How China's Past Actively Shapes its Foreign Policy
Anushka Saxena

China’s perceived image of its past actively shapes its policy in the present. For a China determined to restore its past glory, it is significant to utilize narratives from history to effectively shape and justify a fervent and yet aggressive foreign policy. Like all other nations, the Chinese Communist Party (hereby referred to as CPC) has craftily utilized moments of historical relevance, from the First Opium War in 1839 and the culmination of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, to internalising and ultimately suppressing the radical impacts of events like the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, in order to rally political agendas and incite a sense of nationalistic fervour in the hearts and minds of citizens. However, the extent to which the victimhood emergent from a deplorable past has been used by China to justify its expansionism and aggression today is unlike any other country.

As a kingdom for 2000 years before the Qing dynasty was dismantled by Sun-Yat Sen and his band of intellectuals in 1912; China’s image of International Relations revolved around its perceived superiority as compared to all other nation-states of the world. Much before China condemned imperialists for disrupting the harmony of the Chinese state with its people, China’s own perceived imperial superiority dictated how it looked at the world. This explains to a great extent how the current regime has efficiently channelized similar sentiments of perceived glory and superiority to explain China’s contemporary rise to power and hegemony in the current global world order.

Emulating events and circumstances from its history is not all China has done or continues to do to elaborate on its foreign policy. It often also changes history books and creates historical realities that shape public opinion. For example, under Mao Zedong’s rule, there was a thorough utilisation of narratives of imperial victimhood faced at the hands of the West, so as to further a focus on the power and popularity of a peasant class. However, after Mao’s death, and the subsequent launch of Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Patriotic Education Campaign in the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR and the blunder that was the Tiananmen Square “incident,” the CPC revitalized narratives of “victimhood” to pass the blame for China’s worsening economic and political conditions onto Mao’s harsh policies. History was both reused and rewritten for the purposes of effectively erasing Mao’s popularity by iterating for the people how the real problem, all along, was giving up on capitalism and the West. The consequences of such interesting ways of history (re)writing are that people under the Chinese state are brainwashed into accepting certain narratives and rejecting certain others. Similarly, the Xi regime's Red Tourism campaign vividly carves out the historical successes of the CPC and reminds people of the atrocities inflicted upon China by Japan in 1937 and the West during its opium wars. This is done to subsequently justify its disinformation campaigns against the US during the COVID-19 Pandemic, or its aggressive posture against Taiwan (such as through its warplane sorties in the Taiwanese ADIZ) and Hong Kong (such as through its subversion of democracy much before the set timeline of 2047).

China’s geographical security is also determined by its sense of history. This has less to do with rhetoric and more to do with its historical claims. China’s emphasis, for example, on its historical claim to islands in the South China Sea in general and to the widely disputed and debated upon Diaoyu/ Senkaku island in specific, stems from its understanding of history - all of these islands were taken over by Japanese, American and British imperialists by force, and now, as China emerges as a regional hegemon, these islands must return to its sovereignty. This consequently translates into an expansionist foreign policy that militarises the maritime space, especially in the South China Sea. China’s shift to maritime power today is also largely determined by the fact that after years of being led by continental compulsions, it wishes to revive its historic sea route linkages with Indo-China and protect its Sea Lines of Communication in a manner similar to how Chinese vessels did across history. Similarly, China’s claims over Indian territory, including to the point where it refers to Arunachal Pradesh as “Southern Tibet,” stem from the historical understanding that the border was never settled and that its claims carry historic merit. Of course, the larger domestic compulsions within China dictate when it displays aggression on the Line of Actual Control, however, the preeminence of threat remains largely due to a perceived past.

In conclusion, China may or may not be right in using its perceived sense of its past to influence its behaviour today. However, unlike the past, the global order is governed by certain legal and political customs that necessitate stability and not disorder. If the Chinese pursuit of national rejuvenation by means of history rewriting impacts regional and global stability, then its foreign policy endeavours inevitably come under the radar.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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