China’s “strategic encirclement” by the West “has become more concrete and more obvious,” the new book, which is riveting the collective Chinese attention, argues. Moreover, perhaps even worse, the country itself suffers from a “weak-nation psychology” that makes its leaders shamefully timid and deferential in their dealings with other leaders, or in such international forums as the G-20 summit in London. It’s a national disgrace that so many of the country’s own intellectuals take so much to heart the constant carping of the world’s China bashers, who complain annoyingly about everything from the country’s air quality to its treatment of Tibet. “China,” the book concludes, should “come to recognize that it has the power to lead the world and to break away from Western influence.”
Every once in a while, China, which sees itself sometimes as a looming superpower and sometimes as an insecure and backward developing country, gives rise to an expression of nationalist irritation and great power ambition that seems kind of frightening to the rest of the planet.
What makes China Is Unhappy noteworthy is that the country’s growing power is attached to a kind of nationalism of grievance and resentment that is encouraged by the government, even as that government sometimes worries that nationalism could get out of hand.
The latest example of this, and one of the most striking, is China Is Unhappy, written by a group of well-known nationalist figures, one of whom, a journalist named Song Qiang, contributed to a similar and widely noted nationalist manifesto of 1996 called China Can Say No. The new book, written by Song and four others, is being much discussed in China even as an ever-more-powerful and influential China is the hot topic at the G-20 meeting. China Is Unhappy is No. 1 on the country’s most popular online bookstore's bestseller list, so it would seem that its themes are resonating in China itself, among them that China should adopt nothing less than a "heroic mission" in the world, boldly pursuing its ambition to be a superpower even as it frees itself from the criticisms of a West bound and determined to prevent that from happening.
In a way, China Is Unhappy is a sequel to China Can Say No, striking many of the same defiantly nationalist themes. But it is also an index of how much has changed in the 16 years that separate the two volumes. The question about the new book is whether it signals a China bound to be more aggressive than before, a country whose recent success—economic growth, greater wealth, a successful Beijing Olympics—masks a chronic and somewhat paradoxical discontent that will make the country more aggressive, determined to throw more weight in the near future. True, 1996 was already a time of nationalist posturing, some of it at least rhetorically threatening, as when China’s state-controlled propaganda machine warned the American Seventh Fleet to stay out of the Taiwan Straits, or else (the Seventh Fleet, whether wisely or cravenly, did stay out). In the meantime, China has gotten a lot bigger, stronger, and, arguably, more ambitious. Its control of some $2 trillion in foreign reserves increases its financial power at a time when the rest of the world is suffering. Its military expenditures have continued to increase at a double-digit pace yearly. Some long-term China watchers note a new style among China’s leaders. Or, as one of them, Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution, told the New York Times on Tuesday, there’s “a greater confidence that China has now become an important place and needs to act that way.”
Well, it was and is bound to happen that China will become more assertive as its power, soft and hard, increases. What makes China Is Unhappy noteworthy is that the country’s growing power is attached to a kind of nationalism of grievance and resentment that is encouraged by the government, even as that government sometimes worries that nationalism could get out of hand. The long century and a half when China, poor and weak, was invaded, berated, semi-colonized, and humiliated by foreign countries has left its enduring mark, partly in the widespread conviction among many Chinese that when you come right down to it, nothing really has changed. The West, with the cooperation of Japan, still wants to drag China down, to hem it in, to keep it weak—all of these convictions being well represented in China Is Unhappy. Whenever some incident occurs—for example, a foreign leader meets that “jackal” the Dalai Lama or makes nice to Taiwan—Chinese propaganda insists that “the Chinese people are insulted.” The sense of national grievance, the special prickliness of China, is connected to more than a century of self-scrutiny, a search for the habit of mind that would explain the country’s weakness. The country’s best-known and most celebrated 20th-century writer, Lu Xun, found it in the country’s spiritual backwardness, its superstition, and what he identified as a habit of self-delusion. The authors of China Is Unhappy complain about the country’s culture of “self-debasement.
But not everybody in China is buying the argument, which is unusually explicit in its criticism of the country’s leaders. One commentator in the China Daily newspaper, which is a vehicle of the official view, wrote that, in light of the new book, there are two competing and contradictory visions of what “a good China” should be. To international critics, it would “sit docilely at the far end of the conference table, raising a quiet hand to any motion that the chairman wants to present.” Domestic nationalists think “a good China is having its chief delegate banging the conference table at the…G-20 summit in London with a shoe.” A middle position for the Middle Kingdom is the correct stance, this commentator concludes.
Still, if nothing else, China Is Unhappy would seem to illustrate the continuing appeal in China of the sense of nationalist sensitivity that has been part of the country’s identity for decades. In an interview with Time magazine, one of the book’s authors, Wang Xiaodong, allowed that the title wasn’t chosen by the writers themselves but by their publisher “just for the purpose of promoting the book in the marketplace.” That’s a sign that the very capitalist culture that China has adapted from the suspect West has rooted itself every bit as deeply as the resentment against the West illustrated by Wang’s book.
Richard Bernstein is a writer based in New York. He was a critic and foreign correspondent for the New York Times for 24 years. His new book, The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in June.