How Effective is China’s State Narrative on Territorial Controversies?

“Chinese territory since ancient times” is a popular expression used by the Chinese government to justify its controversial territorial claims domestically. How effective has this argument been to Chinese citizens, especially the younger and more informed generation? Is the Chinese government in need of a better, alternative narrative to explain its territorial claims?

The Chinese government has made numerous controversial territorial claims in recent decades, from Taiwan, Diaoyu Island, to, most recently, the South China Sea. Whether the government is effective in justifying such territorial claims domestically is closely tied to the authoritarian party’s legitimacy. A recurrent explanation that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses is that these controversial territories have always been a part of China due to its historical expansion. The phrase “Chinese territory since ancient times”, in fact, has been popularized by the Chinese state media and official statements. A recent thread on Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, is titled: “how should we understand this famous nonsense – ‘Chinese territory since ancient times’.” Numerous other threads also label the phrase as nonsense (廢話), suggesting that Chinese internet users are keenly aware of how frequently the government has used the phrase to justify territorial claims. China Central Television, one of the predominantly state-owned television networks in China, further reinforces the historical argument. One report discussing Diaoyu islands, a group of contented islands in East China Sea, says that the islands have been Chinese territories since the Ming and Qing (1368 – 1912) dynasties. In another report, the state-owned media uses the same argument to discuss Chinese ownership of Tibet, a region located west of China with allegations of oppressive Chinese ruling. An article on the South China Sea controversy on the Ministry of National Defense’s website (originally published by Xinhua News Agency) also says that the acting President of China, “Xi Jingping calls for implicated parties to respect historical facts.”

The question now comes to whether the Communist Party’s historical argument actually convinces the mainland Chinese population. With the advancement of technology and relaxation of Chinese online censorship, a new generation of Chinese youths draws its information from multiple sources apart from what the Chinese government provides. How is this historical argument, then, convincing enough for a growingly educated and informed population?

When interviewed about whether Chinese citizens are convinced of territorial claims made by the government. Stinson Shi, a Chinese student who grew up in Shanghai, said that “99 out of a hundred percent” consider controversial territorial claims made by the Chinese government as “facts”. Shi says that the educational system incorporates these controversial territories into the country’s map. As such, there is little reason for the population to question these territorial claims.

It is, however, questionable that “99 percent” of the population should accept the historical narrative unconditionally. It is not uncommon for different countries to have different or even contradictory maps. Maps are often used by governments to paint state narratives that inevitably entail territorial disputes, but not all populations accept these maps without questioning. How, then, do Chinese citizens who understand the complexity of these territorial disputes reconcile the multi-dimensional information they receive with the overarching, simplistic, state narrative?  

Algol Lee, a Chinese student from Xian, offered an alternative explanation. Lee corroborated that the Chinese government uses historical argument extensively to justify territorial claims. Yet he said that the more informed segment of the population understands the complexity of these territorial controversies. The historical argument is insufficient to justify territorial ownership (for this segment of the population). However, according to Lee, the educated population recognizes the value of the state narrative. This is because historical narrative is strongly tied to Chinese nation-building. After the Opium Wars, foreign concessions in China and subsequent Japanese occupation plagued the nation’s identity. It was only until the end of World War II and the Chinese Civil War that the country returned completely back to Chinese rule. The Communist Party’s legitimacy was therefore largely built on its ability to “ward off western invasion”. Lee said that, in the case of Taiwan, which was occupied by Japan for 50 years before being “returned” to the nationalist Chinese government, it is reasonable to see why the Chinese government should assert such a strong grip on it. If the Chinese government had not asserted its ownership over Taiwan, it would have jeopardized a party image built on anti-interventionist sentiments. Both Chinese nationalism and the legitimacy of the CCP stem from this strong sentiment shared by Chinese citizens against foreign control. It develops from a desire to retain its own independence and regain past glory (before the Opium Wars). This explains why the Chinese government recurrently employs the historical narrative.

The more educated generation in China may well have understood the deficiency of a state narrative centered on historical territorial boundaries that are unverifiable. It nonetheless still condones such a narrative, recognizing that it is interlinked to Chinese nationalism and CCP’s legitimacy. The Chinese government’s historical justification for its territorial claims, then, may still prove to be a success after all.