The Evolution of Chinese Nationalism

7 MINS READOct 4, 2012 | 10:17 GMT
A Chinese national shouts outside the Japanese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Sept. 19

Anti-Japanese protests swept through dozens of Chinese cities in mid-September after the Japanese government's Sept. 12 decision to purchase three of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Accompanied by vitriolic rhetoric, looting and even violence, the protests took public displays of Chinese nationalism to levels unsurpassed in at least a decade. 

Today, Chinese nationalism is characterized by an uneasy relationship between the population's feelings of pride, disappointment and hope for China's future and the Communist Party's efforts to use these feelings as a tool for social management and securing Party control. Nationalism has its roots in China's contemporary history, and for Beijing this sentiment can be a powerful instrument that temporarily shifts the public's focus away from domestic and internal Party problems by reinforcing the Party's role as the guardian of China's national sovereignty and honor. But nationalism — especially in a country as large and diverse as China — is a complex and volatile thing that can quickly expand beyond the limits of Party control.

To an extent, the latest flare-up is a continuation of the gradual resurgence of popular Chinese nationalism that has been taking place since the 1990s. This resurgence has been characterized by several large-scale patriotic outbursts, including anti-U.S. protests after NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, protests against Japan's attempt to join the U.N. Security Council in 2005, and widespread anti-Western sentiment prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

These outbursts, like the recent anti-Japanese protests, were essentially spontaneous responses to perceived slights against China. In this respect, they reflect organic anti-Western sentiments rooted in China's 19th- and early 20th-century humiliation at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialist forces. At the same time, the protests were clearly condoned and, in some cases, heavily managed by Beijing. Whether through propaganda, intentional lack of police supervision or clandestine organization, the state allowed and even helped fuel such public displays of patriotism.

Historical Chinese Nationalism

European nationalism evolved as a relatively natural expression of attachment to nation-states based on shared ethnic and linguistic heritage. In ancient China, despite thousands of years of consolidated dynastic rule, the concept of being Chinese was not tied to the idea of the country being a single, coherent ethnic unit. Rather, it was bound by the social concept of the Chinese civilization (or Huaxia, as it came to be called). The legitimacy of dynasties — whether they were ethnically Han, Mongol or Manchu — was measured by their adherence to the tenets and practices of this civilization. For most of China's history, national belonging has taken the form of attachment to the political and moral structure of the kingdom or dynasty rather than to a narrow ethnic identity.


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This changed dramatically between the 17th and 19th centuries when Western traders, missionaries and gunboats brought the new ideas of the Enlightenment — the nation-state, science and democracy — and a centurylong occupation to China. For the first time, the country faced an external force capable of shaking its civilization's foundations. The threat of political disintegration and the loss of sovereignty at the hands of Western (and later Japanese) invaders sharpened the notion of the modern Chinese nation. 

The stark contrast between China's glorious past and modern humiliation by outside forces shaped early nationalist efforts to strengthen China. Populist movements like the Boxer Rebellion sought to resist Western influence by focusing inward on Chinese folk and martial arts traditions. Other movements, especially those led by intellectuals and political reformers, wanted to adopt Western tools like modern warfare technology, statecraft and social and scientific theories to re-establish China's position as a strong, modern nation-state. This strategy can be seen in the late Qing Self-Strengthening Movement, the May Fourth Movement and the Tiananmen Square incident

The Communist Party of China brought together many of these elements — from inward-looking peasant populism to Western theories of class and revolution — to lead what was ultimately a nationalist revolution. However, after founding the People's Republic of China, the Party gradually suppressed nationalism in favor of loyalty to the Party and Mao Zedong. It was not until the relative political, social and economic openness of the 1980s that intellectuals and reformers again sought to rebuild a more critical, outward-looking form of Chinese nationalism. However, dramatic domestic and international changes at the end of the decade soon shifted the direction of debates over Chinese nationalism.

