Orville Schell on China, the “bipolar victim”

Growing economic might versus a long-ingrained sense of victimization: these are the two forces that China hand Orville Schell says are playing against one another, causing China to behave in a way that might be described as bipolar. In playing the perennial victim, China nearly always “exports” the blame for its woes onto external sources like Japan, the US, Taiwan or whoever. The result is rage, self-delusion and irrationality.

The anti-Japanese demonstrations are a symptom of the old syndrome, fueled by grievances born at a time when China was, indeed, aggrieved and humiliated. With China’s growing economic clout, rising standard of living, and increasingly respected place in the world, one would hope that the Chinese and their leaders would find a way to let go of the dead. Yet, even as the luster of the “China miracle” dazzles the world, the Chinese seem loath leave behind their dark feelings of victimization.

Instead of assuming a new national paradigm based on the reality of their accomplishments (national unity, robust international trade, and growing global influence), China’s leaders cling to the old paradigm of their country as victim, the “sick man of Asia” being “cut up like a melon” by predatory imperial and colonial powers like Japan. That bitter memory of oppression and exploitation lingers in the minds of too many Chinese like the afterimage of a bright light long after it has been turned off.


First and foremost, aiding and inciting the expression of popular anger against Japan gives China’s Communist Party leaders a powerful and readily available vehicle for rallying domestic support, thereby legitimizing their own power. At the same time, the demonstrations represent China’s experience of the world as an unequal place where the weak are inevitably bullied, exploited, and humiliated. This mindset suggests that, despite the panoramic city skylines, the billboards, and the flashy five-star hotels say otherwise, China has a long way to go before it truly comes to understand and appreciate its actual accomplishments and status.

This sense of victimization permeates nearly all aspects of China’s political life. It explains its leaders’ notorious paranoia and prickliness, constantly barking about “internal matters” and how the rest of the world should stop criticizing them. And it goes to the heart of China’s pattern of fomenting mass protests whenever its paranoia buttons are pushed (as they were by the 1998 embassy bombing in Yugoslavia, the Japanese textbooks this year, the crash of the US plane on Hainan Island).

Schell closes with a warning:

The role of victim is all too familiar to the Chinese, perhaps even somewhat comforting, for it provides a way to explain (and explain away) China’s problems. But it is also dangerous, because it derives from China’s old weaknesses rather than its new strengths. The era of Japanese militaristic and imperialist power has long gone, and the world is beating a path to China’s door. The last thing the country needs is to remain trapped in the past.

Is there hope for change? People often point to the “new generation” of Chinese who aren’t trapped in their country’s past, but their central position in the recent demonstrations against Japan make me wonder whether they still don’t have a long way to go before the ghosts of China Past are put behind them.

The Discussion: 19 Comments

Richard, did you post this twice?

June 6, 2005 @ 11:40 am | Comment

Dave, thanks for pointing that out. It’s fixed.

June 6, 2005 @ 11:48 am | Comment

Hey Richard, I had a response but it got long so here it is:

Et Tu, Orville Schell?

June 6, 2005 @ 1:08 pm | Comment

My take on China vs. Japan is 180 degrees from Schell’s, and more in line with Coll Hanninan’s commentary in Asia Times (http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Japan/GF03Dh01.html): China is responding to Japan’s emergence as a frontline state in the U.S. effort to contain China. I have a more fundamental gripe with Schell’s use of “bipolar”, and his implication that China is acting irrationally. Whatever you may think of the CCP leadership, they are not a bunch of guys in rags pushing shopping carts around Zhongnanhai and muttering to themselves about the radio receivers implanted in their skulls. They are hardheaded, ruthless, and rational politicians who have managed, through a tiny Leninist party, to keep control of the world’s most populous country for over 50 years. Painting China as “bipolar” and psychologically crippled by a “victim mentality” implies that the US can’t engage with China as a rational actor. This paves the way for assertions that China can’t be dealt with through conventional diplomacy as a peer; instead it has to be treated as a potentially dangerous pariah state, to be neutralized through containment, sanctions, and whatever other tricks the Bush administration has in its bag. The Bush administration tried the same tactic with Saddam Hussein to enable the invasion, even though susequent events have shown that Hussein was no irrational threat to the world. He was a rational, calculating dictator who knew how to run his country a lot better than we can. Things might have been different if the American public had understood that we were not bringing reason and sanity to the irrational madness of Iraq, but exporting ignorance, error, and wishful thinking to a fragile, resentful country instead. Is China irrational? Or is the Chinese regime rational but detestable? Yes, there is a difference.

June 6, 2005 @ 1:16 pm | Comment

Dave, thanks for the link – I just blogrolled you, by the way. Sorry it took so long!

