Protesters in Hong Kong demand the release of Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human-rights activist who is serving an 11-year prison sentence. Yinan He, associate professor of international relations, argues that domestic politics plays a key role in China’s official rhetoric towards the U.S. and other Western nations.
The first part of this century was a time of contradiction in China, says He. China endured a succession of trials: An earthquake in Sichuan killed more than 80,000 people, ethnic riots in Tibet and Xinjiang left hundreds dead, government corruption caused unprecedented social unrest, and dissidents published a human-rights manifesto demanding an end to one-party rule.
Yet, while other countries struggled, China enjoyed record economic growth and surpassed Japan in 2010 to become the world’s second-largest economy. And the 2008 Beijing Olympics stirred a deep sense of national pride. He believes that a careful reading of China’s domestic politics can help explain its occasionally aggressive behavior in the international arena and can apply to much of Chinese history.
He explains this dynamic in her forthcoming book, which will relate domestic turmoil to the anti-foreign rhetoric employed by Chinese leaders from the late 19th century until modern times. She argues that China’s domestic political considerations motivate much of its international conduct, especially its occasionally harsh criticism of Japan, the United States and other Western nations. By reading the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese government, He says it is possible to establish a “causal link” between spikes of anti-Western rhetoric and increases in domestic tension.
The conventional wisdom would argue that China’s leaders lash out against the West and other countries when they feel the country’s security is threatened. He disagrees, and cites as one example the case of Liu Shaoqi, the second most powerful man in China under Mao, who spoke out against the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, was placed under house arrest and died there in 1969.
He says the accusation against Liu—someone too closely allied with the Soviet Union and the U.S.—is part of another pattern in Chinese history: the linking of domestic “troublemakers” with foreign “others.”