From Great Powers to Great Victims

Natasha Lock

Great Powers have altered the way they express their greatness. There has been a shift from promoting one’s internal greatness in the face of an externally weak system, to capitalizing on victimhood and weakness in the face of rising foreign competitors. In the 1960s, the height of the Cold War, a strong self-identification on the world stage was paramount. Leaders showing any signs of internal weakness was unthinkable; it could have led to the crumbling of the Iron Curtain or skepticism in universal capitalist democracy. The image the United States and the Soviet Union propagandized to their citizens was one of ultimate domestic strength against adversaries. In the early stages of the Cold War, this conviction of domestic strength helped to establish a pervasive  sense of political superiority within each of the nations.

In 2020, a different world stage emerged. The bipolar international structure has a new player—China—that has not only supplanted the Soviet Union, but clipsed any actual competition the former power presented to the United States. Yet the way the world’s current Great Powers—the United States and China—self-identify has metamorphosed from victors leading the global system, to victims of said system. This has been seen in Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” 2016 campaign and Xi Jinping’s focus on “National Rejuvenation” that is rooted in remembering past humiliation. What have been some of the structural changes that have led to the manifestation of this inflection point?

In the 1960s, Mao’s top-down narratives portrayed the United States as weak, corrupt, and futile; nothing but “dogs to be swept into the dustbin of history.”[1] The CCP propagandized Beijing’s greatness in the face of rightists and the capitalist “running dogs,” scribing down superior ideology within the vade mecum Little Red Books.[2] As my Chinese teacher once told me, when greeted with another year of meager food supplies during the 60s, herself and a generation of malnourished children in China were reminded to “think of all the poor American children who have nothing for dinner tonight.” During his visit to the United States in 1979, Deng Xiaoping witnessed firsthand how incompatible with reality that narrative had been.[3]

America throughout the 1960s was a melting pot of ideas, an explosion of modernity and exercised the push for global democracy. Under the inherited notions stemming from Manifest Destiny, it was the supposed civic duty of the post-WWII United States to promote ideals of liberalism and democracy as the newly born “Leader of the Free World.” Advocacy of these ideals had reached the shores of post-war Japan, which had subscribed to political democracy. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s subscription to the Domino Theory and the revival of liberalism for the Vietnamese people was the supposed motive for sending U.S. advisors to Saigon. The United States’ lead in the space-race enshrined American predominance in the Cold War system. To the Western eye, what made America so great was its confidence in the power of its own greatness.

Fast-forward to 2020, where two powerful leaders compete at who can play the biggest victim. Xi Jinping has emphasized the humiliation China suffered under foreign powers during the “Century of Humiliation,” and the threats some of these same nations—the United Kingdom and Japan, for example—continue to pose to a growing and changing China. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has sought to convince the American people that they are victims of job loss and overseas manufacturing competition, and that immigrants are undermining domestic socio-economic security. Narrating facets of victimhood at the hands of outside actors has served as the glue to hold China’s nationalism together and congregate Trump supporters in America.

Ultimately, exacerbating “them” versus “us” mentalities works to the favor of legitimizing Xi’s and Trump’s power. Henri Tajfel, a preeminent scholar of social psychology, notes “there can be no intergroup behavior without the relevant aspects of the social environment having been categorized.”[4] Whilst divided societies are a natural part of human existence, the categorization of the social environment is produced through artificial means. Often this is maneuvered by the politically savvy, who foster internal tensions to protect and expand their overarching power. Instead of internally dividing populations, the form of divide employed by Xi and Trump is focused on exacerbating nation-against-nation, culture-against-culture, and ultimately them-versus-us. Indeed, the more Xi and Trump can fabricate their weakness against the threat of a dominant out-group, the more loyalty they will receive from the in-group who fears their survival.

China has adopted a self-serving narrative of the past, using history as a politically expedient tool. Zheng Wang, a professor at Seton Hall studying historical memory, is cognizant of how Chinese officials interpret history differently depending on exigencies of the current era.[5] Beijing has sought to strengthen nationalist sentiment by evoking collective historical memory. The CCP’s selected era to re-engage the Chinese people is the “Century of Humiliation.” This marks a period of history, beginning with the First Opium War, upheld through unfair treaties, prolonged by Japanese aggression, and only lifted following the Communist Party’s arrival to power in 1949. Beijing sought this collective memory to reinvigorate patriotic fervor and serve as the new national glue to hold the country together as domestic ideology itself began to dissolve in the post-Reform and Opening era,where Maoist ideology did not comport with the realities of new found explosive economic growth.[6] Indeed, it was only in 1991, following the Tiananmen incident and the fall of the Soviet Union, that China’s leadership revised historical narratives to portray China as a victim of the international system.

