22 October 2016
While atrocities like the Nanjing massacre in 1937 can never be forgotten, China has to move beyond a mindset of victimhood. Photo:
While atrocities like the Nanjing massacre in 1937 can never be forgotten, China has to move beyond a mindset of victimhood. Photo:

China wants to lose its victim mentality

In November 2012, two weeks after becoming leader of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping visited the National Museum in Tiananmen Square.

There, after viewing a grand exhibition called “The Road to Revival”, which recalls China’s century of humiliation beginning with the Opium War of 1840, Xi issued a call to achieve the Chinese Dream, or “the great revival of the Chinese nation”.

History was on the Chinese leadership’s mind again last year.

The National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, decreed that henceforth the 1945 victory over Japan would be celebrated every Sept. 30 and the 1937 Nanjing massacre would be remembered every December 13.

China’s political use of history is of long standing.

After the party’s near-death experience in the Tiananmen uprising of 1989, it made a key policy decision to use “patriotic education” to nurture students loyal to the party who would not be swayed by western values of democracy and human rights.

That meant emphasis on the evils of imperialism and, in particular, Japanese aggression.

For decades, students were taught that the history of modern China is a history of national humiliation, which ended only with the success of the communist revolution in 1949.

In December last year, to mark the 77th anniversary of the Nanjing massacre, huge banners urged the public: “Never forget our national humiliation”.

While inspecting military commands, Chinese leaders routinely call on officers and soldiers not to forget the country’s history of being invaded and humiliated.

But now, it seems, influential voices are being raised calling for change.

There is no need to continue harping on China’s experience in the 19th century and early 20th century, these voices say, because China has already succeeded in its revival.

On March 31, the Global Times newspaper published a commentary titled “Time to bid goodbye to victim mentality”.

“We cannot forget our modern tragic history,” said the unsigned commentary, but “China has finally arrived at a critical juncture of realizing the rejuvenation of our nation and is now positioned front and center in the international arena.”

“China is now the world’s second-largest economy, with its military budget the second-largest in the world,” the commentary continued.

“Our military forces as well as comprehensive national strength also rank among the top in the world. Any fantasy that China could be threatened as it was in the late 19th or the early 20th century is nothing but an illusion.”

In September, China will hold a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of its victory over Japan in World War II.

That occasion, the commentary said, provides “the perfect time to bid goodbye to the mentality of victimization in our society, to build a national sense of self-esteem and to show our confidence to the world.”

Four days later, the Global Times published another commentary titled “True major power needs mature mentality”, which returned to the theme of overcoming China’s “victim mentality”.

It recalled that China had “long seen itself as the center of the world” and referred to people in other countries as barbarians.

Now, it said, China needs to “rediscover our major power mentality” but this “doesn’t mean we will go back to the arrogance of imperial China”.

Rather, China should “build a mindset that matches our status of being a rising power”.

The biggest obstacle to the creation of such a new mindset, it said, is “the victim mentality” as well as “the confusion of the huge contrast between ancient glory and modern humiliation”.

“No external forces today can defeat major powers like the United States and China,” the commentary said.

“We are our own rivals. Therefore, pursuing a mainstream mindset as well as an outlook that matches our responsibilities as a major power is an uphill battle that we must win.”

It is ironic that the Global Times, which is operated under the auspices of the official People’s Daily and which is often seen as a nationalistic tabloid, is taking the lead in calling for China, in effect, to become a more normal nation and to stop its exploitation of its previous history as a victim.

This won’t be easy, given the decades of indoctrination to which the Chinese people have been subjected, which has resulted in a highly nationalistic population.

But such a decision by the party would smooth the way to the international harmony that China says it favors.

Seventy years after the end of World War II, it is time for China to live as a major power in the present rather than continue to dwell as a victim in the past.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

EJI Weekly Newsletter