After decades of rising tension between the United States (US) and China, it is difficult to escape the popular narrative that the “American era” is drawing to a close. Global public trust in American leaders has been in decline since the presidency of George W. Bush, whose War on Terror crusades led to a collapse in global perceptions of the US as the world’s rightful leader, even across countries alleged to be steadfast US allies. While the Obama years saw a brief return to the perception of the US as the world’s leader, Trump has overseen a renewed – and accelerated – collapse in global trust.
Looking at President Trump’s record in office, it is easy to see why. Over the last four years, Trump has presided over a series of major domestic and international calamities: the death of over 200,000 American citizens from COVID-19, an economic depression deriving from his crisis response failures, uproar over the abandonment of US allies in Syria, and a wave of national civil unrest equal to or worse than any other over the last half century. At the same time, China has continued to establish itself as the world’s foremost economic power through its complex Belt and Road international trade routes and construction projects across more than 60 countries – which many suggest lock developing countries into Chinese debt in the process – while making a name for itself with continual GDP growth rates higher than any country in the West. Speculation is rife that China is soon to overtake the US as the world’s hegemon, and that the 21st century could become the “Chinese century”.
What drives a country to become the “leader of the world”? One factor appears to be having a population with a deeply held faith in the singular virtuosity and value of their nation-state. Something that greatly assists in this is the belief in a national myth, or an idea that your state has a unique destiny. Nationalist myth compels productive forces in a country – workers and capitalists – to be ambitious, in many cases to give up their personal lives for their country’s economic development, and to work towards achieving their country’s promised dream both for themselves, and for their country. While the American Dream holds that anyone in the US, no matter their class, gender, or race, can supposedly become wealthy and successful, in China, as part of a drive to achieve what General Secretary Xi calls the Chinese Dream, the Chinese Communist Party has urged young people to “dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfil the dreams and contribute to the revitalisation of the nation”.
Today, harking back to the height of the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese Communist Party utilises the national myth of Sinocentrism – China as the historical centre of the world – to declare their rightful return to global strength, to once again lay claim to the borderlands of East Turkestan, Mongolia and Tibet, and to use any force necessary to crush the separatist movements acting against their interests.
While both national dreams are similarly geared towards engaging productive forces, nationalist myth in the US has been in existence for centuries. Over the 20th century alone, generations of children at public schools in 45 out of 50 states have, every single day, recited a phrase devised in the 19th century by a man named Francis Bellamy – ironically, a self-professed socialist – to demonstrate their rhetoric commitment to their country’s founding promise: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands—one nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.”
Francis Bellamy’s words were later adapted in 1954 at the height of the US competition with the Soviet Union, when the words “under God” were added to the pledge, supposedly to distinguish the US from “godless Communism”. Today, the ubiquity of these words and their daily recital across the country embody the crucial patriot attitude needed to encourage a population towards national glory, with a nationally-instilled commitment to the belief that they are “the greatest country in the world”.
The words of Francis Bellamy directly echo the founding myth of the US, famously inscribed in 1776 in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal” and the country was built on democracy, liberty, and justice. However, the founding myth of the US was never fulfilled. The centuries after 1776 saw the continued enslavement of over four million Africans, the desecration by disease and war of North America’s indigenous population, and centuries of racial, gender and social inequality that still plague American society today.
China too has its historical nationalist myths. The historic Qing Dynasty saw the Chinese empire at its height dominating 5.68 million square miles across eastern Asia, the fourth largest empire in human history. Today, Chinese nationalistic mythology holds that the lands of the Qing Dynasty – Tibet, Mongolia, and East Turkestan, known today as the Xinjiang province – are China’s by right. The final years of the Qing Dynasty, in which the imperial powers of the West, Russia, and Japan militarily and culturally subjugated much of the Chinese population, are commonly known in China as the “Century of Humiliation”. Today, harking back to the height of the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese Communist Party utilises the national myth of Sinocentrism – China as the historical centre of the world – to declare their rightful return to global strength, to once again lay claim to the borderlands of East Turkestan, Mongolia and Tibet, and to use any force necessary to crush the separatist movements acting against their interests.
