Examples of the west ceding global leadership seem to have become a weekly occurrence. In the vacuum left behind it is natural to look for a replacement and for many, including the mandarins in Beijing, China appears to be the most credible.
But how much do we know about the kind of global leader China wants to be? The best place to start is with the stated intentions of the country’s leaders. On assuming the mantle of the ruling Communist party’s paramount leader in 2012, President Xi Jinping declared it his mission to realise the “China Dream”, which he defined as the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, according to official translations.
This phrase has been repeated ad nauseam since then and has come to underpin and justify everything China does. Building a new silk road to Europe, rapid expansion of the People’s Liberation Army and militarising artificial islands in disputed waters in the South China Sea — all are part of the glorious task of rejuvenation.
To an English-speaking ear, rejuvenation has positive connotations and all nations have the right to rejuvenate themselves through peaceful efforts.
But the official translation of this crucial slogan is deeply misleading. In Chinese it is “Zhonghua minzu weida fuxing” and the important part of the phrase is “Zhonghua minzu” — the “Chinese nation” according to party propaganda. A more accurate, although not perfect, translation would be the “Chinese race”.
That is certainly how it is interpreted in China. The concept technically includes all 56 official ethnicities, including Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs and ethnic Koreans, but is almost universally understood to mean the majority Han ethnic group, who make up more than 90 per cent of the population.
The most interesting thing about Zhonghua minzu is that it very deliberately and specifically incorporates anyone with Chinese blood anywhere in the world, no matter how long ago their ancestors left the Chinese mainland.
“The Chinese race is a big family and feelings of love for the motherland, passion for the homeland, are infused in the blood of every single person with Chinese ancestry,” asserted Chinese premier Li Keqiang in a recent speech.
This concept is reflected in Hong Kong where any recent arrival who can convince the authorities they are at least part “Chinese” can get citizenship. Meanwhile, people of Indian or white British descent whose families have lived in the territory for over a century will never be granted full citizenship rights.
Some theoreticians in Beijing even argue the modern idea of the sovereign nation state is an illegitimate western invention that contradicts the traditional Chinese notion of “all under heaven”, with the Chinese emperor at the centre and power radiating out from the Forbidden City to every corner of the earth.
Race-based ideas of national rejuvenation and manifest destiny have deep and uncomfortable echoes in 20th-century history and earlier European colonial expansion. That is why Communist party translators have opted for the misleading official translation of “nation” rather than “race”.
For many in the Chinese diaspora this linguistic trick does nothing to ease their discomfort as they are increasingly called on to contribute to the “great rejuvenation” regardless of their nationality or attitudes towards the ruling Communist party. Mr Li said it was the duty of all people of Chinese descent to help achieve the investment, technological development and trade goals of the People’s Republic of China.
He said they are also required to promote traditional Chinese culture (as defined by the Communist party) all over the world and to unwaveringly oppose Taiwan’s independence.
In exchange for compliance, the party offers the prospect of belonging to the “great family” of the Chinese race as well as a chance to participate in the country’s continued economic boom. But those who reject their filial duty to the Communist party risk being labelled “race traitors”, vilified within expatriate communities and banned from visiting mainland China.
For countries in China’s own neighbourhood the rhetoric of rejuvenation has starker implications. Under past dynasties and emperors large swaths of their current territory were conquered and controlled by China.
The logic of China’s great rejuvenation is essentially revanchist and assumes the country is still a long way from regaining its rightful level of power, influence and even territory.
The dangerous question for the rest of the world is at what point China will feel it has reached peak rejuvenation and what that will look like for everyone who is not included in the great family of the Chinese race.
Letters in response to this column:
Copyright The Financial Times Limited . All rights reserved. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.