Behind Xi's smile:
The shame and solitude driving China’s geopolitics

Behind Xis smile image

What’s behind Xi Jinping’s seemingly permanent Buddha smile? A diplomat’s answer might run along the lines of the secret strategic calculations that tell Xi the geopolitical balance of power is tilting his way. A sense of impending victory, hubris even. A psychologist’s answer might be different: it points not to victory, nor to hubris, but to a force fundamental to China’s collective political psychology: shame.

Shame is a pillar of any civilization and is solidified in its governmental institutions and in terms of law. Look only at the ancient Greek myths of origin. Zeus recognized that humans tend to quarrel endlessly, seek out war and risk self-annihilation, and so he gave his messenger Hermes two gifts to bestow upon people. One was aidos: shame, respect for others, modesty, and a sense of finitude. The other: dikē, or a sense of justice, something that would create bonds of friendship, union, and discourse in politics. Only with these two gifts, this essential pair, did humanity have the tools to develop civilization.[1]

Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt focuses on a conflict between a wish and a rule and is related to punishment as is only too familiar in the Catholic Church, for example. Shame is the result, rather, of self-reflection: it is the awareness of one’s own shortcomings and lacks. Guilt comes from interaction; shame’s pre-condition is solitude. Although shame and guilt are both central elements of the collective psychology of any civilization, Western commentators tend to conflate the two, staying blind to the distinct quality of shame in understanding the psychology behind Chinese culture and politics.

Since ancient times, Chinese culture links shame to solitude and indeed legal and political power. During imperial times, Chinese officials would have studied for at least a decade before a local governmental position was offered.[2] Candidates would study from as young as 8 until the age of 30 to pass three exams and receive a respected position as an official (guan huan) in local government before aspiring to jobs in central government. Studies includes orthodox philosophy, language (including calligraphy) and mathematics, and at all times with the outmost respect for teachers. Shame is the gift that the privilege of solitude bestows upon those worthy of serving authority.

Shame is central to Confucian thought.  As a child there is a need to be critical of oneself (not the parent). Confucius said a child should not have their parents be concerned about them.[3] Elders are not to be confronted with their children’s problems and likewise seniors are not to be confronted with concerns of their juniors.  In the absence of a direct relationship with the elder, or somebody in a hierarchical position, one can only question oneself: the basis of a shame-orientated civilization, different from the guilt-orientated Western society which is based on its more open relationship with family and God. To simplify, in Chinese culture the family’s grace is central, in Western culture it is the individual.

Especially when one cannot criticize the parent, teacher, or authority, as one may well do in any given Western cultural context, observing the other – as well as observing one’s own responses to the other’s behaviour – becomes key to dealing with the other meaningfully and, indeed, strategically.  Confucius gives us a clue as to what this may mean in Western dealings with China:

The Master said: “Observe [shi] what a person does. Look into [guan] what he has done [you]. Consider [cha] where he feels at home. How then can he hide his character.[4]

Xi’s character is observable in his response to recent protests. The Chinese people’s volatile response to Xi’s zero-tolerance COVID restrictions was widely reported. Not to appear to be ashamed or lose face, Xi abruptly abandoned the policy, and opened the borders. In his interaction at the recent G20 meeting with Canadian president Trudeau, Xi rebuked Trudeau for allegedly leaking information to the media.[5] In this rare moment of overt irritation, Trudeau is ‘chastened’, unable to address Xi’s criticism. He walked off in opposite direction appearing to be wrong-footed. China has been mostly silent in response to the Ukraine crisis, but discussions have emerged in which China might act as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia.[6]

What do we learn from these observations, from ‘what the person does?’ Xi is sensitive to the Chinese people’s views of him; authoritarian or not, he needs some measure of support: stability in his country cannot just be secured by authority alone. There was after all a revolution in not too distant a past. We learn that Xi is dependent too on his people, and by implication to the world around him. From the encounter with Trudeau we learn that Xi demands respect for his values and that he will use humiliation to force the other. The encounter also shows that Xi will openly attack an outlier, Canada, which is not the USA and not part of Europe, in defence of China’s norms and values (think of Taiwan that could be attacked as an outlier). Xi also shows that he is willing to show more of himself to the world. Xi is a force to be reckoned with. From the initial neutral position China choose to take in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine we learn that Xi may have misjudged international expectations because the world is beginning to look at China, not as a country characterized by solitude, but a country at the centre of the world’s geopolitics, a power that needs to act in the world’s geopolitical interests.