China Hand, that’s a truly thought-provoking comment, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s a topic that makes me feel conflicted. Sometimes I think the CCP truly is irrational, but then, what’s irrational in my culture my be more rational in theirs. I agree completely with your arguments on Iraq — it’s the old “madman” motif we Americans just adore. Kim Jong-Il, Saddam, Qadafi, Idi Amin, Stalin, Mao — all are proud members of the Madman’s Club. These are people we portray as being beyond reason and thus a terrible threat to all humankind. (In some cases it’s justified, by the way, but sometimes it’s a cheap scare tactic.) And Schell, who is often sympathetic to China, perhaps falls into this trap, tainting the CCP with the implication that they’re madmen.

But then there’s my inevitable counterargument. They brought this on themselves to a large extent by their lack of transparency and their dreadful habit of reacting to any form of dissent with the classic Madman approach — infiltration by secret police, roundups, arrests, disappearances, torture and perhaps worse. Their reaction to criticism also doesn’t help their cause. Bush simply smirks criticism away and ignores it. The Chinese go ballistic, confirming in many minds that they’re still a bit nuts.

I like your description of the CCP a “rational but detestable.” Unfortunately, they can also be irrational and detestable.

June 6, 2005 @ 1:30 pm | Comment

Thanks, Richard, appreciate it!

I agree with China Hand on this:

Painting China as “bipolar” and psychologically crippled by a “victim mentality” implies that the US can’t engage with China as a rational actor. This paves the way for assertions that China can’t be dealt with through conventional diplomacy as a peer; instead it has to be treated as a potentially dangerous pariah state, to be neutralized through containment, sanctions, and whatever other tricks the Bush administration has in its bag.

Schell says: “China has a long way to go before it truly comes to understand and appreciate its actual accomplishments and status”. Why didn’t he spend this article talking about why China shouldn’t feel like a victim and talking about its accomplishments, albeit with a realism absent in Chinese media? More importantly, highlighting these accomplishments he mentions? The rest of his article is a stern diagnosis – didn’t we learn right here on Peking Duck that diagnosis doesn’t persuade anybody?

June 6, 2005 @ 2:32 pm | Comment

Just because the PR of C is paranoid doesn’t mean the US of A isn’t out to get it …. or at least contain it, neuter it.

If I was the Chinese leadership I’d be nervous of the US military presence/involvement in Japan, Taiwan; and now with some of the former Soviet states nearby … even the US engagement with Pakistan would scare.

But more interestingly on a non-military note, it must upset China to have these nonsense posturing threats from US treasury sec John Snow “demanding” that China change its monetary policy.

Demanding something is surely bound to increase the notion of victimhood, either if CHina gives in resentfully or stands up underdoggedly and refuses to play ball.

Anyway, putting myself in the place of the Chinese leadership … got me to thinking … how difficult is Mr Hu’s job anyway?

I reckon I could do it.

I reckon lots of people could.

June 6, 2005 @ 3:24 pm | Comment

The era of Japanese militaristic and imperialist power has long gone?

Maybe the power is gone, but if the idea still exists, the power may come back any time.

Read this
, an old article reflecting American interests on the website of Japan Policy Research Institute long before Chinese and Korean public demonstrations.

June 6, 2005 @ 5:36 pm | Comment

whoops.. sorry, forgot the “preview” button, a little coding problem.

June 6, 2005 @ 5:40 pm | Comment

More interesting articles from JPRI, turns out Schell knows nothing about right wing in both Japan and US. Is he a real expert? Or he is just too simple, sometimes naive.

The 1st quote. The combination of Japan’s desire to be more self-governing combined with a United States that on the one hand applauds Japan’s emergence as a military power and at the same time recognizes fears in Asia about Japan’s increasing military power is a toxic mixture. America has not and should not snuff out the natural evolution of Japan’s nationalism. America cannot be the cork in the bottle, but its attempt to be such will radicalize many Japanese. Instead of the advocate for American interests and power Koizumi has turned out to be, the United States may face in the future a slew of prime ministers whose legitimacy is determined by the intensity of their anti-Americanism.

the 2nd quote. Why should China’s emergence as a rich, successful country be to the disadvantage of either Japan or the United States? History teaches us that the least intelligent response to this development would be to try to stop it through military force. As a Hong Kong wisecrack has it, China has just had a couple of bad centuries and now it’s back. The world needs to adjust peacefully to its legitimate claims — one of which is for other nations to stop militarizing the Taiwan problem — while checking unreasonable Chinese efforts to impose its will on the region. Unfortunately, the trend of events in East Asia suggests we may yet see a repetition of the last Sino-Japanese conflict, only this time the U.S. is unlikely to be on the winning side.

the 3rd.“Why are we teaching our children to hate Japan?” said one. “America, China and Britain don’t teach their kids to hate their countries. We should be telling them that this is an amazing country and that they should love it with all their hearts.” “Compared with the colonial rule of the European countries and America, Japan’s rule of Asia was humane,” said another. “If we had not colonized Korea, America or Europe would have. We have nothing to be ashamed of.”