The Party Repurposes Nationalism 

With the 1990s came a resurgence of nationalist and patriotic sentiment among Chinese intellectuals and the public at large. The Tiananmen Square incident and the fall of the Soviet Union triggered a wave of reflection on China's future direction within the Party and intellectual circles. This reflection, along with China's unprecedented economic growth after 1992, soon translated into a public sense of China's return to global prominence. This global rise was exemplified by the1996 publication of the national bestseller "China Can Say No" and gained momentum as incidents like the 1999 Chinese Embassy bombing provoked anger at what the Chinese public saw as Western attempts to contain Beijing. Chinese academics and media personalities used the country's history of suffering at the hands of Western imperialism to fuel popular anger over perceived efforts by an increasingly threatened West to block China from becoming too strong. 

Such sentiment was soon captured by the Party, which sought to regain public confidence by portraying itself as a vehicle for the country's military and political rise. With socialism no longer an effective tool for mobilizing public support, the Party quickly latched on to re-emerging Chinese nationalism and the perception of Western antagonism and used them, along with its economic miracle, to form the basis of its legitimacy and authority.

Through education and propaganda, the Party began to focus on the West as a key constraint of Chinese growth. Simultaneously, the Party attempted to reposition itself as the force responsible for rebuilding a strong and prosperous nation. The exploitation of nationalism helped fill the ideological vacuum created at the end of the 1980s and in turn gave the Party a new sense of focus and stability. Since the early 1990s, Chinese nationalism has been heavily influenced by the Party's efforts to maintain social and political stability, as well as its own legitimacy.

The Party Versus the Nation

Despite Beijing's efforts to control rising Chinese nationalism, popular nationalist displays and protests have increasingly focused on internal political and social problems, implying that China's true constraint may not be the West, but the Party itself. In many cases, public discourse about the Chinese nation — its promise and its weaknesses — has been used to express grievances and frustrations over social issues such as land seizures, environmental degradation and bureaucratic corruption. In a recent online survey that asked what nationality Chinese Internet users would choose for a child born in the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, China came in last — after Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. One survey is by no means representative, but it does reflect a growing discrepancy at the heart of contemporary Chinese nationalism.

While the majority of Chinese citizens benefited from the last two decades of economic development, material gains have not always translated into a greater sense of social well-being. Growing inequality, corruption and the bureaucratic elite's perceived monopoly on power and opportunity have exacerbated popular anger toward the Party, which has lost a great deal of its moral and revolutionary prestige after the Deng Xiaoping era. In turn, the belief that the Party alone could lead the way to a stronger nation has dissipated. 

The widening gap between raw, popular nationalism and Party-directed nationalism reflects a growing concern for the Party: That which is good for the Party may no longer be good for the country. This is especially concerning for a Party whose rule is based on the concept of total integration of Party and state — much in the way that dynasties in ancient China were inseparable from their bureaucratic and military systems. As more ordinary Chinese citizens come to see the Party as separate from (or even a hindrance to) the Chinese nation, the Party's control over the state and the military will become more tenuous.

However, the Party faces a dilemma because even as it increasingly relies on nationalism to draw attention away from domestic problems, this same nationalist sentiment poses greater ideological and practical challenges to Beijing. After the Tiananmen Square incident, the Party repositioned itself as a vehicle for continued economic reform and prosperity as well as a symbol of national strength. But the recent protests — in which many demonstrators campaigned for Western-style reforms — show that the Chinese public may soon be more willing to call for alternative visions of China's future that are not necessarily centered on the Party.

As the population begins to separate the idea of China as a nation from the Communist Party, the institutions that rely on the Party are coming into question. The military, for example, has been institutionally integrated with the Party since the founding of the People's Republic of China. If the people's perceptions of the Party and the state begin to diverge, the military's affiliation could become unclear. The Party is aware of this fundamental tension and has worked to consolidate control over the military command structure throughout the last decade to make it directly reliant on and more closely integrated with the Party's bureaucratic network. Nonetheless, as the gap between Party and nation widens, the role of the military will become ever more critical and uncertain.

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