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Review by Amb. (ret.) Joe O. Rogers

coverNever Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, by Zheng Wang, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0231148900, 312 pp., $29.25 (Hardcover), $23.75 (Paperback), $13.99 (Kindle).

Zheng Wang is an Associate Professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University and a global fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Along with several other distinguished positions, he has been a Dr. Seaker Chan Endowed Visiting Professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs (SIRPA) of Fudan University in Shanghai. Never Forget National Humiliation won the International Studies Association’s Yale H. Ferguson Award for the best book of the year.

Professor Wang’s current volume provides a fascinating look at the efficacy of the propaganda machine of the Chinese Communist Party as Jiang Zemin and his successors worked to reestablish legitimacy of the CCP following the collapse of its Communist ideology in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.

Wang takes the reader through the collapse of Mao’s internationalist, revolutionary ideology where “the CCP made class distinction rather than ethnicity the foundation of political identity” through to the current legitimization of the CCP as the sole force capable of, as Wang quotes Jiang, “achieving independence of our country and liberation of our nation and putting an end to the history of national humiliation once and for all.”

Chapter 2 provides a concise description of the very real century of national humiliation suffered by China from the Opium Wars to the conclusion of WWII. Chapter 3 takes the reader through the period of burgeoning nationalism from the late 19th century, Sun Yat-sen’s Revive China Society and the May 4th Movement to Mao’s rejection of nationalism (“[D]uring the Cultural Revolution, nationalism and even patriotism were rejected as ‘bourgeois ideology’) and China’s role as ‘the center of world revolution’.”

Chapters 4 and 5 are the meat of the book. ere Wang describes how the loss of legitimacy of the CCP as the sole political power in China led it change from the great victor over the bourgeoisie establishing the new China to the adoption in 1991 of the “patriotic education campaign” which established the CCP as the leader of the revolution which expelled the Japanese and ended Western incursions.

Beginning with a quote from Deng Xiaoping five days after Tiananmen on how the failure of the CCP to educate youth on the need for hard struggle and “about what China was like in the old days” was “a serious error on our part”, Wang describes the process through which the propaganda machine began the process of implementing directives from Jiang Zemin including a letter in which he set forth an ‘illustrative summary of modern Chinese history.” That is, a history of modern China, which abandoned the CCP’s class struggle narrative and “focused on the struggles with outside forces.”

This education/propaganda campaign was the final death knell of Communist ideology in China. Wang points out that there were no Chinese history courses in high school prior to the implementation of this campaign. Students had learned Chinese history in middle school. Beginning in 1992, with newly written textbooks following Jiang’s interpretation of history, all high school students were required to learn the ‘victimization narrative” as “the CCP leaders realized the very survival of the party depended largely on whether (and how soon) they could change the younger generation’s attitude toward both the Western powers and the party itself.” The lessons of the new narrative are front and center in the highly competitive entrance exams for China’s universities as well as forming the core of newly required university courses, making them “one of the most important subjects in the national education system.”

The narrative, as Wang explains in detail, had been enhanced through museums, monuments and other patriotic education bases including 100 national “demonstration bases” of which 40 focus on “memory sites of China’s past conflicts or wars with foreign countries.” This is not unusual if one thins of the monuments spread across Europe and the U.S. to long ago wars. However, it is in stark contrast to the proletarian revolution narrative of Mao’s time.

At the end of Chapter 4, Wang explains the intricate efforts of the CCP to institutionalize the national humiliation narrative via party mobilization campaigns, media and entertainment.

Chapter 5 covers the evolution of the CCP in step with the change of narrative from a party of the proletariat to one “of wealthy entrepreneurs and university professors as well.”  It also explores the central place into which the new narrative puts reunification of Taiwan. Chapter 6 offers an understanding of the CCP’s approach to the 2008 Summer Olympics and the inevitable conflict between foreign protests of the Olympic torch run and Chinese youth.

This reviewer has experienced their success in classes taught at one of China’s top universities. Flowing out of discussions regarding China’s energy imperatives and protection of sea-lanes and pipelines, my students went on immediate war footing when discussing the South China Sea and Japan.

Mature MBA students were openly anxious for war with Japan and totally nonplussed at the notion that China might start a fight it could lose. It had never crossed their minds. It would be an interesting exercise to be at dinner with students who have been through education based on the new narrative and their parents who have lived through the civil war, Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and the “reform and opening up”!

Unfortunately, the Prof. Wang’s excellent depiction of the rebranding of the CCP is marred by his attempt to shoehorn it into an academic construct of “historical memory”. This is largely the content of Chapter 1, which can be skipped without damage to the interesting story and important message of the book. The final three chapters, which attempt to explain contemporary Chinese foreign policy in terms of this construct, devolve into a confusion of China’s international self-interests, the needs of the CCP and reaction to events all wrapped up in the national humiliation narrative. There are important insights woven in but the confused construct makes them difficult to gain.

Had Wang applied the same excellent logic and analysis he used for describing the CCP’s adoption and subsequent imposition on the Chinese people of a new legitimizing narrative to its application to foreign policy without the theoretical structure of “historical memory”, the book would have been much improved.  Having so clearly established that the national humiliation narrative is a construct of the CCP propaganda machine, having these same propagandists directed by this narrative in foreign policy is simply not credible.

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