June 6, 2005 @ 6:02 pm | Comment

Reading these comments, I can’t help but recognise in the assessment of some that China is irrational, paranoid and neurotic engaging in a victim mentality now firmly implanted in their genes the same simplistic analysis of the Russians found in Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ that paved the way for four decades of misunderstanding and distrust during the Cold War.

June 6, 2005 @ 6:49 pm | Comment

I tried to post a long message here, but it wouldn’t let me for “questionable content” reasons. No idea what it was that caused it. It wasn’t the “s*c*i*a*l*i*s*m” word … I know to avoid that. Couldn’t work out what was the problem.

June 7, 2005 @ 12:15 am | Comment

Believe it or not, according to a RAND report, pentagon overestimates(intentionally?) the chinese military spending by 2/3. The new annual chinese military report partially by neo-con Mike Pillsbury is very hawkish toward China. It’s said that the threat of China is now considered at the same level of terrorism. (sorry, if you can read traditional chinese)
imagine Japan is fareastern UK, ASEAN is fareastern west Europe. China is the next USSR. That’s the picture of neo-con. Plus weak chinese currency, outsourcing, deficit, communism, religion and torture. Right wing can easily scare the hell out of Americans if they want to. Do you think they are exciting now? no, these have made Mike PillsburyS really high!

June 7, 2005 @ 12:31 am | Comment

FSN9, always email me the comment and I will place it for you. I fixed the socialism problem, but there are still words like “p-oker” that will block your comment.

June 7, 2005 @ 7:23 am | Comment

Lin, I would reply to you, but so far you’ve proven immune to reason, so I won’t waste my breath.

June 7, 2005 @ 8:30 am | Comment

China Hand,

Although your post here and in your blog appears to make a lot of sense. How do you explain “the man in the street” mentality of the average citizen in China? I worked with a PhD in Aerospace engineering from the PRC. He liked to say (before 9-11) that he wished that he could carry a couple of suitcases loaded with nuclear bombs to Japan. Given his generation that really surprised me.

I think that a great deal of bitterness, and animosity still exists between the Chinese, Koreans, and others and the Japanese. The Japanese do not help matters with a society that
is inherently racist, believing in the “purity” of the
Japanese race and discouraging “intermarriage”. It also does not help when a society believes that they are the “chosen people of God” and that everyone else is rabble.

The same problem appears to exist almost analogously in the Middle East. In Israel European Jews believe this to be true of themselves at the expense of the Arab population (and that includes
the “purer” Arab Sephardic Jews). How do you think the Arabs and the Palenstinians feel about this attitude? Well, wouldn’t the same be true for the Chinese et al?

June 7, 2005 @ 11:32 am | Comment

Hi, I am here only to send a message but not to fight against you guys. I truly believe here in Pekingduck, most of people would like to be the friends of China, and I truly appreciate that. What I’ve written is not to consider you guys as my enemies but to explain why chinese have tons of reason to guard the right wing movement in Japan and US. Especially when they don’t really have 100% confidence that you lefty guys will win over those big blood-sucking corporations, for instance, those in traditional industry, such as weapon makers. Walmart and new economy may gain from China, but weapon makers have their own way to push the economy and get free pizza. As a result, I more or less miss the Clinton’s administration. I am sorry that CCP has to play nationalism card to wake chinese people domestically, but seems it’s necessary. However what you may not see is that CCP is playing another card trying to let many US companies and american people gain from China development. I hope this strategy will work and we both win, but it’s a tough game. you may also see that China is distancing itself from Japan while engaging the rest of world, not only because of the hatred……The battle between China and Japan will continue…

June 7, 2005 @ 2:07 pm | Comment

Lin, I’m not comfortable with you keeping alive the Chinese tradition of categorising all non-Chinese as either “friends” or “enemies” of China. Can’t we all just be people exchanging views?

I shouldn’t pick you out because I’ve noticed a lot of Chinese commentors doing this.

Sometimes I might sympathise with the Chinese party line (friend of China) and other times not (enemy). It’s as simple as that.

I would look upon any American here as quite insane if they said that I was an enemy of the US.

On a seperate point, in my book their is never any excuse for playing the nationalist card and therefore pandering to people’s worst prejudices and most base of all human emotions, tribalism.

A few weeks ago, we saw mobs of people in China foaming at the mouth and spitting fire against a foreign nation.

How long do we have to wait until the next spy-plane incident, the next Belgrade bombing to see those same mobs turn against westerners as they did in 1999 and 2001?

June 8, 2005 @ 1:54 am | Comment

I was set upon by four young men right near my apartment building in Beijing Chaoyang just after the spy plane incident. The guards outside my block just stood and watched.

June 8, 2005 @ 11:24 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.