The history of East Asian democratization has been cast in terms of negative Confucian heritage, postwar US encouragement to allies, and the positive spillover of economic “miracles.” Focused on national identities distinct from Confucian heritage and nuanced in coverage of the impact of the United States, the following four articles direct attention at forces, positive and negative, in the evolution of democratic governance in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and China from the Qing dynasty to today’s PRC. All four offer new insights into the struggles over democratization over extended periods of time, concluding with the recent period of the 2010s.
Assessing the experiences of five areas in East Asia with democratization, these articles provide lessons on the implications for other Asian countries in light of national identity causation and the foreign policy environment. East Asia has shown the way to democratization in Asia—Japan with prewar roots and a national identity push that put it on the cutting edge in this region, South Korea and Taiwan with a surge in the 1980s that gave a powerful boost to the global boom in democratization that followed, and Hong Kong in its valiant struggle to forestall the PRC’s creeping imposition of authoritarianism. All of these cases are instructive in the way they linked national identity to democratization and dealt with foreign relations, as others in Asia now face the serious challenge of navigating between China and the United States in a period of intensifying polarization in their policies tied to democracy. The case of China, historically, is worth close attention, too; it diverted opportunities for democratization on several occasions.
The five cases vary in degree of democratization. Japan has the longest record and a robust democracy, but civil society is relatively inactive as the legacy of an authoritarian state proves still to be contentious. South Korea struggles with an authoritarian state legacy more deeply rooted, but civil society is vibrant. Taiwan has consolidated democracy most rapidly, differing from Hong Kong in enjoying the space to do so. The PRC is least democratized, following a past of brief forays in that direction that proved abortive. The evolution of democracy in each case has been heavily shaped by swings in national identity: from narrow traditionalism to a broader embrace of the nation-state in a global context, from ethnic exclusivity to civic internationalism, from distrust of ethnic minorities and cosmopolitan types to acceptance of the entire populace as the “people,” and from demonization of the international community to the embrace of it. In the ups and downs of reconstructing national identity, we observe important shifts driving foreign relations as well as powerful forces for propelling democratization ahead or halting its advance.
For more on the conceptual frameworks informing linkages among democratization, national identity, and foreign relations, see the previous Special Forum in this journal. We recognize a two-way relationship between a “mature” national identity that allows for more full-fledged democratization and democratic institutions that open the way to this type of identity. These two forces are reinforcing, and setbacks in one often lead to setbacks in the other. Democracy enables open discussion of “who we are” as a community, but distortions in democracy are frequently tied to reversions in popular thinking about the nature of the existing and the ideal community.
Below, we draw comparative conclusions under three headings: 1) the historical legacy; 2) the construction of otherness in national identity; and 3) the vertical dimension focused on the state in identity. This introduction ends with brief comments on China’s recent impact. Coverage here builds on: Anno Tadashi, “National Identity and Democracy: Lessons from the Case of Japan,” Erik Mobrand, “Democracy is More than a Political System: Lessons from South Korea’s Democratic Transformation,” Syaru Shirley Lin, “Analyzing the Relationship between Identity and Democratization in Taiwan and Hong Kong in the Shadow of China,” and Yinan He, “China’s Political Trajectory and Foreign Relations under the Influence of National Identity.”