China’s place in the world has changed considerably over the last twenty years. We observe China’s every move, not just with an economic interest but also to understand its strategic aims. To do so, to understand China, we need to appreciate Xi’s ostensible elusiveness against a background of the national humiliation suffered during the opium war of 1840. The recovery from colonial subordination was first addressed by Sun Yat Sen, who described the suppression and the economic unfairness of the ‘Unequal Treaties’, and then by Chiang Kai-Shek in 1947[7]. The century of humiliation was addressed by Mao, and the same theme can now also be found in speeches made by Xi,[8] in which he does not just hint at the unification of China: he wishes to take Taiwan. This sense of nationalism against a background of humiliation was also observable in previous leaders’ policies. Although different in his international approach and focused on more liberal politics, Deng Xiaoping would not let Thatcher have a further go at keeping Hong Kong under English sovereignty. The current stakes in international relations with China are high, in terms of trade but more importantly, when considering geopolitical stability. As we recognize the driving force of past humiliations in China’s present geopolitics, we need to appreciate the enduring sense of shame that accompanies it.

Moreover: humiliation is something China has suffered, but not just that: Xi is willing and able to humiliate.  Look only at how Hu Jintao was removed from the 20th National Congress of the CCP.[9] Hu’s rule was characterized by a modest and reserved style, a collective leadership and consensus-based decision-making, and was seen as a continuation of the Deng Xiaoping years.[10] Humiliation, a feeling evoked when observing the action of removing Hu in front of Xi, in what is usually a highly choreographed event, was not just suffered as a nation during and after the Opium War. It is also an instrument by which other people’s behaviour is regulated or used to make political statements. Humiliation is about being shamed, it is also to be disgraced and exposed to others. At the recent National Congress humiliation was used to demonstrate power and show the world that a different political direction was taken against a background of Hu’s faction being entirely frozen out of the standing politburo of the CCP.

XI-ImageThe relationship between shame and solitude is ambiguous in the sense that it can be used restoratively as well as destructively. The Red Guards weaponized shame during the Cultural Revolution.[11]  The older generation, especially intellectuals, were attacked and imprisoned, sent to labour camps, or murdered. It may feel like a long time since Mao’s leadership, but the macabre marriage of shame and control of those times resonate in the high-tech surveillance state Xi is turning China into. The key technology used is not AI nor biometrics, but the psychology of shame. Only recently four men were paraded through the streets of Jingxi city in Guangxi province for smuggling people from borders that were largely closed during the COVID restrictions. Debtors too were shamed on public billboards in Shanghai.[12]

Xi’s father, Deng Xiaoping himself, and many others were purged in Maoist times, and some of those purged by Xi, were humiliated, banned, and after a period of forced exile and self-reflection, exonerated. Humiliation was a punishment, but it was also the gift of restorative self-reflection through exile mentioned above. This is key, I think, to the way shame works as a pillar of civilization: it does not just enforce discipline, it also offers redemption. The Red Guards, however, are an example of Mao’s destructive use of humiliation to keep control over his people.

The recent protests against the COVID restrictions and the Tiananmen protests show another darker side of shame, that of losing face.[13] When one is publicly humiliated one loses face or respect from others which needs to be avoided at all cost. The continuing Tiananmen protests humiliated the Chinese government. Xi lifting COVID restrictions in part served him not to lose face in front of the international attention the protesters had managed to attract. In November 2021 Peng Shuai, a Chinese professional tennis player, made an allegation of sexual assault against a Chinese top official.[14] She disappeared for some time only to return in February 2022 saying that there has been a “huge misunderstanding” over a post in which she claimed she was forced into having sexual relations with a former Chinese party leader.[15]


In this brief essay I have considered shame in the history of China’s culture and shame as a function of Chinese society, family, and politics. Shame is key to understanding what drives China as a great power, is key indeed to understanding what’s going on in the back of Xi’s mind. China’s determination to move forward and become a player at the world’s centre of geopolitics has never been stronger. Colonialism affected the course of Chinese civilization in the 19th century, a humiliating experience the Chinese are still recovering from, and, some say, will not end until Taiwan is part of China again. But whether past or future, China can no longer live in solitude because of the power base it has in the world which is built on shame. Confucius spoke about shame: To possess feelings of shame is akin to courage. There is strength to self-reflection for the individual and the collective; reflection on shame makes shame a teacher.[16] A long history dating back thousands of years is centred on a privilege of self-examination. Turn the suffered humiliation into shame as a function of society and China becomes A nation with a feeling of shame [which] is like a crouching lion ready to leap forward.[17]

