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New Left Review 11, September-October 2001

The official ideology of the PRC has been changing rapidly. Do new definitions of the ‘nation’ imply a greater racial tinge? The author of The Tyranny of History looks at the long sweep of Chinese civilization, and asks whether the current period is seeing a shift away from the general tenor of that past.



One of the many ways in which China’s politics have changed in the 25 years since Mao’s death has been the subtle downgrading of one of its key terms, ‘the Chinese people’—Zhongguo renmin, and the rise of an expression not much heard in that distant age: ‘Zhonghua nation’—Zhonghua minzu. The difference matters. For most of the Mao era, the expression ‘the Chinese people’ was used so frequently that one hardly noticed it—except when its meaning was changed. In the first years of the People’s Republic, ‘the people’ of China consisted principally of four officially designated but ill-defined classes: workers, peasants, national bourgeoisie (i.e., capitalists deemed to be neither part of the Guomindang ruling group nor working for foreign businesses) and petty bourgeoisie. Each of these classes was represented on the new state’s flag with a little yellow star, doing homage to the Communist Party’s big yellow star. ‘The people’ excluded Chinese nationals who belonged to enemy classes, such as rural landlords and bureaucrat capitalists. The term said nothing about ethnicity: it referred only to those who belonged to the country, and the state, of China. As with the notion of ‘the Soviet people’, it suggested both vertical divisions—between the subjects of one state and those of others—and horizontal ones, between classes, which could potentially override national frontiers.

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W. J. F. Jenner, ‘Race and History in China’, NLR 11: £3

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