The historical legacy and the temporal dimension in national identity
Japan faced the challenge in the 1860s of breaking the elite’s monopoly on politics and making the masses participants in the political process through a shift in national identity that could prepare the ground for democracy. Making this easier was the three-level nature of identity: the imperial level centered on Kyoto, the national level centered on Edo, and the local level centered on 250-some domains. The call for political unity across the domains gained influence, taking advantage of the emperor as a symbol of unity distinct from the order centered in Edo. There was no ethnic divide to divert attention, nor were transnational ties present in the imperial family. Westernizing reforms of the Meiji era (including introducing constitutional government) were presented as compatible with Japan’s national identity since they were carried out under the banner of “restoration,” or return to the original, proper order of things in Japan. Westernizing reforms were, therefore, not prone to persistent criticism for “betraying the national tradition.” Similarly, after 1945, the emperor’s presence symbolized continuity that made possible a fresh start as a democratic state, buttressed by invocations of the democratic interlude in the 1910s-20s as well as of the terrible costs as well as shame of the war-era failures. Postwar Japan achieved a compromise between commitment to democracy and preservation of a sense of continuity with the past. The emperor’s symbolic status under the Constitution could be viewed as a “return” to an older tradition. While many conservatives fulminated against the “imposed” Constitution as a violation of Japanese sovereignty, few felt a need to advocate the restoration of the emperor to an inviolable sovereign. Making these arguments, Anno explains democracy’s success in Japan.
Anno, however, is careful to point to historical factors that complicated democratization. Making the Imperial Court the central focus of nationhood built in a contradiction that stood in the way of subsequent democratization. The Meiji Constitution of 1889 vested the emperor with “rights of sovereignty,” and this set a limit to the development of democracy during the Taishō and early-Shōwa eras. Installing an ancient myth as the ideological pillar of modernizing Japan played a major role in derailing the country’s democratization. After the war there were also inhibiting factors. Postwar Japanese politics was to be carried out not on the basis of unique imperial mythology but based on principles of democracy and on “laws of political morality,” both of which were declared “universal” principles in the Preamble of the Constitution. Yet, the fact that the Constitution was introduced under the allied occupation complicated the relationship between national identity and democracy. While progressives strongly identified with it, seeing in it a complete rebirth of the nation, many conservatives rejected it as an illegitimate foreign imposition. Japan was a latecomer; so democratic identity could not offer the Japanese much as a source of national pride. For this reason, postwar Japan’s democratic identity never generated a robust policy of democracy promotion comparable to the much-celebrated “peace diplomacy.” The Japanese government in the Cold War era was consistently reluctant to come out clearly in support of pro-democracy movements. Its commitment to democracy and freedom never became a focal point of national pride. Anno concludes that Japan developed an intellectual habit of viewing the world through the lenses of imported worldviews, while keeping itself exempt from wholesale application of universalist thinking, leaving in place more parochial domestic practices.
South Korea’s struggle over democracy took shape in the aftermath of the liberation movement versus Japan and the division of the country in 1945. The 1948 Constitution appears to be a basically liberal document, but it was “Cold War liberalism,” in which the criteria for democracy were shallow. The security imperative dictated that “democracy” allowed generous exceptions to the upholding of civil liberties. Fighting the scourge of communism justified many exceptions, because it—rather than dictatorship—was positioned as the opposite of democracy. This logic had a fundamental impact on the normative order and on public ways of talking about democracy. In the transition of 1987 and beyond, democratization did not necessarily imply convergence with forms of rule elsewhere. The opposition wanted a chance to win the presidency and gain a majority in the National Assembly. Undertaking deeper reform, especially changes that might open the political system to forces outside the establishment, was not a priority. The shadow of an authoritarian, Cold War state hung over the country’s politics after the de-authoritarianizing steps with the constitutional revision of 1987-88, followed by other reforms reaching into the mid-1990s. By those controlling the process, de-authoritarianization was overwhelmingly imagined as a rolling back of the high tide of repression. The focus was on undoing the most repressive aspects of rule, aspects which had taken form in the early 1970s. A top priority was reinstating the directly-elected presidency. Another was revising the electoral system so that National Assembly elections would be fairer. Restoring the political rights of major dissidents was another promise. There were other elements of authoritarianism that political actors aimed, unsuccessfully, to remove or reform. An example is the National Security Law. Because the law renders constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties irrelevant, the National Security Law stands in profound tension with the Constitution. Its use in society did decline – only to grow again in the 2000s. Democratization was not a rethinking of the entire state. This meant leaving much of the authoritarian state and the established patterns of state-society relations intact.