For this reason and many others, international society will need to engage with China in a meaningful and strategic way. This is getting harder and harder. China’s projection of its own sense of shame is central to why that is the case: shame is to be dealt with in solitude, not in direct confrontation or debate with others, like guilt. Chinese culture tends to listen not to those who are right, but to those who have a right to speak: If you don’t have any particular position, then don’t meddle with any of its business.[18] For this reason the Chinese state often makes clear they will not interfere in other states’ business and expect their state business not to be interfered with, just as this is the case for families. In fact, the Chinese vehemently deny the importance of any international involvement in their internal affairs. They will hardly take a position in the other nations’ concerns.[19] Although the privilege of solitude is in many ways a respectable position, it becomes problematic in today’s geopolitical climate. China’s age of solitude is over: China has indeed become a global power and struggles to find ways to deal with its historical shame accordingly.

What can this understanding of shame teach us about ways to meaningfully engage China, in particular when it comes to expressing our concerns about, say, Taiwan’s fate, or Tibet’s, or human rights? Perhaps more observation and reflection would be a method that could assist in developing an understanding of the Chinese psyche. As Confucius said: “The mistakes people make reflect the type [dang] of person each one is. Observe their mistakes, and you will know their character [ren].[20] Observation, as a skill, is important, while maintaining relationships with China.  That is different from having a continuous direct dialogue.

It seems to me that there is a place for criticism and concern, but the way these are communicated are crucial to evoke a wish to hear and be heard. A Western open way of criticism, certainly in light of the threat China is perceived to be, does not necessarily invite dialogue. Self-reflection is central, particularly in relation to the colonial past. A more reserved, self-reflective and observational openness may provide a space where exchange can take place. It is often forgotten that China too is dependent on others, not least its own people. The recent protests against the zero-policy COVID measures may show that Xi underestimated the strength of the people, and that one of his main opponents might be the Chinese who have had more than a whiff of freedom of thought in the previous two decades before Xi came to power.

Designating China a threat makes the relationship with China unnecessarily polar, and would seem like an attempt to force it to behave like the West. Referring to China as a danger, creates the risk that history has been forgotten, with China perceiving that is has been placed once more in a position of needing to defend against another shameful subordination. The dismal state of current world affairs demands that we remain relationally involved and aware of the ways in which the West may have contributed to China’s current foreign policy.

[1] Hinton, L. and Willemsen, H. (2018, Eds). Temporality and Shame. London: Routledge.

[2], retrieved 15.02.23.

[3] Meng Wubo asked about filial responsibility. The Master said, “Give your parents no cause for worry other than your illness. Book 2.6, p. 15. Confucius – The Analects. Translated with an introduction and commentary by Ann Ping Chin. New York: Pinguin, 2014, p. 124.

[4] Book 2.10, p. 16.

[5], retrieved 14.02.23.

[6] Why China could become a mediator in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine (, retrieved 14.02.23.

[7] Van de Putten, F.P. (2020).l De Wederopstanding van China. Amsterdam: Prometheus.

[8] The century of humiliation is from 1839, the first opium war, until 1949, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

[9] Chinese Communist Party

[10] Cebastan, J.-P., “China’s foreign-and security-policy decision-making processes under Hu Jintao.” Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 38.3 (2009): 63–97.

[11] A militant youth movement in China (1966–76) which carried out attacks on intellectuals and other disfavoured groups as part of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.


[13] Liang, Z. (2001, ed.). The Tiananmen Papers. New York: Public Affairs.

[14], retrieved 15.02.23.

[15] , retrieved, 15.02.23

[16] Hinton, L. and Willemsen, H. (2018, Eds). Temporality and Shame. London: Routledge.

[17] BBC series The Story of China, episode 5

[18] Confucius – The Analects. Translated with an introduction and commentary by Ann Ping Chin. New York: Penguin, 2014, p. 124.

[19] Although recently, when President Biden visited, the Chinese took a stance, alongside the USA, to deplore the violence in Ukraine.

[20] Book 4.7, p. 47.