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China is widely regarded as a millennia-old nation-state, but this is a misconception, journalist Bill Hayton claims in his new book. He spoke to DW about the nation-building process in China.
In his new book, The Invention of China, journalist Bill Hayton reconstructs the nation-building process of modern China. He shows how nationalist-minded intellectuals and activists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries took up Western concepts of people, language, territory and history, among other things, to paint a picture of a millennia-old nation-state that, in fact, never existed.
In an interview with DW, Hayton explains China's nation-building process, how it affects other countries and how democratic nations should react to an increasingly nationalistic Beijing.
DW: When did the nation-building process in China take place?
Bill Hayton: I would say it's an ongoing process. For example, after the victory of the Communists (in the Chinese civil war from 1945-49), Marxism was the most important factor. But it divided the nation into those who were against and those who fought for the revolution.
After the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and killings, there was an attempt to redefine the Chinese nation, and to bring the Taiwanese and the people who were on the losing side of the civil war back into the nation.
Recently, President Xi Jinping added a new layer, by trying to bring in all of them who are considered ethnic minorities — like the Tibetans, the Uighurs and so on — into a single Chinese nation. And that again has been a redefinition of what the Chinese nation is.
Hayton: 'Xi now seems committed to the idea that there has to be a single way of being Chinese, a single way of being part of the Chinese nation'
The idea of the Chinese nation has changed quite a lot. One of the core things, and obviously this is what Xi Jinping is trying to wrestle with at the moment, is this idea of whether there is a single Chinese nation, a single Zhonghua minzu, or whether there are 56 different nations, i.e. ethnic groups within the country — the word minzu is used for both.
And Xi now seems committed to the idea that there has to be a single way of being Chinese, a single way of being part of the Chinese nation, and he's going to impose that with a very heavy hand.
Most people worldwide view China as a nation with a millennia-old roots. What would you say is wrong about this perception?
One can say that there are continuities in culture that go back a very long time. The fact that modern scholars can read very old texts shows that the language goes back a long way, at least in written form.
But that is different from saying that the Chinese nation goes back a very long time. A nation has a sort of boundary around it — defining who's inside and who's outside — and that boundary (in China's case) was only defined over the past century and is still being re-defined.
The core "cultural area" that Chinese nationalists look back to as the "original China" — along the valleys of the Yellow and the Yangtse rivers — was only a very small part of today's China.
For significant periods of the past 5,000 years, there were entirely separate states and peoples living on the territory of what is now China. Obviously, we think about Tibetans and Uighurs, but even Manchus and the people in Yunnan province, for instance, had different states, different ways of speaking, different cultures and so forth. The idea that there's been a single state called China, a single nation going back to ancient history, isn't supported by the evidence.
Where did this idea come from?
It was a very conscious decision by activists and intellectuals around the end of the late 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. They borrowed European ideas and constructed a nation along the kind of ideas that were fashionable in Europe at the time.
And why does the Chinese Communist Party still hold onto these ideas?
It's really important for them to project continuity back from the past because it cuts down the possibility of criticizing the current situation. If you can convince people that things have always been this way, then there's no reason for them to question why they shouldn't continue to be this way in the future.
Beijing is engaged in a process of stifling separatist feeling in Tibet and Xinjiang or even in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan. And it needs to convince not just its own people and the people in those areas, but also the wider world — people in Europe and the United States, among others — that this is the natural state of affairs and that there is a Chinese nation dating back millennia.
The conclusion of such a version of history is that there's no point in trying to resist it. It's a historical fact. And this use of history is possibly the most important psychological tool in the in the toolkit of the People's Republic.
Would you go so far as to say that China is a colonial power, regarding Tibet or Xinjiang, for example?
They clearly are a colonial power internally in the way that they have taken over other societies which are culturally different and are trying to "smelt" them into a single identity.
The amount of resources and money that Beijing is prepared to throw at the problem it perceives in retaining control of Tibet and Xinjiang are in a completely different order to anything that I think we've seen almost anywhere else in the world. The idea that you could try to re-educate a million people is not something that we've ever seen in any other colonial situation.
How does China's nation-building process affect other countries dealing with the People's Republic?
What the People's Republic wants to do is to cut down discussion, make the price of diplomatic and trading relations with China as the acceptance of Chinese definitions of its nation and territory and so forth.
Companies are penalized if they, for example, mention Taiwan as a separate place on their websites. Universities get into trouble if they allow the Dalai Lama to come and speak on their campus.
China uses its economic leverage to stifle perfectly legitimate discussions or statements about reality, like the fact that Taiwan has been governed as a separate state for decades.
And they are trying to stop discussion of alternatives not just in their own country, but also in other countries. We've seen it in Australia where the Chinese embassy presented its list of 14 complaints. Among them was the fact that the media and think tanks had been expressing views that the Chinese government didn't like.
How should democratic countries react to an increasingly nationalistic China?
I think we have to insist on our own values and stand up to our own beliefs. We must also insist on the right to ask questions, to have different points of view and so forth. A trade deal doesn't justify closing down discussions in our universities or newspapers. And obviously, we're going to have to work together collectively because the amount of pressure that the PRC can place on individual countries is huge. So the only option is for smaller and middle-sized countries to band together.
Bill Hayton is a journalist, author and an associate fellow at the British think tank Chatham House. He wrote several books about Asia. His latest, The Invention of China, was published by Yale University Press in 2020.
The interview was conducted by Rodion Ebbighausen.