Dueling superiority complexes: China and the US

China has a superiority complex that is several thousand years old.  The Mandarin word for China – Zhongguo – is translated as Middle Kingdom, since, according to the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, in ancient times they “believed their empire occupied the middle of the earth, surrounded by barbarians.”

This self-image was challenged by Western powers in what contemporary Chinese leaders still refer to as its  “century of humiliation,” from about 1839 to 1949.  This period of numerous military defeats and unequal treaties began with the First Opium War, continued through the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and ended only when the Communist Party won its civil war against the Nationalist Party and founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  But even when China was losing war after war, the notion of Chinese superiority persisted. In 1860, Qing dynasty scholar Feng Guifen wrote of Britain and France: “Why are they so small and yet so strong?  Why are we so large and yet so weak?… What we have to learn from the barbarians is only one thing: solid ships and effective guns… The intelligence and wisdom of the Chinese are necessarily superior to those of the various barbarians…’”  (Destined for War, p. 322, italics added)

The rapid growth of the Chinese economy over the last few decades has led to the re-awakening of this Chinese sense of superiority.  This is seen most clearly in the “Chinese Dream,” announced in 2012 by Chinese leader Xi Jinping soon after he took power.  One of its most visible projects is the Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious plan to reinvent the Silk Road, a network of trade routes that linked China to the rest of Asia and Europe between approximately 100 BCE and 1400 CE.  The modern version is planned to increase trade with China by improving transportation in over 70 countries with half the world’s population and cost over $1 trillion. 

But the Chinese Dream involves much more than roads and sea routes.  It is a broad vision of China’s future which, according to an article in the US China Daily, “integrates national and personal aspirations, with the twin goals of reclaiming national pride and achieving personal well-being.”  According to George Magnus in his book Red Flags (p. 3) in terms of personal well-being its stated goal is “for the Party to lead China towards greater prosperity, a better quality of life, and dominance in modern industries and technologies.” Needless to say, this promise of a better life has been very popular. In the years since Chinese social media have been filled with plans for such improvements as “better air quality and safe food.”

In terms of national aspirations, Harvard Professor Graham Allison summed it up (Destined for War, p. 107) this way: “What does President Xi Jinping want?  In one line: to ‘Make China Great Again.’” Hmmm. That sounds familiar.  I wonder whether they have MCGA hats.

According to a special report from the German media company DW “The Chinese people… and especially the political class in Beijing, [now] see the strengthening of their country as the correction of a historical anomaly. President Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’ …  [has] promised the Chinese people the return to the grandeur of…  a millennium-old civilization that was the world leader in culture, science, technology and administration right up to the 16th century.”

Will China achieve these goals?  Many experts have doubts, given the economic and social challenges that China faces, including excessive debt and an aging population.  Meanwhile, in pursuit of these goals, changes in Chinese law have made Xi “in effect, a dictator with more personal authority than anyone since Mao Zedong” (Red Flags, p. 3). This has created a backlash, albeit one that is tightly controlled by Party censorship and, when necessary, the arrest and jailing of dissidents.

But the vast majority of Chinese people have high hopes.  According to a survey conducted a few years ago, “When we asked Chinese what country they feel is most ideal today, they answered the United States. When we asked them what country would be ideal in 10 years, they said China.”  When a colleague of Harvard Professor Graham Allison interviewed a deputy mayor of Shanghai (Destined for War, p. 139), he said “he would know that China was rich again when every upper-middle-class family in Shanghai had an American houseboy.”  I hope he was kidding.

The US superiority complex is not even two hundred years old, but it is no less powerful.  While it would be politically incorrect for US politicians to refer to other countries as “barbarians,” there can be little doubt that our superiority complex is at least a match for China’s. 

By almost all critical measures, at this moment in history the US ranks ahead of China.  We’ve got more guns and more money.  Oh, and don’t forget the moral superiority of our democratic system.

In a graduation address at West Point in 2004, George W. Bush said that “The 20th century ended with a single surviving model of human progress, based on non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance.”  Similarly, a few years earlier, US Secretary of State Madeline Albright argued that “We are the indispensable nation.  We stand tall.  We see further into the future… If we have to use force it is because we are America.”  As Carl Minzner summed it up (End of An Era, p. 162), Americans have a “near-genetic inability… to conceive that steady evolution toward a more liberal political order is anything other than the natural progression of history.” 

Some of this may sound a bit cynical, so don’t get me wrong.  Deep in my bones, I personally believe that our system is superior to China’s. Indeed, I believe the American system is the best in human history.  Of course we’ve got plenty of problems, starting with racism and poverty. And I can always find something to complain about. But, in my opinion, we’re still number one. 

Of course, the problem is that deep in their bones many Chinese also know that they are number one.  Could this duel of superiority complexes threaten world peace?  More on that in my next post.

2 thoughts on “Dueling superiority complexes: China and the US

  1. Pingback: Will China become the most powerful country in the world? | Understanding China, five minutes at a time

  2. Pingback: Wolf Warrior Nationalism | Understanding China, five minutes at a time

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