Australia, China and the language of humiliation – The Diplomat


The recent visit to Taiwan by Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi sparked a temperamental reaction from China. Beijing’s subsequent army chest beat in the waters around Taiwan was designed to demonstrate that it is ready to use its military might to absorb the island. It would have been comical impulsive flexing of muscles if such an emotional response was made by an individual, but it becomes quite serious when such behavior is exhibited by a ruling state of China.

Alongside this display of national machismo was some curious language that came first from the Chinese Embassy in Canberra in an official statement and then from the Chinese Ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, in an address at the National Press Club in Canberra this week. The language used can help to understand the psychology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and illustrates how there is a perpetual tension between the way Australia and China approach the world.

Last week the US Secretary of State and the Foreign Ministers of Australia and Japan released a joint statement who condemned China’s actions in the seas around Taiwan as affecting regional peace and stability. In response, the Chinese Embassy in Canberra issued a counter statement asserting that rather than “expressing sympathy and support for the victim”, Australia instead “condemned the victim”. Clearly the CCP believes that Pelosi’s visit was an act of aggression.

China’s sense of victimhood is rooted in the control nature of the CCP and the emotional turbulence of its fervent nationalism. There was no physical violence associated with Pelosi’s visit; instead, what has been hurt is the CCP’s “national feelings.” Much of the nationalism the CCP has fermented is built around claiming something the People’s Republic of China (PRC) never had – the island of Taiwan. An unwavering assertion that Taiwan is an inalienable part of PRC territory is undermined by the fact that Beijing cannot even impose a parking fine on the island.

This is clearly humiliating for the CCP. Yet it is a humiliation he brings to himself due to his own maximalist desires. The party sought to create a new state in the PRC by overthrowing an earlier order, while simultaneously claiming ownership of all of Chinese culture and history. Taiwan was territory the CCP could not seize in its revolution, but its expansive claims also extend to a extraterritorial authority on all ethnic Chinese. His desires outweigh his abilities, leading to a constant state of outrage.

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Unexpectedly, it is also a humiliation that attracts the CCP. The language of humiliation has become very important to Chinese nationalism – a central pillar of which is the “century of humiliation” which China was subject to European colonial powers, Russia and Japan from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. The behavior of these states towards the Chinese people was undeniably negative, but to maintain the emotional appeal of this narrative, the humiliation must be In progress. It cannot exist only in the past.

When Xiao Qian spoke at the National Press Club in Canberra this week he used the language of humiliation to illustrate a point when asked if there might be a future meeting between President Xi Jinping and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese – “If you talk badly about me, why should I meet you? You humiliated me publicly, do I have to meet you to be humiliated face to face again? This prospect remains the main obstacle to normalized relations between Australia and China.

There is a perennial source of tension between China and Australia due to fundamental differences in how each state thinks and feels. Australia is above all a calm, sober and rational international actor. He’s far from perfect, given his treatment of maritime asylum seekers and his involvement in the US invasion of Iraq, among other things, but he’s generally invested in defending the mutually beneficial rules that try to govern the international system.

China, however, is a emotional state, often reacting in ways that are perceived – by the standards of Australian politics – as uncontrolled feelings rather than the result of careful consideration. As an authoritarian state, China is inherently wary of mutually beneficial rules, believing that they are designed to constrain hierarchical power that it considers to be its right. Authoritarianism sees relationships only in terms of dominance and submission: if you don’t actively dominate others, you are a victim yourself.

When Australia advocates mutually beneficial rules – or the status quo in Taiwan – China takes offense. This is what Xiao considers “humiliating”. If China were to have the natural authority to act as he sees fitso any statement highlighting the destabilization that would come from such actions is seen as a “victimization” of China, despite the crushing power gap between the two countries.

For Australia, it is a constraint. To those who yearn for both humiliation and seek to humiliate others in response, there is a chaos of emotions that makes diplomatic engagement normal, sensible and impossible to conduct. Every action taken by Australia to further its own national interests or to support stability in the Taiwan Strait will always be the bad in Beijing.


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