The American myth of “manifest destiny”, that Americans were compelled by God to spread their culture across the continent to the detriment of its native inhabitants, is not so dissimilar to the Chinese domination over native peoples in its border regions.
In many ways, Chinese nationalism today bears a striking resemblance to the trajectory of American nationalism. The American myth of “manifest destiny”, that Americans were compelled by God to spread their culture across the continent to the detriment of its native inhabitants, is not so dissimilar to the Chinese domination over native peoples in its border regions. Even the name Xinjiang itself means “new frontier”, echoing the westward travel of colonists across the North American landmass as they conquered indigenous territory. The ongoing mass detention and oppression of the Uyghur people, who are the indigenous inhabitants of Xinjiang, is a similar project of indigenous eradication – though a somewhat more modern, systematic, approach of control and cultural assimilation.
Under the Chinese Communist Party’s first leader, Zhou Enlai, the process of essentialising certain elements of Uyghur culture, such as singing and dancing troops or traditional dress, became a strategy to shape the region’s people into national subjects. The author Adam Hunerven writes that “multiculturalism, as a relation of Han domination over minorities, resulted in a widespread invention of new cultural categories. Under the direction of Zhou Enlai in the early 1950s ‘teachers, scholars and experts’ were sent to teach Uyghurs how to be ethnic”. In doing so, the Chinese state attempted to prevent any form of “local nationalism” in Xinjiang from arising, keeping the indigenous population of the new frontier assimilated into a subservient component of the modern nation-state.
The large-scale detention of Uyghurs came later, in response to several separatist terrorist attacks on public areas in Xinjiang by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, who claim to have links to Al Qaeda. While doubt has been cast about the veracity of claims of Uyghur mass detention (and even genocide) by the Chinese state and its online supporters, satellite footage and official documents from Xinjiang indicate otherwise: huge spikes in government construction tenders for detention centres from 2016 onwards, birth rates dropping due to sterilisation (which the Chinese state admits, but claims is voluntary) and leaked government documents of operation manuals for staff in internment camps. In the US, the event known as the Trail of Tears which was intended to deal with the so-called “The Indian Problem” had a similar end goal – the crushing of indigenous culture, and the internment in “stockades” (later “reservations”) of those who dissented. And in yet another mirroring between the world’s two competing hegemons, directly mirroring George W. Bush’s infamous campaign, the name of the policy of mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang is “The People’s War on Terror”.
One feature of the Chinese nationalist myth project which curiously contrasts to the American national project is in its very specific time-defined goals. The concept of Xiaokang (a moderately prosperous society) is the first goal that General Secretary Xi announced on China’s road to rejuvenation. First proposed by Deng Xiaoping in 1980, Xiaokang was initially conceived of as the goal of quadrupling China’s GDP by the year 2000. Although the GDP goal was met by this time, public perception among many of China’s one billion citizens at this time was that they did not feel they were yet “moderately prosperous” – approximately 50% of the country’s rural population were still below the nationally-defined national poverty line, and nearly 130 million people were still living in internationally-defined absolute poverty. In 2012, as the newly appointed General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi announced that Xiaokang would be truly fulfilled by 2021, in time for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. In the new conception of Xiaokang, both GDP and per capita income figures would be double their 2010 levels, theoretically leaving no one below the poverty line. It looks unlikely that this goal will be met.
In both China and the US, national myth has been leveraged to promote a sense of a unique destiny for both the nation-state and its people, and in-turn created the conditions for both states to rise to global prominence.
In both China and the US, national myth has been leveraged to promote a sense of a unique destiny for both the nation-state and its people, and in-turn created the conditions for both states to rise to global prominence. The aspirations of the American myth of manifest destiny were achieved far beyond the dreams of its creators, with American culture spreading not only “from sea to shining sea” but across all seas of the world, becoming embedded within the national psyche of the 21st century through market forces, military domination, and media saturation. But the unfulfilled mythical promise of democracy, liberty, and justice for all has fractured the country along polarised racial and political lines for centuries, slowly eroding the perception of the US as a unified and civilised world leader. It remains to be seen whether China’s ambitious project to re-assert itself as a world leader will usher in the “Chinese century” – or whether like the US, the unfulfillment of its own national myths will fragment its colossal population and usher in societal collapse.