China in Transition

Sinocentrism or Paranoia?

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

The Japanese call the arrogant superiority complex of the Chinese "Sinocentrism." Such a perception forms the backbone of China studies in Japan as an "ideology" that can be taken for granted without proof. However, because "Sinocentrism" is so different from the realities of modern China, it must be said that making it a presupposition in analysis of the country does more harm than good.

It is true that there was a time when China was the center of the world, reaching the pinnacle of its prosperity during the Tang and Song dynasties. However, after the Opium War, China's national strength rapidly deteriorated, and it became a semi-colonial country whose very existence was threatened. Even after the Communist Revolution of 1949, although China regained its sovereignty, the country was frustrated by troubles both at home and abroad, and far from embracing Sinocentrism, the nation had no choice but to resign itself to the position of a Third World country, synonymous with developing nation. Nevertheless, many Japanese are concerned that China might one day aspire to rebuild its former empire. Such a fear on the part of the Japanese is one reason behind the widely held perception that China poses a threat.

In reality, however, how many Chinese actually harbor the ambition of becoming the center of the world? Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, urged that in order to achieve freedom and equality, China must "join hands with the peoples of the world who treat us on an equal footing." The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence upheld by the current Communist Party government - mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence - are in the spirit of this, and there is no trace whatsoever of Sinocentrism.

As for ordinary Chinese people, they are always suspicious of the intentions of foreign countries, and this suspicion breeds fear. From "The China That Can Say No," which was a bestseller several years ago, to the xenophobic opinions which fill up the BBS of the People's Daily Online, these are more expressions of a complex toward industrialized countries, rather than being examples of Sinocentrism. This image of the Chinese in a state of despair was magnificently portrayed by the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun in his "True Story of Ah Q," which was published in 1921. Ah Q, in addition to being ignorant, consoles himself through the "method of spiritual victory" whenever he is humiliated. In fact, many Chinese sought to blame the poor performance of modern China solely on the invasions by the Great Powers, and did not attempt to do any soul-searching regarding their own civil conflicts, nor strive to improve themselves.

The sentiment of having been persecuted by the Great Powers runs so deep in China that people tend to view policies and actions taken by foreign countries, Japan in particular, as conspiracies. China's uncompromising stance regarding the sovereignty of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet, not to mention "a revival of militarism in Japan," should be interpreted more as a sign of its lack of confidence as opposed to any hegemony stemming from Sinocentrism. In fact, a real hegemonic power, like the United States, will never have its sovereignty violated, even if it violates that of another, and therefore has no need to stress its sovereignty. Rather, it could be said that the self-righteous unilateralism pursued by the Bush administration, as seen in the war against Iraq, is an ethnocentrism of sorts.

In order to achieve a real normalization of ties between Japan and China, we must do away with mutual distrust. The major obstacles to this are the idea among the Chinese that Japanese militarism will revive, and the belief in Japan that China has Sinocentric aspirations. The two countries will never be able to extract themselves from this vicious circle, in which misunderstanding breeds misunderstanding, so long as people on both sides ignore the reality and continue to make guesses regarding the other's intent based solely on past prejudices.

August 1, 2003

August 1, 2003