What does it mean to be Chinese? A strong tradition in premodern China held that it meant thinking, behaving, and living in a society in accord with heaven-sanctioned principles exemplifying the best way to be human. Other peoples could learn this Chineseness, and they could also become civilized, but they could never rival China in either defining propriety or drawing people into accordance with it.

For centuries, this way of thinking went largely unchallenged, and even today, its fundamental assumptions run deep. To be Chinese still means to exhibit proper behavior and to be part of a civilization that has primacy in the world. Most modern Chinese would accept this, at least tacitly. Where they would disagree—often sharply—is over just what values Chineseness should stand for today. Is the moral model of premodern times still relevant in the modern political context, or should it be displaced by newer ideas of political morality? Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” is best understood as a backward-looking answer to the question. But in spite of his wishes, the debate will continue, and it could contribute to instability and even violence in the coming decades.

A man talks on an iPhone in Beijing, July 2013.
Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon


Traditional Chinese family values, often called “Confucian,” were deeply ethical, although not egalitarian. A father had authority over a son, and the son was bound to obey. But the father was bound, too: he had to be a proper father, treating his son as a father should, and could be held up to public scorn if he did not.

Political norms were based on the family model. A ruler had absolute authority over his subjects but was morally bound to treat them properly. If he did not, they could flee or rebel, and the ruler might lose his “heavenly mandate” to rule. And how could rulers learn what proper treatment of subjects was? By reading and internalizing texts. Officials at all levels were chosen through examinations in the Confucian classics, the memorization of which was thought to instill a morality that equipped them to be proper leaders.

The term “Chinese” implicitly meant “Han,” referring to China’s dominant ethnicity. Over the last century, both nationalist and communist governments have tried to counter this ethnocentricity, embracing a definition of “national citizen” that included non-Han peoples as well.
This system worked, but not always well. Sometimes the exams were corrupted, and sometimes the world of officialdom amounted to little more than routinized bribery—flaws that were clearly in evidence during the mid-nineteenth century. But even with the system at a low point, assumptions about how it was supposed to work held strong. The legitimacy of officials was supposed to be based on their morality, with virtue increasing all the way up the chain to the emperor—the “son of heaven,” whose only superior was nature itself. Non-Chinese peoples who fell outside this system, meanwhile, were considered ethically inferior; their role was to pay tribute to, and learn from, the center.

The term “Chinese” implicitly meant “Han,” referring to China’s dominant ethnicity. Over the last century, both nationalist and communist governments have tried to counter this ethnocentricity, embracing a definition of “national citizen” that included non-Han peoples as well. This new usage gained some traction at official levels, but in daily life, “Chinese” has continued to be understood, implicitly, as Han. A Han family living in Singapore or San Francisco, for example, is regarded as huaqiao—meaning “Chinese abroad”—even after several generations, but nobody would think to use that term to refer to a Uighur from Xinjiang who has moved to Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. In the unlikely event that a Caucasian baby were adopted by Chinese parents and raised in China, the child would not easily be thought of by locals as Chinese. But a Han baby adopted and raised in the United States is normally regarded by both Chinese and American communities as “one of us.”

Throughout most of China’s history, the traditional moral-political model was able to withstand or absorb outside influences. Buddhism came from India, Mongol and Manchu invaders swept in from inner Asia, and traders from the Near East arrived along the Silk Road and by sea, but the system held fast. Chineseness was too powerful to 
be dislodged; it was the invaders 
who adapted.

The city wall in Beijing, after its capture by the English and French armies on October 21, 1860.
The arrival of the industrialized West, however, broke the pattern. When the British, armed with advanced cannons, won a series of starkly unequal battles along the Chinese coast in the mid-nineteenth century, China was shocked in an unprecedented way. Feelings of humiliation grew even stronger at the end of the century when Japan—a “little brother” civilization in the traditional Confucian world, but one that had cleverly learned the Westerners’ tricks—defeated China in another quick and one-sided war. Chinese leaders recognized the need to change, albeit reluctantly, and ever since, their mantra has been “Do what is necessary to rebuff the outsiders—but only what is necessary,” keeping Chineseness intact otherwise.

One of the first responses by the Chinese to the British cannons was to upgrade their own. But to do that, China needed Western science, and to get that, it needed Western schooling—which meant learning Western languages and traveling abroad. This seemed a slippery slope; the core of Chineseness might fade away. Some Chinese thinkers in the early twentieth century went so far as to call for scrapping the traditional model and opting for all-out westernization. But most stopped short of that. Mao Zedong, for one, used the slogan “foreign things for China’s use”—with China, by implication, retaining its core identity.

Meanwhile, the modern world kept coming: electricity, textile mills, rail and air travel, finance, diplomacy, computers, the Internet, and more. China did not really have a choice about whether to let these things in, even though some of them undermined established patterns. Having to pay lip service to words such as “democracy” while continuing to resist what they actually meant led to hypocrisy. Mao called his rule a “people’s democratic dictatorship” and claimed that it was administered through “democratic centralism.”

