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Is China Closing or Opening?


Despite the dominance of the Iraq story, China is back in the headlines, with the country excoriated for its evasiveness about the SARS epidemic, and praised for its suddenly constructive role in helping to bring about negotiations between the US and North Korea, over North Korea's nuclear insubordination. What do these two seemingly disparate responses tell us about China and its evolving place in the world?

China's response to the SARS epidemic suggests an almost automatic defensiveness when the outside world seems to impinge on it or threaten it in some potentially harmful or embarrassing way. In this sense, the legacy of China's humiliation at the hands of the West and Japan in the 19th and early 20th centuries still exerts a powerful influence, despite the emergence of a globalized "New China" over the last two decades. These experiences became burned so deeply into the Chinese psyche that even China's current economic and political rise has not overcome an underlying sense of victimization and grievance.

It would not be too extreme to say that China has fashioned a whole identity out of its historical victimization. The Maoist ideological mindset grew out of Lenin's theory of imperialism, which, aided by endless barrages of propaganda against capitalism, colonialism, and foreign hegemony, tended to reinforce the sense of national humiliation. Party spokesmen still often say that some foreign intervention has "wounded the feelings of the Chinese people" when they feel that China has been unfairly victimized.

This deep-seated suspicion of international exploitation fuels a predator/victim perspective that focuses blame on the outside world. So China's first reaction to SARS was to bury the news of a public health epidemic in the making.