With near-absolute control over education, the media, and the internet, the CCP can immediately modify the historical narrative presented to its people. Patriotic education (aiguo zhuyi jiaoyu) has played a significant role in the school educational syllabus for Chinese students. From 1947 to 1990, not a single book was published about national humiliation in China; today it forms part of a nation-wide core syllabus taught to China’s 260 million students.[7]

The very narrative of victimhood has proven convenient in developing China’s fraternal relationships with countries (who have experienced their own victimhood under Western colonialism) along the Belt and Road Initiative. Maximilian Mayer explicitly acknowledges that national histories often conflate the unity of a shared past.[8] Mayer uses the term “historical statecraft” to describe the selective interpretation of history to serve national interests. He marshals evidence that the CCP is uniquely creating a shared regional history across BRI countries that a selection of the international community can participate in. The tactic has drawn de facto success: after Xi Jinping publicized his affinity for Greece on a shared past of “art looting” by the British and announced support for the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, Greece was one of the first member states of the EU to sign a memorandum of understanding on the BRI with China.[9]

Meanwhile, in 2016, Trump won a presidential election on a campaign promising to “Make America Great Again.” This slogan suggested to the world and to the American people that the United States had lost its greatness. For Americans aggrieved by multiculturalism and the legacy of the 2008 economic crash, Trump’s racist rhetoric has convinced them that they are being victimized by outsiders—by immigrants, overseas manufacturing, and a “foreign” disease. In Scientific America, Michele Gelfand et. al. argue that Trump has monopolized on fearful voters, pitting them against other culture groups through ruthless use of threatening language.[10] Immigrants, for example, are no longer viewed as the victims of an unequal international system, but rather as an overpowering threat to American cultural identity. In a warped dispersal of blame, the Davids are being considered as Goliaths, by the Goliaths themselves.

Xi and Trump have orchestrated dominant narratives that are attractive to their citizens. For the Chinese teenager scrolling through news outlets and popular media, the barrage of foreign criticism against Beijing is nothing more than the Western powers’ continued attempts to humiliate China. For the unemployed Missouri worker, the lack of job opportunities can be blamed on immigrants taking jobs and China’s dominance in manufacturing. To channel the blame onto external actors and frame oneself as a victim is a productive mechanism to distract citizens from domestic problems. International calls to address human rights abuses in Xinjiang have been labelled by the Chinese state as “malicious baseless lies within the US… used to humiliate China.”[11] Amidst Washington’s inability to control the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, Trump has consistently described America as a victim of a Chinese-borne disease. Both of these narratives draw their success from painting themselves as the victim of external factors.

One can hardly imagine a boxer entering the ring telling their audience of previous downfalls. Nowadays, from San Francisco to Shanghai, we are seeing the adoption of a “victim” affinity. Yet the incongruities of these major nation’s self-identification are puzzling, as the narratives do not comport with the realities of the power and wealth shared by the United States and China in the contemporary world. This leaves oneself wondering, can a nation be a “successful” Great Power and a victim at the same time? 


[1] "Address to the Preparatory Committee of the New Political Consultative Conference”, (June 15, 1949) in Z. Mao, Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, Volume 4, (Beijing, 1961), p.407.

[2] Z. Mao, Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, Volume 4, (Beijing, 1961), p.455.

[3] see Chapter 12, “The Indestructible Deng” in H. Kissinger, ’On China’, (New York, 2011).

[4] H. Tejfel, M. Billig and R. Bundy (1971), ‘Social Categorization and Intergroup Behaviour’, European Journal of Social Psychology 1(2):149-178.

[5] see Z. Wang, (2008), ‘National Humiliation, History Education, and the Politics of Historical Memory: Patriotic Education Campaign in China’, International Studies Quarterly, 52; Z. Wang, Never Forget Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, (New York, 2012).

[6] N. Kristof, ‘The China Threat?’, The New York Times, 20 December 2003. (Last Accessed: 14th December2020).

[7] W. A. Callahan, (2012), ‘Sino-speak: Chinese Exceptionalism and the Politics of History’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 71(1): 47.

[8] see M. Mayer, (2018), ‘China’s Historical Statecraft and the Return of History’, International Affairs, 94(6): 1217-1235.

[9] M. Lanteigne, Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, (Oxford, 2013), p.195.

[10] M. Gelfand, J. C. Jackson and J. R. Harrington, “Trump Culture: Threat, Fear and the Tightening of the American Mind”, Scientific America, April 27, 2016.

[11] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, ‘Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying's Regular Press Conference on September 4, 2020’,

Natasha Lock

Natasha Lock holds a degree in History, International Relations and Mandarin Chinese from the University of Exeter. She is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University, where her work examines top-down state narratives and modern Chinese nationalism. Natasha currently resides in Taipei, where she is conducting field research alongside teaching roles and freelance writing.