In front of the Great Hall of the People at Beijing, November 2012.
Reuters / Carlos Barria
Such language was an attempt to continue the traditional authoritarian model under a fashionable modern label. But other Chinese took the new words and concepts at face value. Early-twentieth-century thinkers, such as Hu Shih and Luo Longji, embraced Western notions of democracy and citizen rights, as did more recent figures, such as the late astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.

Ordinary Chinese people, too, have moved in this direction; the notion that everyone has rights has spread widely in recent decades. In Mao’s time, simply pronouncing the phrase “people’s rights” in public was dangerous; today, even farmers in small towns organize to assert their rights. The change has been gradual, but it is real.


In recent decades, Chinese Communist Party leaders have tried to revive the traditional moral-political model with certain modern adaptations. Xi’s “Chinese dream,” for example, emphasizes wealth, national pride, and obedience to authority. Media and schools stress the idea of patriotism, with “love of country” considered conterminous with “love of the Communist Party.” Ideas such as democracy, human rights, and modernization are mentioned as well, but generally with the appendage “with Chinese characteristics,” to indicate that they have been modified to fit into Communist Party authoritarianism. And a “Chinese model” of development supposedly offers other countries an example of an authoritarian route to wealth and power.

Underlying all these developments is a vision of China returning to its place at the center of the world, serving as the defining example of how things should be. Yet this vision remains a mere possibility, not a certainty, because strong currents in Chinese society run against it. Foremost among them is the popular perception that the prevailing system benefits a privileged elite more than the nation as a whole.

Underlying all these developments is a vision of China returning to its place at the center of the world, serving as the defining example of how things should be.
The gap between rich and poor in China has grown immensely in recent years, and common people often feel that the wealth of the politically connected elite has been won through graft, repression, and private connections more than hard work and enterprise. Ordinary people see their land confiscated and their savings depleted, and those who resist are bullied by hired thugs. The Internet has made it difficult to keep events of this kind secret, and popular resentment has led to protests, including strikes, demonstrations, and road blockades. Hundreds of them occur every day, forcing Beijing to spend scores of billions of dollars annually on “stability maintenance”—a euphemism for “domestic security.”

On the Internet, meanwhile, there have been recent signs that some Chinese have been moving away from equating the country with the Communist Party. Because Internet censors use filters to track the use of sensitive words such as “government,” regular Internet users have invented sly substitutes. Standard work-arounds for references to China’s rulers have included terms such as “heavenly dynasty” and even “western Korea”—meaning “western North Korea.” Forty years ago, such sarcasm was unthinkable. Twenty years ago, it was rare. Today, it suggests the emergence of new grounds for conceiving of national identity, based on something other than identification with the party.

Xi’s “Chinese dream” stresses party-loving patriotism and materialism, but it does not say anything about the moral treatment of fellow human beings in daily life. This is a major weakness, given the heavy emphasis that Confucian tradition puts on interpersonal ethics. No dream about what it means to be Chinese in the twenty-first century can feel right in Chinese culture if it omits all mention of moral behavior. Democracy advocates who speak of “rights” and “dignity” may be using foreign terms, but they are also answering a very traditional Chinese question about how people should relate to one another.

China’s rulers surely recognize the lacuna in their dream, but they fear the concept of citizenship because it gives the populace too much autonomy. They want followers, not citizens.
China’s rulers surely recognize the lacuna in their dream, but they fear the concept of citizenship because it gives the populace too much autonomy. They want followers, not citizens. This is why they spend so much effort and money pushing the ideas of materialism and state strength, whose shallow appeal has had considerable success. Many Chinese, especially the urban young, have bought into the notion that being Chinese in the twenty-first century means being materialistic, nationalist, and aggressive. Whereas Chinese students of a generation ago admired Western life and values so much that they built a statue, Goddess of Democracy, on Tiananmen Square, today, after decades of government-sponsored anti-Western indoctrination, many see the West more as a hostile rival than as a friend.


Beijing’s massive domestic security efforts are geared primarily toward keeping a lid on protests by China’s lower classes. But not all sources of contemporary instability are rooted in economic inequality. Power rivalry within the elite, for example, is a perennial concern. Recent factional squabbling has occurred among the so-called princelings (children of prominent revolutionaries), the Youth League faction (allies of former President Hu Jintao), and the Shanghai Gang (associates of former President Jiang Zemin).

An army officer and tourist guides in Fujian province, December 2013.
Reuters / Stringer

Strife among competing factions of the elite differs from friction between the elite and the underclass, but the two levels of conflict can align when members of the elite see opportunities to manipulate popular discontent to their advantage. This occurred in 2009–11, for example, when the Chongqing-based princeling Bo Xilai exploited widespread anger over corruption in order to build support for his attempt to jump ahead of his rival princeling Xi and position himself as the country’s next leader. Bo’s gambit failed: he now sits in prison. Meanwhile, having ascended to the top himself, Xi is using an anticorruption campaign in part to fuel his own popularity and bring down rivals.