The 1980s constitutional reform was a negotiation between the ruling party and the existing opposition, including proxies for the dissidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. The grassroots organizations that had led the demonstrations were excluded. The continuities became especially apparent with the ascent of Park Geun-hye to the presidency in 2013, when an illiberal turn was based on aspects of the old order that had not been fully removed. Electoral politics—at the core of most understandings of democracy—remained profoundly influenced by institutions established earlier and for clearly illiberal purposes. Apart from correcting institutional failings, the Candlelight Movement generated a feeling of efficacy among ordinary people, especially among young people. The collective effort gave hope that fellow citizens will not tolerate an unresponsive and secretive political elite. This recent experience suggests that improvements to democracy come not only from designing and redesigning institutions but also from ordinary people being vigilant in the task of keeping elites in check. While the Candlelight Movement has informed Moon’s agenda, pursuing this agenda has not been easy. In specific areas, the Moon government made great strides. In other areas, it is struggling against interests entrenched within the state. Overhauling the prosecution, an institution widely seen as driven by private interests, is a challenge. Mobrand discerns a process still under way with democratization far from complete.
Taiwan since the late 1980s and Hong Kong since it became part of China in 1997 under a mini-constitution (the Basic Law) that guaranteed a number of democratic civic values and pledged eventual universal suffrage for both the executive and the legislature, have struggled with hopes for further democratization under the shadow of demands from the PRC for movement toward unification. Setbacks to democratization are viewed through the lens of a national identity more and more at odds with the one sought by China. In Hong Kong, since the handover, there have been protest movements demanding fulfillment of the 1997 pledges. Lin’s analysis shows how a backlash against Chinese pressure on national identity has interacted with democracy advances. We can also note that the British legacy in one case and the switch in the 1980s in the other from anti-communism to a model that could help guide China into the international community each eased the national identity basis for democratization; however, in Hong Kong that goal is stifled.
Democracy had its opportunities in modern China. Yet, every time such opportunities and good intentions were stymied by an exclusive interpretation of national identity in service of the power struggle aimed at nation-building. The late Qing elites were widely split regarding whether Chinese nationalism should be inclusively or exclusively defined vis-à-vis domestic others.Sun Yat-sen did not hesitate to employ racially charged language in revolutionary mobilization because to include all Qing subjects in a new China as the reformers advocated would have “nullified the very foundation of his revolutionary activism—the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty.” Anti-Manchu propaganda in practice often sounded like a declaration of war on all ethnic minorities. The political revolution was eclipsed by the racial revolution. Without a thorough shakeup of the old political order, the Xinhai Revolution had only planted shallow roots of Western liberal democracy in Republican China. The public was also confused by the rhetoric of the warlords, whose autocratic governance was often dressed in the language of democracy and constitutionalism. For the Nationalists a mobilization campaign exclusively focusing on domestic others from the Han race was far less emotionally stimulating than the racial hatred spread by the anti-Manchuism of the late Qing. Since the principles of democracy of Sun’s sanminzhuyi were relative inaccessible for ordinary people, Sun discovered a new national other that captured the imagination of the nation: foreign imperialism. Mobilized by an anti-foreign national identity, the revolution in the late 1920s concentrated on liquidating domestic enemies and establishing a strong central government that could withstand foreign threats. It was, however, minimally attentive to a democracy-promoting agenda. Violent suppression of the Communists not only stripped dissident groups of their political rights but also hindered the development of labor rights and peasants’ welfare that had been envisaged in Sun principles. No genuine parliament was ever put in place to perform the sovereign power of the state or implement democratic values and procedures, explains Yinan He in her overview.
The PRC had chances to boost democratization, she notes, but it denied them, insistent on reconstructing national identity to demonize the West and any who resisted a narrow narrative as lackeys of the West. In the second half of the 1990s and much of the 2000s the identity rhetoric slackened, even suggesting a charm offensive abroad and more tolerance at home, but awareness of rising social activism and boldness about China’s rise versus the West doomed the prospects of tolerance for even a rudimentary civil society and acceptance of the international community. China’s crusade against the liberal, international order left it opposed to true democratization.
