By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing
After 21-year-old Cai Yang was arrested in September for beating a Toyota-driving Chinese compatriot with a bicycle lock during an anti-Japanese protest, his mother tried to explain his actions.
“The education at school always instills the idea that Japanese are evil people and if you turn on the television most of the programmes are about the anti-Japanese war,” Yang Shuilan said. “How can we possibly not resent the Japanese?”
Apart from the fact that Cai’s 50-year-old victim was Chinese not Japanese, Ms Yang makes a valid point.
In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and the fall of the Soviet Union, China’s leaders concluded that the Communist party needed to improve its “thought work”. So they launched a new “patriotic education” campaign that continues to this day.
The selective teaching of history – emphasising the brutality of foreign invaders and ignoring atrocities or mistakes by China’s leaders, is intended to boost the party’s legitimacy by cultivating a nationalistic, anti-western victim mentality among young Chinese.
This campaign replaced the historical narrative of class struggle eventually won by the Communist party with a strong focus on China’s struggles with foreigners. It transformed China from a glorious victor into a weak and persecuted victim.
One of the most puzzling and troubling aspects of the rising tensions between China and its neighbours is the disconnection between how the world views China and how China – from ordinary citizens to top leaders – sees itself.
To the rest of the world, China looks like a huge and scary juggernaut intent on bullying smaller countries. In the minds of many Chinese, theirs remains a poor, weak and humiliated nation. How can you be a bully if you are the one who is always been picked on?
Young Chinese are also taught that their country has always been peace-loving, never expansionist. It is a highly distorted view that overlooks the country’s history, including a border war with Vietnam as recently as 1979.
The fruits of two decades of patriotic education can be seen in a rapid shift in China’s foreign policy stance toward its neighbours.
For a long time, China pursued a policy intended to bring surrounding countries into its orbit. But after a spate of territorial disputes with virtually every important regional partner, Beijing can now call on just two as allies – Pakistan and North Korea – both of them dysfunctional.
The most serious regional dispute is with Japan, which brutally occupied China during the second world war and where a rightwing government has just been installed in a landslide election win by a population nervous about Chinese aggression.
Just a year ago, if someone suggested that war could break out between China and Japan, he or she would have been dismissed as a crackpot.
But today, western diplomats and even some senior advisers to the Chinese government are worried about a conflict erupting if a Chinese ship or aircraft were to collide with a Japanese vessel around disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Talk of war among Chinese officials and ordinary citizens is alarmingly common. One theory that has gained some currency is the idea that Beijing would come out well from a “limited war” in which it showed its resolve and shored up domestic support for the new administration of Xi Jinping.
Proponents of this view, although very much in the minority for now, argue that the US is a “paper tiger”, much diminished by its Middle Eastern adventures and the financial crisis. They maintain that Washington would not be drawn in if Beijing could quickly capture a few uninhabited islands from Japan.
Other, more level-headed, Chinese strategists dismiss this and argue Washington would be forced to draw a line in the water of the East China Sea to show its allies throughout the region that the US was willing and able to stick up for them.
For now, talk of war remains the stuff of fantasy for old generals and young men such as Cai Yang who have been raised on a steady diet of nationalism and bitter humiliation.
The rest of the world cannot change China education system or its deeply ingrained worldview. But, at the very least, foreign leaders need to understand the mentality of their Chinese counterparts.