One sign of insecurity within the elite is the eagerness of many to send wealth and family abroad. Many rich Chinese have emigrated in recent years or have at least taken steps to make their future emigration easier; Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, and the United States are favorite destinations. The number of Chinese students from prominent families sent to school in the West has risen sharply, as have private Chinese real estate investments in North America. And residents of Hong Kong have complained that maternity wards in local hospitals have become overcrowded because mainland Chinese women come to give birth there, so as to ensure that their babies receive automatic local residency rights.

China has many strong regional identities—in Guangdong, Sichuan, the Northeast, and elsewhere—and patterns of talking back to Beijing, or pretending to obey while in fact going one’s own way, have played out for decades.
China’s military bureaucracy is less transparent than its civilian counterpart, but it appears to be just as fraught with corruption and internal rivalries. The danger of military disobedience is indirectly suggested by warnings from civilian leaders (including Xi) against any such actions.

China has many strong regional identities—in Guangdong, Sichuan, the Northeast, and elsewhere—and patterns of talking back to Beijing, or pretending to obey while in fact going one’s own way, have played out for decades. Yet residents of these regions would have no hesitation in identifying themselves as Chinese; their local actions pose little threat to national unity or the stability of communist rule. The Chinese heartland, therefore, is not in danger of falling apart. But the demands for autonomy by Tibetans, Uighurs, and the residents of Hong Kong and Taiwan do represent a challenge to the official conception of national identity.

For Tibetans and Uighurs, the desire for self-rule is rooted primarily in differences of ethnicity, language, culture, and religion. For Han Chinese living in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the impulse emerges from the past century’s history and politics, which have given them a sense of independent identity. Since party ideology holds that minorities are treated equally and love the motherland, secessionist longings by Tibetans and Uighurs embarrass the authorities in Beijing and pose a threat to their claims of legitimacy. The economic and social success of Hong Kong and Taiwan pose a different sort of threat by making clear, contrary to Beijing’s official line, that Western-style democracy can work just fine with Chinese citizens.

Beijing’s response to all four cases has been the same, essentially declaring that each area is part of China whether its residents desire it or not. Communist Party leaders have used all four to stimulate nationalist sentiment within the Chinese heartland and to position themselves as guardians of national pride. To hear party officials tell it, the otherwise diverse figures of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, the former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian, and the Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong have one trait in common: their desire to “split the motherland.”


The popular Western view of China 
as a self-confidently rising power is dangerously superficial. The country is certainly wealthier than it was four decades ago, and its military, diplomatic stature, and international economic presence are all much stronger. Living standards have improved, and hundreds of millions of Chinese have moved out of poverty through their own hard work. Beneath the surface, however, insecurity is widespread among everyone from rural farmers to members of the privileged urban class. People fear tainted food, water, and air, and rampant corruption and chicanery sour the public mood and erode trust. The spread of the Internet and the readiness of ordinary people to assert their rights have made it far harder for the government to keep society in line today than during Mao’s regime two generations back.

Souvenirs for sale in Beijing, March 2015.
Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon

Hu, who stepped down as the top leader in 2012, seemed to spend the last few months of his term running out the clock. His successor, Xi, took office knowing that China faced a crisis and that he had to try something different. His response, however, has been to fall back on the familiar revolutionary ideas of his parents’ generation. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was Mao’s confederate in the 1940s and 1950s. He strongly believed that a Spartan, uncorrupt Communist Party organized under a unified command could “serve the people” (in the words of the then-common slogan) and could bring them happiness. Mao later persecuted Xi senior, and the Maoist project failed in spectacular ways. Xi junior observed those failures, but he has nevertheless started to head down a similar path. Since 2012, he has sought to fashion himself as a repeat of Mao—centralizing power, launching anticorruption drives, targeting rivals, and even suggesting a move toward a cult of personality.

This is a dangerous game, for several reasons. Xi is no Mao, in terms of either intellect or charisma, and the society over which he rules is far more refractory than the one Mao dominated. Although Xi’s anticorruption campaign has drawn popular support and hurt some of his enemies, continuing it in earnest will soon require going after his own allies, including relatives and senior military officials, which could produce a backlash sufficient to take down the regime. However, failing to press forward—the more likely prospect—will expose Xi as just another conventional ruler and cause his popular support to drop. In this sphere, as in others, the lessons of the 1950s have limited contemporary utility.

The scholar Jonathan Spence titled his excellent history of the country The Search for Modern China. The word “search” was an inspired choice. For nearly two centuries, the great ancient civilization of China has been looking for a way to reinvent itself for the modern era. This process has involved fits, starts, and reversals; it has caused trauma and led to at least 70 million unnatural deaths.

The key questions today are whether the Communist Party’s project to revive Chinese-style authoritarianism in modern clothing will succeed and, if so, what its effects will be—both on China and on the world at large. Taking both global and local history into account, one would have to bet against success; despite occasional setbacks, the long-term trend toward greater popular participation in politics seems clear. But the Chinese government has pulled off unexpected successes in many areas in recent decades, so it could surprise here as well. If it does—if it can engineer its retrograde political vision at home and export authoritarianism abroad—both China and the world will suffer, left waiting for a vision of Chinese identity more suitable for the present age.

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