The construction of otherness and the horizontal dimension in national identity
Japan was first to wrestle with the choice between Asia and the West—also seen as China versus the United States or national reunification versus the needs of the international community. Japan has situated itself between Asia and the West since the Meiji era, shifting toward viewing the latter as the postwar international community. South Korea is deeply conscious of its place between North Korea and the United States, also cognizant of the latter’s leadership in the international arena. Taiwan and Hong Kong operate under the shadow of China, pointing to it as a contrast to the same international community. Finally, China after weighing the Soviet Union against the West, has kept its eyes on the US-led international community versus its Sinocentric designs. As each of these states looked outward in shaping its national identity, we observe a big impact on how its democratization proceeded. This is a matter of national identity that centers on foreign relations.
Remaining aloof from the outside world was long a matter of pride across East Asia. That Japan had not suffered foreign conquest in recorded history and that the same dynasty had reigned over Japan since ancient times, were regarded as demonstrating the uniquely superior character of Japan’s kokutai. Forced opening in South Korea and China was treated as a sort of humiliation. The ground was set for blaming the West and clinging to an image of reviving a separate identity.
Until recently, the Japanese tended to understand the international environment in a vertical rather than a horizontal manner, and to assess the position – or status – of Japan within this hierarchical context. Partly, this may be a result of the outward projection of the predominantly hierarchical character of human relationships in traditional Japanese society. But this was also conditioned by the actually hierarchical character of international relations in East Asia – both under the Chinese world order, and then in the context of the modern international society centered around the West. The “horizontal” dimension of national identity concerned first and foremost the question of how Japan would improve its international status by positioning itself in relation to the dominant Western powers, and to the dominant values of international society. In South Korea and China, a hierarchical view mattered, too; China resented being treated as a “junior partner” and South Korea resented perceived US priority for Japan as alliance partner.
Japan’s socialization into the Western-dominated international society was facilitated by the position that Japan had occupied in the premodern East Asian order on the periphery of another great civilization and used to foreign borrowing. Starting in the 1880s, Japan also developed an identity of being “the leader of the Orient.” Until the 1920s, this alternative definition of national identity was compatible with the development of constitutional government and with movement toward democracy. Yet in the 1930s, when the relationship between Japan and the Western powers deteriorated, Japan came to see itself as leading a struggle of the East against Western dominance. Democracy, liberalism, and individualism were rejected as incompatible with this.
Since Japan’s reckless expansionism was seen as inseparable from its undemocratic political regime, building a democratic political system was a condition for Japan to be allowed back into international society. Postwar Japan initially faced strong external incentive to make democracy work; the desire to maintain Japan’s good standing as a democracy has contributed to upgrading the quality of democracy. Entry in the West was easier than in the past, since the East and the West were now defined in terms of political regimes, rather than in racial or religious terms. The basis for the development of Asianism in postwar Japan remained rather weak. given Japan’s dependence on the US in both security and economic affairs. Also, given the negative regional memory of wartime Japanese domination, there was little room for Japan to opt for “leadership in Asia” at the expense of its relations with the United States. Rather than Asianism, Japan promoted economic and political integration in the broader “Asia-Pacific” region. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Japanese government chose to avoid provoking the US by taking up the mantle of Asianism.
While value-oriented diplomacy has often been dismissed as a transparent attempt at normative containment of China, tense relations with a rising China provides only a partial explanation for it. The global financial crisis of 2008 aroused fear among policymakers that, due to a major shift in the global balance of power, Japan could no longer take for granted the continuation of a liberal, rule-based international order within which Japan has thrived. Events like Brexit and the coming of the Trump administration only strengthened this fear. Paradoxically, the crisis of the liberal international order seems to have strengthened Japan’s commitment to “universal values,” concludes Anno, who concludes that the desire to achieve a respectable position in international society encouraged the Japanese to build a constitutional government in the Meiji and Taishō eras, and later to take pride as a peace-loving democratic state in the postwar era.
