poor Richards Almanac he dispensed simple adages advising people to pay more attention to their own virtue and diligence than to the failings and inadequacies of others.

These formulas for economic and social success urged hard work, frugality, individual responsibility and self-reliance and in turn became the framework of the American Dream. A dream which would allow all that embraced it the hope of economic prosperity and social status. Franklin created a nation where the individual’s relationship to others was governed by tolerance and non-interference, the individual’s obligation to society was a debt to be repaid by those who prospered from it, the role of government was to provide an orderly framework for the pursuit of the American Dream, and where belief in the Dream allowed people to rise above the shortcomings of human nature and inadequacies of our system of government.

For China, the answer is still in the making. When I ask a Chinese person what defines China and its people, they talk about a 5,000-year culture, about a land of many different regions, customs, local languages and foods, a land where competition is fierce and opportunities historically limited, where relationships define both your social and business lives, where what you project, your “face,” is often more important than the reality, about the need for caution when encountering the unknown and about a nation in a hurry to “catch up” to the West.

What is remarkable is that while they list many influences and factors they do not try to define what it is to be Chinese. They do not talk about the collective rights and responsibilities of individuals and society. They do not talk about a Chinese Dream. Yet, the outpouring of national pride over the Olympics, the Sichuan earthquake and the Tibetan issues makes it clear that there is a strong collective sense of Chinese identity, which is both moral and possessive. “One World One Dream” was the motto of the Beijing Olympics, but China’s Dream appears to be still in search of an author.

China’s pragmatic ideological choices have created a new order which defies previous political/economic/social models. How the new order is articulated especially in terms of the relationship and responsibilities between the individual and the society will be crucial to understand its goals and future actions. It might also remind us, in America, of the values which first united us as a nation and their relevance to today.

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