When Chinese President Hu Jintao comes to Washington this week, there aren't likely to be many surprises: Hu and Barack Obama will probably keep their conversation to a fairly regulated script, focusing on trade and North Korea and offering the expected viewpoints on both. But seen from a different angle, everything in that conversation could be predicted, not from current events but from longstanding tribal patterns.
With China's new prominence in global affairs, the Han race, which constitutes 90 percent of the Chinese population, is suddenly the most dominant cohesive ethnic group in the world -- and it is seeking to remain that way through strategic alliances, aggressive trade policy, and attacks on racial minorities within the country's boundaries. The less tribally cohesive, more fragmented West is, meanwhile, losing out.
Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a book called Tribes that sought to trace the role of ethnicity, race, and religion in economic and geopolitical affairs. At the time, there was some skepticism about the continuing influence of ethnicity; some considered the work, frankly, regressive and racist. Now, however, my thesis from 1992 has really come to fruition. We are living in the age of tribes -- and China is just the start.
Such primitive racial instincts were supposed to be long ago passé: We're supposed to be living in Thomas Friedman's "flat" world or Kenichi Ohmae's "borderless world." By now, supposedly, everyone is increasingly interconnected and undifferentiated. Affairs should be managed neatly by deracinated professionals, working on their iPads from Brussels, Washington, or any of the other "global" capitals.
But most people do not really see themselves as members of a large multinational unit, global citizens, or "mass consumers." Instead the drivers of history remain the essentials: the desire to feed one's family, support the health of the tribe, and shape the immediate community. The particularistic continues to trump the universalistic.
This has only become more evident as our world becomes more multipolar. During the 19th and much of the 20th century, the world was dominated by a European capitalist mindset that glossed over many of the ethnic and racial differences simmering under the surface in the regions under its rule. Particular groups, including Chinese, Muslims, or Hindu Indians, might have harbored a sense of unique identity but, for the most part, either melded into the Euro-American mold, or, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, into the alternative Soviet one.
Today this has changed dramatically, as once suppressed racial and ethnic groups express their power on a global level. The rise of Chinese national identity, increasingly stripped of its socialist clothing, must be seen as the driving force behind the new tribalism. The country's re-emergence as a great world power expresses the cultural ascendency not so much of Marxism or Maoism but of the Han race, which in only a few decades could control the world's largest economy.
This represents a major shift in the identity of the Chinese tribe, a combination of political and economic power with a very homogeneous worldview. The best way to explain China's economic and foreign policy is most accurately seen as a tribal expression of what Friedrich Nietzsche called a "will to power." Essentially, the Han has become a tribal superpower that treats other groups -- from China's non-Han minority to much of the rest of the world -- as a vast semi-colonial periphery. And with its growing economic and military might, Han China may soon be able to impose its will on some of these "lesser" cultures, should it desire.