In his younger life, President Xi Jinping’s father was arrested by the CCP, his family was harangued by the Red Guards and he was even sent to live in a cave. What does President Xi’s psychology of humiliation mean to the West?
China’s rise to power isn’t one of organic economic conquest due to a large population coupled with cheap labour costs. Nor is it due to the relative decline in economic and military might of the US and Russia. Though both of these factors play a part.
China’s growth wasn’t through serendipity, lack of competition or organic expansion: but it was through meticulous and scrupulous design, led from the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party, People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese National People’s Congress.
There's a psychological reasoning for this. And it poses a massive problem to the West.
Before Mao, China viewed itself as having been at the mercy of the world’s colonial powers. This century of humiliation, where China was divided, conquered and abused for natural resources, created a psychological burden on the nation. Indeed, with the backdrop of the Chinese civil war, few nations suffered the same war crimes as China during the Second World War – with the Japanese Imperial Forces inflicting unimaginable pain on the Chinese people. Most sources believe that 10-20 million Chinese civilians and non-combatants were murdered by the Japanese invading force during this period.
“While analysts often cite the Century of Humiliation as a driving force in Beijing’s policies, they too often ignore exactly how this collective trauma manifests itself in China’s 'never again' mentality,” Mark Tischler wrote in The Diplomat.
“Chinese collective memory has increasingly put more weight on the importance of Chinese strength as an antidote to a second century of humiliation.”
So much so is this a psychological burden of the people of China, that the Chinese government announced the end of the century of humiliation on numerous occasions: when they defeated the Japanese, when the British left Hong Kong and even during the Beijing Olympics. The scars are so strong on the people of the country, that revenge has become a rallying cry.
In a dangerous twist of fate, President Xi has a lifetime of humiliation to match that of his country.
Xi was the child of a high-ranking party official. By all accounts, his childhood was envious with a good education and family unit. This was until Mao’s cultural revolution in the mid-’60s, which sought to purge many influential party officials. Firstly, Xi’s father was sent to work in a factory and then later to jail on spurious charges.
During the cultural revolution, the father's incarceration and fall from grace became cause for huge shame for the family. Those previous privileges now no longer existed and the peasantry relentlessly targeted those families of those who had been targeted in Mao’s purge. The attacks and shame overcame Xi’s sister, who allegedly took her own life.
Indeed, when Xi was a child he was dragged onstage in front of a crowd of Mao supporters where those in attendance hurled abuse at him. A child! The terror, anguish and embarrassment he would have felt.
During this time in the cultural revolution, many children in major cities were sent to villages around China to learn from the rural peasantry. As a “sent-down youth”, Xi went to a small village called Liangjiahe where he lived in a house built into a cave.
“He wrote that he couldn’t stand the fleas, the poor food, the farm work, and after a few months, ran away to Beijing. He was arrested during a crackdown on deserters from the countryside and sent to a work camp to dig ditches,” Barbara Demick and David Pierson wrote in the Toronto Star.
For those who have not researched Xi’s life, it may come as a shock that the leader of one of (if not the) world’s super powers was a disgraced literal cave dweller who sat on the fringes of the maniacal Chinese Communist Party.
However, considering the psychological ramifications of the century of humiliation, perhaps there is no better leader than one who has had a lifetime of humiliation.
As of yet, I haven’t identified a suitable behavioural bias that explains Xi’s posturing to compensate for his lifetime of humiliation, and China’s posturing to compensate for a century of humiliation. Perhaps more research is needed into understanding the psychological basis in which an individual or a nation overcompensates from a chip on their shoulder through aggressive behaviour.
One thing is clear though. Both President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party are overcompensating for lifetimes of humiliation, and the West will be in their sights.
The posturing isn't to improve their homeland or the lives of their people, but simply to get even at the world who they perceive as having treated them poorly. For the west, this means that politicians, defence officials and citizens should not hold their breath for rational dialogue or a fair trading partner. China's growth was meticulously planned to win and dominate.
As Hilton Yip wrote in Foreign Policy, "It is time that the West stopped taking China’s victimhood claims at face value. Academics, writers, and China experts need to take a more critical and nuanced view of China’s 'century of humiliation'. China can’t use history as carte blanche to do whatever it wants."