South Korea had many of the same incentives as Japan in the postwar era, intensifying once its democracy became secure, to gain respectability in the US-led international community. In its battle for legitimacy with North Korea, it benefited from the admiration of that community and from a national identity that could take pride in civic values after relying more on ethnic claims under authoritarian rule. Yet, it faced two others after the end of the Cold War in ways without parallel in Japan. It faced North Korea as a target of peaceful reunification through cultivating a shared identity and China as both the essential partner in persuading the North and an economic and political partner to boost Korean autonomy as a regional balancer. While Japan lost hope in Asianism in cooperation with China, South Korea kept alive the image of regional cooperation.
Hong Kong and Taiwan faced pressures from China far beyond those faced in Tokyo and Seoul, while struggling with waning identities as part of a Chinese community amid rising identities in support of a civic community with linkages to international society. In the late 1980s, an intense debate over Taiwan’s national identity—on which the two major political parties, the ruling KMT and the newly legalized Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), took opposing views—became an integral part of Taiwan’s struggle for democracy. The development of a new identity in these two regions was inextricably linked to their democratization. Although culturally predominantly Chinese, both Hong Kongers and Taiwanese treasure their heritage, yet long to be distinct from the communist authoritarian regime. The desire for democracy and a distinctive way of life differentiated both Hong Kong and Taiwan from the Chinese government and the Chinese people on the mainland and has become an important part of the identity of the younger generation in both places. There have been parallel developments across the Taiwan Strait.
Young Hong Kongers and Taiwanese want to assert their distinctive social, economic and political identities that differ both from that of their elders and from that advocated by Beijing, choosing increasingly not to identity oneself as “Chinese” but to adopt an alternative local identity, withholding support for One Country Two Systems (OCTS) in favor of greater autonomy in Hong Kong and independence for Taiwan. From 1997 to 2008, there was an overall uptick toward becoming more Chinese, peaking during the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, and a decline in Hong Kong identity. After 2008, however, Chinese identity began to decline, and Hong Kong identity began to rise. In only two decades, despite greater economic interdependence with China, the majority of Taiwanese have accepted a Taiwanese identity, moving away from a full or partial Chinese identity. Young people do not think of China as an enemy and are open-minded about their relationship with China, but they have a firm local identity. The attitude is not so much “anti-Chinese” but “non-Chinese” and Taiwanese, says Lin.
As Yinan He observes, Chinese elites frequently aroused internally exclusionary nationalism for social mobilization and power consolidation. Depending on the domestic enemies identified at different times in the Chinese national identity conception, various ethnic, socio-economic, political, and religious groups were denied equal rights and popular sovereignty. When vilifying domestic adversaries was either emotionally unappealing or politically inconvenient, Chinese elites would reinforce it with a nationalist crusade against foreign countries to generate a legitimation narrative for securing power. Thus, national identity has exerted a significant impact on both the Chinese domestic political trajectory and foreign relations, she concludes.
The centerpiece of the new national identity discourse was a fervent repudiation of foreign imperialism, which resonated more strongly than Marxist theories of class struggle and historical development. By invoking the shared, traumatic memory of foreign aggression since the 19th century, Communist propagandists exhorted the Chinese people to identify themselves with the government that promised to stand up against imperialism. The saturating, hysterical “Hate America Campaign” was even more virulent than China’s anti-Japanese nationalism. Enmity toward America was deliberately fomented, not simply or primarily for war mobilization, but more importantly to justify and reinforce a succession of massive political campaigns at home, the war decision itself was in large part motivated by Mao’s desire to push forward his “grand programs for carrying on the Chinese revolution, is He’s assessment of the historical record.
