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How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics, John M. Friend and Bradley A. Thayer

Reviewed by Ketian Zhang


John M. Friend and Bradley A. Thayer analyze an important form of Chinese nationalism—Han-centric nationalism. Friend and Thayer examine the origins of China’s Han-centric nationalism, the potential effects of Han-centric nationalism on Chinese foreign policy, and policy recommendations for the United States.

Friend and Thayer argue, first, that Han-centrism “is a form of hypernationalism with distinct social Darwinian and culturally chauvinistic dimensions” (p. 4). According to them, Han-centrism is xenophobic and directed toward foreign nationals, other races, as well as ethnic minorities in China. Friend and Thayer then maintain that the origins of China’s Han-centric nationalism date back to the Qing dynasty, when it manifested itself particularly among late-Qing intellectuals. Moreover, they explore the effects of Han-centrism on contemporary Chinese foreign policy, suggesting that it is sometimes difficult for the Chinese government to restrain the nationalistic public and that Han-centrism harms China’s diplomatic relations, using China’s relations with the Global South as an example. Friend and Thayer conclude that the United States could “take advantage of Han-centrism” by adopting positive images to counter the negative connotations of China’s hypernationalism (p. 85).

How China Sees the World makes several contributions to the study of Chinese nationalism. First, the book traces the origin of China’s Han-centric nationalism, thus putting the analysis of Chinese nationalism in a longer and broader historical context. The rich literature on Chinese nationalism focuses mostly on the post-1949 period, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power. Friend and Thayer show, however, Chinese nationalism dates to the Qing dynasty, as demonstrated by late-Qing Chinese intellectuals’ anti-Manchu sentiments and political stance. The authors use primary documents to indicate the racist dimension of modern Han Chinese thinkers and politicians. This finding suggests that Chinese nationalism has a popular origin and is not a mere construction of the CCP’s patriotic education campaign. The book calls for more analysis into the interesting yet troubling origins of Chinese nationalism.

Second, this book examines an underexplored dimension of Chinese nationalism—racism. The literature directs much of the attention on Chinese nationalism to its anti-Japan aspect, yet it does not stress the racist component of Chinese nationalism adequately. The authors provide ample evidence of Han-centric nationalists being racists, especially toward Africans and African Americans. One striking example is how former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was described by some Chinese: a “black ghost,” a “black pig,” “really ugly” (p. 67). The negative treatment of Africans doing business in China’s southern Guangzhou city is another example of racial Chinese nationalism.

Third, it is commendable that the authors provide policy suggestions to the United States regarding how to counter Chinese Han-centrism and manage great-power competitions, thereby bridging the gap between the academic and policy communities.

There are, nevertheless, some questions left unanswered in this book. First, who holds this Han-centric hypernationalistic view? What proportion of Han Chinese subscribe to Han-centrism? Does it change over time? Studies conducted by Alastair Iain Johnston and Kai Quek, as well as by Jessica Weiss, indicate that there is vast subnational variation regarding how nationalistic different groups of Chinese are. The literature on Chinese nationalism is also divided on how much the CCP can manipulate nationalism.

Second, the authors suggest that Han-centrism has foreign policy implications, but more direct and primary speech evidence is needed to establish the link between Han-centrism and Chinese foreign policy behavior.

Finally, How China Sees the World raises the interesting question of generalizability: does Han-centric nationalism apply to the rest of East Asia where Han Chinese are prevalent, for example, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore? Is Han-centric nationalism similar to other hypernationalism in history?

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