The importance of sovereignty and independence of action in Chinese foreign policy since 1949 has been closely related to Chinese nationalism. Just as Chinese national pride has been a natural outgrowth of China's long and rich historical tradition, the nationalism of Chinese leaders also has derived from the injustices China suffered in more recent history, in particular, China's domination by foreign powers from the nineteenth century until the end of World War II. During this time, which China refers to as "the century of shame and humiliation," the formerly powerful imperial government devolved to what China calls "semicolonial" status, as it was forced to sign unequal treaties and grant foreigners special privileges of extraterritoriality. Foreign powers divided China into spheres of influence. Most debilitating and humiliating was the foreign military threat that overpowered China, culminating in Japan's invasion and occupation of parts of China in the late 1930s. The bitter recollection of China's suffering at the hands of foreign powers has continued to be a source of Chinese nationalistic sentiment since 1949. The suspicion of foreign powers, opposition to any implication of inferior status, and desire to reassert sovereignty and independence have strongly influenced Chinese foreign policy. Examples of this attitude are Mao Zedong's statement in 1949 that "the Chinese people have stood up" and Deng Xiaoping's 1982 pronouncement that "no foreign country can expect China to be its vassal or expect it to swallow any bitter fruit detrimental to its interests."

A foreign policy goal closely related to nationalism has been the desire to achieve territorial integrity and to restore to Chinese sovereignty areas previously considered a part of China. Although China as of 1987 had not resolved border disputes with several of its neighbors, including India, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam (including islands in the South China Sea), Beijing had concluded boundary settlements with other nations, including Pakistan, Burma, Nepal, Afghanistan, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and the Mongolian People's Republic (Mongolia). Negotiations on border issues, held intermittently with the Soviet Union since 1949 and with India since the early 1980s, continued to be held in 1987. The difficulty of resolving these issues seemed to reflect their relation to sensitive questions of national pride both in China and in neighboring countries and sometimes to questions of China's perceived national security interests. For example, Qing control over Outer Mongolia (present-day Mongolia) had lapsed long before 1949 and had been supplanted by Russian and then Soviet influence. Although it was most likely with reluctance and regret, China recognized Mongolia as a separate nation in 1949. By contrast, asserting sovereignty over another outlying area, Xizang (Tibet), was considered such an important strategic goal that military force was used to gain control there in 1950 and to reassert it in 1959.

Two other Chinese areas under the control of foreign powers are Hong Kong and Macao. According to Chinese statements, these "problems left over from history" were the result of imperialist aggression and the incompetence of Chinese rulers. Macao, the first European enclave on the Chinese coast, was occupied by Portugal in 1557 and ceded to Portugal under an 1887 treaty. Britain gained control of Hong Kong island and adjacent territory through three treaties with China in the nineteenth century. In the mid-1980s China concluded formal arrangements with Britain and Portugal for the return of these areas to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 (Hong Kong) and 1999 (Macao). Both agreements were made under a policy of "one country, two systems", giving the areas a high degree of autonomy as "special administrative regions" of China. From the perspective of Chinese nationalism, negotiating the return of both Hong Kong and Macao to Chinese sovereignty before the end of the twentieth century was undoubtedly one of the major foreign policy accomplishments of Chinese leaders in the 1980s.

The most crucial of the issues of national reunification, however, remained unresolved in the late 1980s: the issue of Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek and his forces fled to Taiwan after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The government they established there, the "Republic of China," continued to claim authority as the government of the Chinese nation almost four decades after the founding of the People's Republic. Although China's goal of reunifying Taiwan with the mainland remained unchanged, the previous, more militant Chinese policy of "liberating Taiwan" was replaced in the 1980s by the concept of reunification under the "one country, two systems" policy. The agreements on Hong Kong and Macao were considered by many observers as possible precedents for reunifying Taiwan with the mainland. Because of the legacy of mistrust between the leaders of the two sides and other complex factors, however, this difficult and longstanding problem did not appear close to resolution in the late 1980s.

Country Studies main page | China Country Studies main page