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Wang Jisi: How identity politics is aggravating China-US tensions

Author: WANG Jisi Date:2020-09-16

Editor's note: This article is originally published on South China Morning Post,

https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3101282/how-identity-politics-aggravating-china-us-tensions


How identity politics is aggravating China-US tensions

Wang Jisi 

Published: 6:45am, 15 Sep, 2020

I have given a number of speeches on China-US relations in China since the bilateral trade war in 2018, and especially since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The most frequently asked questions are, “what are the root causes of China-US tensions” and, “why is the United States always trying to push China around?”

Different speakers give different answers. The most popular is that China, as a rapidly rising power, is challenging US dominance in the world, and the United States, for fear of losing its hegemony, is trying to contain China’s ascendance.

Another answer points to their different ideologies and political systems. Intellectuals argue that the US has always attempted to change China in its own image or to undermine the Communist Party’s leadership by supporting political dissension and separatism.

My own explanation has been a combination of the two answers. However, on reflection following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, I find this explanation not comprehensive enough.

Faced with the daunting challenge of the coronavirus, instead of strengthening cooperation in public health areas, China and the US have engaged in a propaganda war, reproaching each other about the origins of the disease. The rhetorical battle cannot be interpreted by either side as simply reflecting the disparity between their clashing “national interests” or vying for power, supremacy or differences of ideology and political systems. The wrangling reminds us of the significance of identity politics in today’s world.

Identity politics refers to a political approach where people form exclusive sociopolitical affiliations aimed at supporting the concerns and agendas of particular groups, usually identified by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, economic class, religion, language and culture. Identity politics usually aims to reclaim greater self-determination and political freedom for marginalised peoples.

People in China’s interior may find it alien to comprehend the concept of identity politics. However, people in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang or Tibet may often remind themselves how much they are culturally and politically different from their compatriots in Beijing and Shanghai. To this extent, identity politics is very much alive in China today.

People most commonly identify with their statehood or nationhood. However, peculiar to both China and America is an identity larger than their respective nationhood. To many American elites, the US represents Western civilisation at large, democracy itself and sometimes even the international community.

Chinese elites often refer to China as representing Eastern civilisation, without realising others in the East do not recognise China as such. They also see China as a nation speaking for developing countries. Increasingly, China identifies itself as acting on behalf of the international community.

Fragmentation and chaos in global politics and a sluggish global economy since the financial crisis of 2007-08 have created the political brew that has seen the erosion of bilateral relations in subsequent years. A number of these features were evident before the Covid-19 outbreak, and they will continue to be visible well after the crisis fades away.

First, an inevitable consequence of globalisation is the exacerbation of socioeconomic inequalities worldwide, between nations, ethnic groups and within societies. Second, worsening inequalities give rise to populism. In multiethnic countries such as the US, populism is reinforced by a form of nationalism that tends to blame other countries for its own failures.

Third, socioeconomic inequalities and populist nationalism tend to breed strongman politics and authoritarianism. The fight against the coronavirus calls for resolute government measures, which tend to favour more powerful political authorities. The efficiency of the Chinese government and the deficiency of the US federal government in coping with the pandemic is a good comparison.

Fourth, technological advancement is a double-edged sword. On one hand, information technology, artificial intelligence and other innovations better the quality of life. On the other, they are easily used by governments, political organisations and demagogues to brainwash people, instigate radical and nationalistic sentiments, restrict freedom and violate privacy. They will also enlarge the rich-poor gap and build up walls between groups of different identity.

Identity politics thus reinforces existing divisions and mistrust within societies and among nations. As such, it tends to underpin nationalism in both China and the US, further disrupting cooperation and mutual understanding.

Through the prism of identity politics, especially in China and America, we may obtain a clearer understanding of why strategic antagonism is hardly avoidable. Their political values will continue to be fundamentally contradictory. What is more, the two countries will remain clearly distinguishable civilisations, each claiming to represent the future. Their respective leaderships know how to play with identity politics to unite their own polity against their opponent.

Identity politics is penetrating deeply into the mindset of more and more Chinese and American citizens as relations sour. This is partly related to Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations”. Huntington pointed out that “People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity. We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.”

It is time for Chinese and Americans – and in particular ethnic Chinese living in America – to think about who they are, who they are not and who they are against.

Huntington further contended in 2004 that, “The ideal enemy for America would be ideologically hostile, racially and culturally different and militarily strong enough to pose a credible threat to American security.”

Today, China appears perfectly qualified to be cast as the US’ principal adversary. By the same token, the US looks like the ideal enemy if China needs to find one. To a large extent, China and the US have already engaged each other in a long-term competition that is reminiscent of the Cold War and could also prove even more disastrous in the post-pandemic era if malign words and hostile actions become habitual behaviour.


Wang Jisi is a Boya University Chair Professor and president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies, Peking University in Beijing, and a distinguished fellow of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

This article is published in a content partnership with the Asia Society Policy Institute‘s Covid New (Ab)Normal initiative.

Editor: LI Fangqi

Copyright@2014 Institute of International and Strategic Studies Peking University. All Rights Reserved.

IISS, School of International Studies, PekingUniversity, Haidian District, Beijing 100871, China

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Copyright@2014 Institute of International and Strategic Studies Peking University. All Rights Reserved.