History is replete with examples of hubris and its nefarious consequences for both perpetrator and those on the receiving end. Sadly for us all, every great power seems powerless against its call — and that includes China.
Hubris manifests itself in various ways, including arrogance, unchecked nationalistic sentiment, imperial overstretch, chauvinism, racism and, quite often, impoliteness. We all remember former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld’s comments about “old Europe,” just months before the administration of former US president George W. Bush embarked on its misadventure in Iraq, an act, born out of hubris, that did more to undermine the US’ image and security than anything else could possibly have done.
Empires before it have collapsed as a result of mistaken policies resulting from an epidemic of hubris among government officials and the public in whose name they ruled.
Enter China. Though it is not exactly a great power yet, it has already adopted the mindset and behavior attendant to such a status, which is rather odd for a civilization with a reputation for great patience. The Chinese Communist Party has gotten drunk with its success and now seems in a rush — impatient, in fact — to put its “century of humiliation” well behind it, even if this means skipping over some of the necessary steps to greatness.
As it ascends, China has in recent years threatened its neighbors, insulted its partners, ignored middling powers and acted in ways that cause serious harm to its self-proclaimed image as a responsible stakeholder. It now acts like a child that has suddenly outgrown other children its age and uses its physical advantages to bully others, without thinking about how this might undermine its reputation.
The odd thing is that the child is indiscriminate in who it targets and will just as happily pick on a child twice its size as it will a fragile featherweight. Chinese officials have displayed tremendous arrogance in Europe, treating its parliament with great disrespect, and have been increasingly rude and confrontational in the US, often by hijacking academic conferences.
That hubris also affects how China treats Taiwan, often in ways that contradict its charm offensive to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese and perhaps create the conditions for eventual “peaceful unification.” It organizes and attends cross-strait academic forums, but more often than not, participants on the Chinese side are there to lecture, not to learn. It harps on about the shared ancestors and the greatness of the “Chinese race,” of the blood shared by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, but will immediately repress any expression of individuality, or even locality, by Taiwanese.
Taiwanese tennis player Hsieh Su-wei’s (謝淑薇) Chinese partner at Wimbledon, Peng Shuai (彭帥), showed the extent to which Chinese will go in their chauvinism when, after winning the women’s doubles title on Saturday, she interrupted Hsieh during an interview and said that she could not accept that Taiwan is a country. At a moment when people on both sides of the Strait should have been rejoicing, Peng — like many other Chinese — could not help herself and acted in a way that, to paraphrase the Chinese refrain, “hurt the feelings of the Taiwanese people.”
Rather than celebrate a successful collaboration, Peng repressed a Taiwanese and clearly showed that, in Beijing’s view, the relationship across the Taiwan Strait, no matter how much it improves, will never be one of equals. Chinese treatment of other minorities, such as Tibetans and Uighurs, is proof that “Han Chinese” will always be primus inter pares, a fate that equally applies to Taiwan and Hong Kong and that will only highlight and exacerbate the differences that exist between those peoples.
Hubris, above all, is characterized by self-defeating behavior, and China is well on its way to refining the art.