Identity, Security, and China: National Humiliation Discourse in the 2020s

Speaker: William A. Callahan
Venue: Hosted via Zoom
Date & Time:
2021-4-8 | 11:15-12:30 (Shanghai)
2021-4-7 | 22:15-00:30 (New York)
2021-4-8 | 7:15-8:30 (Abu Dhabi)

China: The Pessoptimist Nation considers how we need to look beyond the PRC’s growing economic and military power to consider how history, culture, and identity frame China’s domestic politics and international affairs. While mainstream international relations scholars talk of a security dilemma – where one state’s military strength provokes other states’ military development in a vicious cycle – the presentation suggests that Chinese politics is shaped by an “identity dilemma”: an interplay of positive and negative feelings that shape China’s pessoptimist view of itself and the world. Rather than answering the standard social science question “what is China?” with statistics of economic and military power, the presentation asks “when, where and who is China?” to explore how China’s national security is closely linked to its nationalist insecurities. While it is common to look to history to answer political questions (e.g. the “history war” between China and Japan), this presentation argues that we need to look to politics to understand history: i.e. as textbooks and popular histories from Taiwan show, the “Century of National Humiliation” is not the only way to talk about China’s modern history and politics. The presentation considers how Xi Jinping’s discussions of the China Dream and National Rejuvenation emerge from national humiliation discourse, and what this means for China (and the world) in the 2020s.  

William A. Callahan is professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and in 2020-21 he is Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Fellow at National Taiwan University. His research examines the interplay of culture and politics, and visual global politics. Callahan’s most recent book is Sensible Politics: Visualizing International Relations (Oxford University Press, 2020). His other work includes China: The Pessoptimist Nation (OUP, 2010) and the documentary film “Great Walls” (2020), which asks why we hate Trump’s wall and love the Great Wall of China ( 

Introduction by Tansen Sen, Professor of History Director of the Center for Global Asia, NYU Shanghai.



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