Ethnocentrism’s trap

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Ethnocentrism’s trap

 Chae Byung-gun
The author is an international, diplomatic and security news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

China’s attitude toward Netflix drama “Squid Game” or kimchi or the movie “The Battle at Lake Changjin” suggest its considerable lack of qualifications as an empire. Despite the popularity of the movie about China’s participation in the 1950-53 Korean War, it is hard to fathom the assertion by the Chinese Ambassador in Pyongyang of the “Great Revival of the Chinese People” on top of his championing of the spirit of “Helping North Korea Defend Against America” during the war on his trip to the monument of the battle in Hamkyong Province. It is nonsense for a big country like China to bring ethnocentrism to the fore.
There are two prerequisites for being an empire: a huge territory and population, as well as an ability to unify the nation internally. That calls for a consensus on finding the greatest common factor in diverse cultures, ethnicities and religions, not to mention an effective system to address conflicts from such differences.
The terrible results of dreaming of an empire based on racial and ethnic superiority were manifested by the Nazi Germany and the Imperial Japan. The Third Reich rooted in the supremacy of the Aryan race and bent on totalitarianism came to a tragic end. Japan could join the ranks of modern states largely thanks to the amazing collaboration of awakened elites and their compliant populace. Yet their consciousness fell short of accepting the use of Korean language, which is the closest to the Japanese language in many respects. Their extreme sense of superiority that Japan is the only awakened country in Asia ended in ashes after two atomic bombs. While dreaming of an empire, Germany and Japan both wanted to build expanded tribal nations.
As the imperial days of subjugating other countries and peoples with armed forces ended long ago, imperialism has become a taboo word. But if you define an Alpha Nation — which maintains a big country internally while trying to lead the international community externally — as a “21st century empire,” China can meet the physical requirements given its enormous territory, population and production power. Today’s young people enjoying PC simulation games know very well that you can hardly defeat the enemy if it has an overwhelming strength in numbers.
But quantity alone is not enough for a country to become an Alpha Nation, as internal stability is another quintessential factor for an empire. Its top priority is maintaining a solid political system to incorporate diverse races, ethnic groups, factions and regions.
If you define an Alpha Nation as an empire, the closest to the definition is the United States, where people can pursue the American dream regardless of their backgrounds. That dream allowed a son of a Syrian immigrant to build an IT empire in the land of opportunity. (Steve Jobs’ biological father was Abdulfattah “John” Jandali.) At the core of the fundamental mechanism that enabled the U.S. to integrate its disparate sectors is the system which allows its people to make their dream come true.
Armed with ethnocentrism, China wants to become an empire with its unique propaganda upholding the Chinese Dream — as glamorously expounded by President Xi Jinping in 2012 — and reviving the outdated sinocentrism. But an empire based on ethnic superiority cannot be sustained, as seen in the past.
Looking back, it was proletarian cosmopolitanism, not sinocentrism, that helped build modern China. In the unified dynasties of China, their biggest concern was endless internal divisions and civil wars. Compared to the relative lack of outside enemies, abundant internal fissions and conflicts between the ruler and the ruled dominated the Chinese court. Communism put an end to the disintegration. In other words, it was not Confucianism but Marx-Leninism that dismantled China based on feudalism.
After looking for a frame for development from outside for a while, China is returning to sinocentrism. Since its ideological overcoat does not fit a grown body anymore, the country attempts to find an answer from the past. The Chinese ambassador’s recent addition of the revival of Great China to his eulogy to the Battle at Lake Changjin testifies to Beijing’s uninterrupted march toward a 21st-century empire.
If a country behaves like a tribal state after dismissing diversity and universality of the world, it cannot but shake internally and fuel instability externally.
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