China’s DNA: What’s in it, war or peace?

October 16, 2017 10:54
Beijing prepares for the 19th Congress of the Communist Party which opens on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters

The long-expected 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China will be held in Beijing next week and the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, is expected to emerge with an even tighter grip on the levers of power. The party constitution will be changed with the incorporation of his name into that document – something that has not happened since Deng Xiaoping’s death 20 years ago.

The Chinese people will be exhorted to study the “thoughts” of the current leader, just as was the case with Mao from the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 until his death in 1976.

Xi has gathered the reins of power over internal security, foreign policy and the economy in his own hands. This reverses the collective leadership that had been China’s hallmark in recent years.

Not surprisingly, people overseas are concerned by the implications of China’s growing power, and of the concentration of such power in the hands of one man. The Chinese government has attempted to soothe them by pointing to history and saying that China has always been a peaceful country, a victim rather than an aggressor. In the words of General Secretary and President Xi, “For several millennia, peace has been in the blood of us Chinese and a part of our DNA.” Hence, no need to worry.

How true is this? What is in the Chinese DNA?

For one thing, it seems fair to say that equality is not in the Chinese DNA. This is reflected in the language.

Interestingly, in Chinese, there is no word for “brother” or “sister.” The only terms that exist define hierarchy – older brother, younger brother or older sister, younger sister. One’s status is defined by one’s relationship to other people, and that status is reflected in the language.

The hierarchical structure of the family was reflected in society, with the ruler at the top, who was advised by loyal ministers. Below them were the common people.

This concept extended to foreign relations, with China at the top and others expected to acknowledge Chinese superiority and to become tributary states. Many of China’s neighbors today fell into this category.

In fact, China historically considered others not only inferior but barbaric unless they were willing to accept Chinese culture.

Just how peaceful the newly established People’s Republic of China was became clear in 1950, a year after its establishment.

North Korea invaded South Korea. The United Nations voted to send troops to support South Korea and the new Communist government in Beijing, barely a year old, decided to support North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. Instead of supporting the victim of aggression, it decided to support the aggressor.

The Chinese Communist Party lied to its people and claimed that North Korea – not South Korea – was the victim and that China was helping it resist American aggression.

Sixty-seven years later, China is still living that lie. It calls the Korean conflict “The war to resist America and aid Korea.” To this day, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website carries an account, “Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea.”

After Deng Xiaoping launched the opening up policy, China realized that it had little choice but to accept a subordinate position and to learn from the West about such things as the running of a market economy. But with the onset of the international financial crisis in 2008, a senior Chinese official did not hesitate to say that China was no longer learning positive lessons from America but rather learning from its mistakes.

Today, it appears, China is telling the United States to learn from China. On Sept. 29, the People’s Daily online published an article saying that Puerto Rico, which faces a humanitarian disaster after being struck by a hurricane, shows that Washington can learn from Beijing about how to deal with natural disasters.

But perhaps the best response to President Xi’s assertion about China’s peaceful nature is to take a look at the map.

The First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di, created an empire centered in northern China by conquering six other competing states. Today, China is many times bigger than it was 2,200-plus years ago. Much of this territory was acquired through force, whose people today are treated like conquered people.

Only a few months ago, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte disclosed that President Xi had warned him that if the Philippines drilled for oil in an area that an international arbitral tribunal had ruled belonged to his country, China would go to war with the Philippines.

Peace in China’s DNA? What DNA? What peace?

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