Webcast Recap

National identity discourse strongly influences the behavior of states within East Asia. According to Gilbert Rozman, Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow and Musgrave Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, there is a national identity syndrome among countries in the region, deeply rooted in their Confucian heritage and shared historical experiences. He sees national identity discourse as most intense in China, where authorities have crafted a dominant top-down narrative that structures perspectives of other nations. China's recent spike in identity exceeds earlier Japanese or Korean spikes.

Based on empirical observation of political discourse in China, Japan, and Korea, Rozman outlined six dimensions which collectively form his framework for analyzing discourse on national identity. In his presentation, hosted by the Asia Program and the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, he applied this framework to China.

Rozman's first dimension is ideological, where a three-part amalgam has emerged in China: the reemergence of political narratives favoring socialism; the revival of pride in Confucianism, which is now interpreted as compatible with socialism; and an anti-imperialist, anti-hegemonic outlook,

The second, temporal, dimension is articulated when Chinese narratives emphasize the nation's history in order to create a positive national identity. Currently this is manifested in glorification of the pre-modern Sino-centric tributary system as a model of harmonious relations with other nations. There is no surprise in the stress on humiliation to 1949, but a major change is found in treatment of the Cold War as the fault of U.S. anti-communism with little differentiation until the end of the 1980s. Also views of the post cold war decades are now more negative, highlighting further humiliation of China and even victimization of North Korea by the United States and Japan.

The third dimension of his analytical framework is sectoral. According to Rozman, Chinese political discourse currently emphasizes China as the center of a vibrant Eastern civilization which stands opposite a West in decline. Meanwhile, Chinese analysts claim that there has seldom been friction between China and Islam, as opposed to Western nations' apparent hostility towards Islamic peoples. This dimension includes economic national identity, now celebrated as leading to China overtaking all other states, and political national identity, a lynchpin in claims to superiority.

Fourthly, Rozman identified a vertical dimension, boasting of China's exceptional cohesion under Communist Party leadership. In today's China there is an emphasis on state-centered domestic governance in official narratives, as opposed to narratives of the past which emphasized decentralization and forms of governance based on family units. The threat of globalization is fiercely rejected in defense of a unique model.

Fifthly, discourse follows a horizontal dimension comprising views on the identity aspects of relations with other states. According to Rozman, there is continued emphasis on regionalism, but only as a means to achieve integration under China's domination, excluding the United States and undermining its alliances. Meanwhile, Chinese narratives treat the notion of "responsible stakeholder" as an insidious way to get support for the U.S. dominated international system, not a changed world order.

The final dimension in his framework is one of intensity, indicative of how strongly the national identity is asserted. Rozman noted that there is some overlap in each of the dimensions in the three Northeast Asia nations, but nowhere is national identity spiking more than in China, where rhetoric has recently grown increasingly assertive.
Indeed, such intensity often leads to a redefinition within a given national discourse of the identities of other states. Rozman claimed that since 2009, top-down Chinese narratives have come to demonize other nations, particularly Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Such demonization is associated with national identity "gaps," where bilateral relations are of great significance for each side's identity. When such gaps occur, diplomacy becomes complicated and even ineffective, partly because national representatives cannot find common ground on which to negotiate.

Rozman's review of recent Chinese writings has led him to the conclusion that the Chinese government, buoyed by new confidence partly due to economic growth, is deliberately widening national identity gaps, even to the point of referring to them as divisions between civilizations. China's new assertiveness, he argued, is closely linked to its evolving approach to national identity. Rozman believes that there are clear parallels between the way China is manipulating national identity discourse and the way the Cold War powers did so, and that, unless China's narrative changes direction, Americans will find it tempting to make comparisons between the Soviet-American identity gap during the Cold War and the Sino-American gap today.

By Bryce Wakefield
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program


  • Gilbert Rozman

    Musgrave Professor of Sociology, Princeton University