The vertical dimension in national identity
A common problem in the East Asian states has been national identity that privileges the state at the expense of civil society and deeper democratization. Postwar Japanese have revolted against it, but they have failed to build a vibrant civil society. Under the strong influence of the left-wing ideology in academia and journalism, many Japanese psychologically distanced themselves from the Japanese state – definitely from the prewar state, but also, to a significant degree, from the postwar Japanese state. While the Japanese in the postwar era retained a strong sense of national identity, many hesitated to identify with the Japanese state. South Korean civil activism is more pronounced, but the state looms larger. For Taiwan and Hong Kong, the issue is clouded by the shadow of the PRC state, which keeps finding ways to quash the sprouts of civil society at home. The centrality of the state in national identity may be traced to Confucian roots or to the impact of a latecomer to modernization pressing to catch up from top-down reforms. The struggle to find a less state-centered form of national identity with attendant democratization is continuing.
In Japan the struggle for civic identity is countered by some in open defense of the wartime Japanese state, denying that Japan fought a war of aggression or committed atrocities in its pursuit of war. This upsurge of historical revisionism is an attempt to defend a positive self-image of Japan (including the wartime Japanese state) from what is regarded as “attacks” on the nation’s honor, argues Anno. Although the notion of unique kokutai contributed to the derailing of democratization in the early-twentieth century, the imperial institution was adapted to the postwar era of democracy, and it continues to serve today as a focus of national identity in a democratic Japan. Some conservatives now depict Japan as having veered off the mainstream of historical development only since the 1930s, and only under adverse international circumstances. On this basis, they seek to rehabilitate Japan of the Meiji and Taishō eras, and to understand postwar Japan as a continuation of the achievements of the recent past. By contrast, the left-wing, led by Marxists, depicted Japanese history since the 1890s in a negative light, and envisioned postwar Japan as a country reborn, based on decisive negation of the entire imperial era. In addition, they rejected the conservative government that dominated postwar Japanese politics as an atavistic hangover from the imperial past. This struggle persists as the defense state becomes the center of contention and the left is losing ground in the face of perceived threats to security.
Developments in 2016-17 proved that South Korea’s democracy is among the most resilient in the world. When political institutions failed to prevent the corruption of an insulated elite, ordinary citizens intervened. State-society relations earlier constructed under deeply illiberal circumstances had not disappeared with the transition to democracy. The disciplinary power of the state had been deployed to make people think that party and electoral politics ought to operate in a certain – restricted – way. Neither during the constitutional reform of 1987 nor in post-transition administrations did certain institutions become targets of de-authoritarianization. The bifurcation between civil society and political parties became a regular feature of politics. The constitutional reform of 1987-88 is the most significant example of a missed opportunity. Had the main groups in the National Assembly permitted other forces to contribute to constitutional revision, such as by holding fresh elections first or initiating an extended constitutional reform process, then more inclusive political institutions could have been built. improvements to democracy come not from elites tinkering with institutions but from a wide range of civic-minded people taking action. After the democratic transition, many organizations maintained the confrontational styles of the authoritarian era. Certain labor groups continue to use radical styles, symbols, and slogans. Outside of traditional civil society groups, internet-based activism emerged as a significant political force in the early 2000s. Mobrand sees what is most impressive about South Korea’s democracy as not the formal institutional arrangement but informal engagement by citizens. Demonstrations have historically been crucial to creating political change in South Korea. These movements did not design subsequent institutions, but they provided crucial impetus. While democratic liberties were crucial to facilitating this response, the fact that the response was necessary at all suggests that the main political institutions had failed. Ordinary citizens exercising their rights had helped correct the system.
In Taiwan the KMT attempted to impose a Chinese identity on Taiwanese in order to uphold its authoritarian rule and gain support for its ultimate goal of national reunification. Increasing criticism of the KMT-imposed Chinese identity and growing support for a more Taiwanese identity were reflected in the DPP government’s attempt to revise school curricula to be more Taiwan-centric. At the same time, the earlier primordial definition of that identity gave way to a “new Taiwanese” identity, defined less in terms of ethnicity and more as a commitment to the interests of the people of Taiwan and the island’s new civic values and institutions, argues Lin.
