Racial Nationalism and China's External Behavior

By Sautman, Barry | World Affairs, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Racial Nationalism and China's External Behavior


Sautman, Barry, World Affairs


Racial nationalism has appeared often in the context of "rising states" dominated by one ethnic group. The racial nationalist hegemony in the United States from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries imagined the Anglo-Saxons to be an ingenious "race" with an ancient, inbred value system propitious to development, leadership, and the subjugation of "backward races."(1) Racial nationalism attracted some of the most democratic figures of the age. The Civil War-era abolitionist leader Theodore Parker, for example, held that national differences hinge on inherent racial qualities. His racial nationalism involved a hierarchy from whites at the top to blacks at the bottom and disparaged non-Teuton Europeans, such as the Irish and Spaniards.(2)

Racial nationalism, as a worldview based on a biologized, hierarchized, and essentializing ethnicity, has had an Asian dimension as well, most apparent in Japanese theories of racial superiority. Early twentieth century Japanese elites argued that they were not Orientals, but the intellectual superiors of other East Asians. These notions culminated in the 1930s in the idea of the "Yamato Race" as the "leading race," a view that elevated Japanese above Chinese and Koreans as thinkers and leaders, based in part on a supposed "Aryan" component to Japanese ancestry.(3)

Racial theories continue to resound in contemporary Japan,(4) repeatedly cropping up in statements by Japanese officials. A state telephone official, asked about differences between U.S. and Japanese semiconductor producers, responded that "the Japanese are a people that can manufacture a product of uniformity and superior quality because the Japanese are a race of completely pure blood, not a mongrelized race as in the United States."(5) Then-Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro made it clear in 1986 just who provided the negative component of "mongrelization" when he commented that Japanese IQs were much higher than those of Americans, because the United States has blacks and Hispanics.(6)

Racial nationalist disparagement by Japanese officials has not been limited to non-Asians. Japan's foreign minister of the early 1990s, Watanabe Michio, once dismissed Chinese as "cave dwellers." Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi stated in 1993 that, "The $20 billion which Japan has invested in ASEAN is the source of the region's economic dynamism." Surveys show that Japanese rank "people of color," including other Asians, as the least desirable neighbors and associates.(7) Racial nationalism inheres in discrimination against other Asians in Japan that is much harsher than prejudices to which whites in Japan are subjected.(8)

The existence of racial nationalism in the People's Republic of China (PRC) has been noted but not analyzed. Thus, a collection of important essays on Chinese nationalism contains few references to contemporary ethnicity or race and no mention of any influence of race, ethnicity, or even nationalism on PRC externalities.(9) Apart from the general reasons for the neglect of ethnic factors in international relations theory,(10) a number of China-specific reasons come to mind. First, scholars accurately see the PRC as mainly a regional actor.(11) Race is still imagined in terms of hoary typologies that group East Asians as a "Mongoloid race."(12) Some scholars claim that race has nothing to do with discourses in China because, like other East Asians, "most of China's 56 component ethnic groups are Mongoloid in race."(13) The record of Japan's experience, however, belies such logic. Second, China's elites conduct policy against the backdrop of millennia of sophisticated diplomacy and have an array of interests.

It may seem implausible that they would allow anything as crude as racial ideology to impinge on their external behavior. Other powers, however, have been influenced by race in their external behavior. Racial factors were important in U.S. Vietnam policy in the 1960s, in the Falkland Islands policies of the United States and United Kingdom in 1982, and in Japan's policies toward Africa. …

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