China's world view, in 6 parts

I remember being in a takeaway food shop queue in China. The foreign woman in front of me asked for vegetables and rice, in English. The Chinese woman behind the counter didn't understand, so the foreign woman helpfully said the same thing, but louder. Not being deaf, this didn't help the woman behind the counter. So the foreign woman shouted in a slow, loud voice, 'I WAAAAAANT VEEEEGETAAAABLES AAAAND RIIIIIIICE'. It was painfully embarrassing to watch, and fortunately, eventually a bilingual person provided some interpretation, and vegetables and rice ensued.

I tell this story as an illustrative parable. There has been much talk of late about the US (and Australia) pushing back more strongly against China's behaviour in the South China Sea, because what's been done so far hasn't worked. My point is that rather than saying the same thing more loudly and hoping for a different response, deeper cultural understanding is necessary.

In order to influence China's behaviour, it needs to be understood that Chinese decision-makers make choices based on a coherent, deeply held and powerful worldview that is fundamentally different from that in the West. As such, genuine and effective attempts to influence behaviour will need to recognise and engage with this worldview.

There are several basic tenets of this worldview that I'd like to note here, although in a vastly over-simplified way. Disclaimer: I am not Chinese and these observations are based on my research and analysis in China over the past decade or so. The different aspects overlap and are mutually reinforcing. Each has a fixed 'narrative shell', but within each shell content can shift according to the identity-building needs of the moment. I would argue that it is in this area of changeable content where we find the best opportunities to genuinely engage with Chinese decision-making:

Narrative shell 1: The century of humiliation

Content: We, China, suffered at the hands of you, the imperialist West (mainly the US and Japan), for over a century. You carved up our motherland for your own greedy purposes.

Implication: Everything without exception that the 'other' does or says about China is a part of an ongoing desire to contain China, and is typical, unsurprising, to be expected. Interestingly, the outside power in question changes according to politically expedience. The allied powers who wreaked the most havoc on China following the Opium Wars starting in the 1840s were the British and French, but they don't get a lot of emphasis these days.

Narrative shell 2: Without the Communist Party, our new modern China couldn't and wouldn't exist

Content: The Party might not be perfect but it decisively finalised the civil war, defeated the Japanese, lifted 550 million people out of poverty, and it is going to lead China back to its rightful state as a dignified international country. The New China and 'we Chinese' wouldn't exist without them.

Implications: Corruption, slowing GDP, pollution etc will not threaten the legitimacy of the Party. Its two key pillars are (a) the unspoken social contract that, as long as material well-being is improving, the people will not concern themselves with politics; and (b) a strong sense of shared national identity, currently premised on reinstating China to its natural role in the world.

Narrative shell 3: Cultural characteristics are unchanging

Content: Japan is greedy, expansionist, militant, untrustworthy; the US is imperialist and hegemonic; China is peaceful, responsible, and non-imperialist/colonialist.

Implications: see Narrative Shell 1. Particularly pertinent in discussions around US involvement in the South China Sea, and Japan in the East China Sea.

Narrative shell 4: We Chinese are uniquely unique

Content: There exists in the world only 'we Chinese' and 'the other', an undifferentiated mass of non-Chinese.

Implications: You will never understand us, you will always misinterpret us, you will always judge us unfavourably, so we can quite properly disregard external criticism.

Narrative shell 5: History is destiny

Content: China has always been a great civilisation, and always will be. The recent period of time where China has been weak and poor is nothing more than an aberration, and largely the fault of foreign powers. It is perfectly natural and obvious that China will overcome this temporary glitch and get back to where it was always meant to be.

Implications: It is reasonable, logical, natural and indeed self-evident that China will once again be the leader of Asia, and that other Asian countries will come to understand this, given time.

Narrative shell 6: China is a family

Content: When it comes to facing the outside world, we are Chinese first and foremost. National identity is critical to our sense of who we are when engaging with the world.

Implications: We will not 'air our dirty laundry' outside of China. We might have criticisms of ourselves, but we have no intention of discussing them with you, and we certainly don't accept your criticism of us.

This is of course a vastly over-simplified sketch of Chinese worldviews. However, it seems to me that the role of perceptions and identity in international relations decision-making is being dangerously disregarded in current analyses of and prescriptions for future action in the South China Sea. Just as the US is bemused that China can't seem to understand what seems to be obvious, so China genuinely cannot understand why the world fails to see that China is just coming back to where it was always meant to be.

This article appeared in The Lowy Institute’s blog The Interpreter.