When the call for democracy was less salient, a majority of Hong Kongers and Taiwanese identified themselves as “Chinese” in self-identification surveys. However, the meaning of being “Chinese” has evolved to become less ethnic and more political, especially because Beijing has sought to control and monopolize the definition of being “Chinese” at home and abroad. As a result, more and more respondents feel that identifying as “Chinese” is associated with the PRC. Moreover, they feel that self-identification is not about ethnicity or common language but rather the common values and preferences they embrace, such as freedom of speech and assembly, democracy and rule of law. There is a widespread belief that Hong Kong values include the rule of law and free market principles, and more and more people also consider a high degree of autonomy and democracy to be important Hong Kong values. The debate displays an intensity and a degree of polarization similar to Taiwanese discussions of national identity in the early 1990s. Yet, Hong Kong demonstrates how a lack of democratic institutions prevents discussion of an inclusive Hong Kong or the identification of common civic values. Instead, Hong Kong’s political institutions have produced discord rather than reconciliation. After Taiwan democratized, the debate on what constitutes Taiwanese identity exploded and a consolidated identity emerged to replace the polarized quasi-ethnic identities that prevailed under the KMT rule. Today, Taiwanese pride themselves on considering all citizens as Taiwanese.
Implications of findings on the PRC
During the Korean War, landlords, capitalists and other “bad” elements in China were portrayed as agents of foreign imperialism and, therefore, the worst enemies of not just the state and its revolution but also the Chinese nation; they were demonized as “non-People. The state now claimed to have successfully built a democracy, where “the People” [renmin] supportive of the socialist revolution enjoyed individual freedom and equality, while the “non-People” against it would be subject to the People’s Democratic Dictatorship—a concept that continues to provide the legal basis for denying democratic rights to a significant portion of the Chinese population who dissent from the state. It also acts as a coercive deterrent to those members of “the People” sympathetic with the dissidents and undermines the political freedom of the entire nation.
With the inexorable decline of Communism, the government again resorted to national identity to enhance internal consolidation and shore up the regime’s legitimacy. From the mid-1980s, it became rigid and muscular in the ideological and cultural spheres, using the othering of the Western out-group to glorify the Chinese in-group. The latter became crystalized in several ideological campaigns sanctioned by Deng against liberal-minded intellectuals, by defaming pro-Western Chinese political dissidents, the government effectively dampened societal aspirations for liberalization and democratic changes. Later, in exchange for the leftists’ support for his economic programs, Deng continued to keep a lid on political reform. In his famous “southern tour” to revitalize economic reform, Deng stressed anew the necessity to exercise People’s Democratic Dictatorship during economic development. After the Tiananmen crisis passed, and especially following China’s accession to the WTO in 2001, its anti-Western rhetoric receded for some time. Through most of the 2000s Beijing was credited for a “Charm Offensive.” In 2008, however, a new wave of social activism converged with liberal intellectuals’ push for political democratization, signified by the publication of the Charter 08.
Ethnic unrest, not uncommon in PRC history, turned particularly frequent and violent, including the riots in Tibet 2008 and in Xinjiang in 2009. The lethal blow to authoritarian regimes by pro-democracy movements, often mixing religious and ethnic appeals, was evident in the Color Revolutions and Arab Spring. The party-state was extremely nervous about the demonstrative and contagious effect of these international events on a discontented Chinese population. The official media negatively framed the West to blame domestic instability on foreign connivance and to discredit domestic dissidents said to be blindly worshipping Western values and conspiring with foreigners to hurt China. It thus deliberately entangled national othering of both external and domestic enemies, argues Yinan He, in pointing to a shift in China’s approach.
The state tried to prove that those who revolted, not like ordinary minority people, harbored vicious intentions to split up the country, and their actions were backed by foreigners who loathed a strong China. So ethnic conflict was typically attributed to Western instigation and patronization. In the same way that ethnic activists were maligned, those who advocated human rights and democratic changes, such as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, were denounced as saboteurs on behalf of Westerners. What the party-state feared more was not “subversive activities” of Westerners, but the spread of Western values through numerous channels such as the thriving external commercial ties, massive outflow of Chinese students and tourists, and foreign cultural products flooding the country. Under the Xi Jinping administration, domestic disunity has only become worse, due to an economic slowdown unprecedented in a quarter century; centrifugal tendencies in frontier regions; and exacerbation of popular discontent with social injustice. In response, even more heavy-handed measures are being practiced than before, and official propaganda bashing the West seeks to mask serious domestic socioeconomic problems and deflect public resentment about its own policy failures. The point is not only to malign democracy-promoting foreign media and NGOs, but also to justify political persecution of China’s liberal and ethnic activists who dared to resist the illiberal state. The ramifications extend to foreign policy and how the United Front offices deal with democratization abroad.
Hu-era national identity discourse embodied two ethnocentric themes regarding the West. The first is the China Model rhetoric, through which the government sought to propagate a distinctive economic and political model that is not only separate from but also antithetical to that of the West. The core of the China Model was its socialist political system premised on Marxism and the CCP’s leadership, while Western style of democracy was treated as either a sham or a mismatch for China. Enemies in this ideological struggle were not just “anti-China forces” from without but also those Chinese from within who desired to replace the China Model with Western democracy. The second ethnocentric theme in official discourse condemned “foreign hostile forces” for aiding and abetting subversion in order to “Westernize and divide up” the country. If the first theme implied the menace of domestic others, meaning those Chinese inclined to Westernization, the second theme scapegoated both domestic enemies and their foreign supporters for China’s internal problems. This discourse intensified under Xi Jinping. It shapes the external environment for Asian states facing the challenge of more democratization.
What really concerns Beijing about Hong Kong and Taiwan is less populist socio-economic policies than the rejection of the definition of Chinese identity that the CCP seeks to promote and pro-China elites. While Beijing stresses common ethnicity, people in Hong Kong and Taiwan place at least equal weight on adherence to civic values that Beijing either rejects or does not fully implement. Hong Kong seemed to have fallen into a second period of colonization, this time by the CCP, which did not share the history and values of those in the former British enclave. Beijing believes that the development of a Chinese national identity is necessary to rule Hong Kong effectively and to secure the eventual unification of Taiwan with the rest of China. China is threatened not only by its inability to unify Taiwan peacefully and by the rise of localist sentiment in Hong Kong, but also by the existence of Taiwan as a democratic nation with ethnic Chinese citizens. This invalidates Beijing’s rhetoric that democracy is unsuitable for the Chinese people. In order to bridge the increasing identity gap, Beijing has focused on deeper socio-economic integration with both regions, but that has led not to a decline but to a rise in local identity. Young people continue to show declining support for unification, because they believe their values are different than those of the new immigrants from the mainland, the Chinese tourists who are visiting, and the Chinese whom they encounter on their own trips to the mainland or who they see in third places. While greater interaction with mainland Chinese tourists brought economic benefits to both economies, it also produced a rising local identity and increased tension between the two groups. Lin’s findings can be extended to other Asian areas.
A Chinese identity of the sort Beijing prefers, which would accept limited autonomy in Hong Kong and promote unification with Taiwan, seems highly unlikely, given the consolidation of local identities in both places. Unless China embraces the values that people in Hong Kong and Taiwan hold dear, or at least respects and tolerates them as an element in a more diverse Chinese polity, neither Taiwanese nor Hong Kongers are likely to become more “Chinese.” The lesson for countries across the Indo-Pacific is that China also is striving to limit their national identity choices and democratization, and as they too become more defiant, retribution is likely to follow.