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Chinese Nationalism and Its Future Prospects

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Chinese Nationalism and Its Future Prospects

An Interview with Yingjie Guo

By Jonathan Walton
June 27, 2012


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nationalism was a major driving force behind Japan’s rise to global prominence and increasingly bellicose foreign and military policies. Today, China’s growing economic, political, and technological might is also accompanied by a nationalist discourse cultivated by media controls and the state’s propaganda system.

Many observers, both in Asia and the West, are consequently concerned about the role that Chinese nationalism could play in shaping the trajectory of China’s rise. NBR asked Yingjie Guo, an Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, to comment on the nature of this political and cultural force and its implications for China’s future.


How has Chinese nationalism changed over the last few decades?

What China watchers and the mass media call “Chinese nationalism” is anything but a homogeneous ideological movement or a coherent doctrine. Actually, ever since the New Culture movement of the early twentieth century, Chinese nationalism has been split into two strands, which are at loggerheads with each other most of the time. Political nationalism seeks to re-establish China’s domestic political authority and international sovereignty and to modernize every aspect of Chinese society, with the primary aim of achieving national wealth and military strength (fuguo qiangbing). This is in contrast to cultural nationalism, which looks upon China’s traditional cultural values as the essence of the Chinese nation and speaks of national revival essentially in terms of cultural revival.

Political nationalism predominated during most of the past century. For decades, political nationalists held “Chineseness” responsible for China’s backwardness and saw it as an obstacle to modernization and self-strengthening. Their approach to national salvation was radical anti-traditionalism. They believed that China would not be able to assume its rightful place in the world of nations or become rich and powerful unless it abandoned or reformed Chinese culture.

Critical views of China and things Chinese escalated, creating huge gaps in the nation’s value system and, ultimately, a national identity crisis. What it had meant to be Chinese for centuries could no longer be taken for granted, and generations of Chinese were not formally socialized in their Chinese cultural heritage or encouraged to identify with it. There is no doubt that this cultural rupture did some damage to national identity and unity. Chinese socialism helped resolve that crisis temporarily, but when socialism was debunked in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the nation’s value system collapsed with it. What follows has been a cultural and ideological mess (if you want to call a spade a spade) or cultural pluralism (if you prefer to put a positive spin on it).

Cultural nationalism only began to gather momentum in the wake of the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promoted traditional Chinese culture—for the first time since 1949—in its patriotic education campaign. The campaign targeted rampant “national nihilism,” or the widespread assault on Chinese civilization in Chinese academia and mass media, and the resultant loss of faith in Chineseness among students, which, among other things, was believed to have eroded patriotism and fomented the protests in Tiananmen Square.

The interest in traditional Chinese culture that the patriotic education campaign generated in the post-Tiananmen era would probably not have lasted long had it not been for China’s economic growth since the mid-1990s and soaring national confidence as a result of China’s rise. The party-state’s recent moves to enhance China’s soft power have further boosted the interest and given a new role to traditional culture in China’s international relations and domestic politics. A remark that one often hears in China these days is that Chineseness is the key to China’s economic success and a valuable source of soft power, although there is still a fair bit of anti-traditionalism among both CCP traditionalists and liberal-minded intellectuals.

Critical views of Chineseness helped temper widespread arrogance among China’s political and intellectual elites about the cultural—if not scientific or technological—superiority of the Middle Kingdom and led to a more humble recognition that China must learn from the West, including its economic, political, social, and cultural systems. Today, China’s rise has boosted national confidence to levels unprecedented since the Cultural Revolution. One unfortunate consequence of this confidence is the assertion of the “China model” or “Beijing consensus” and the rejection of Western models of economic and political development. National pride of this kind is not only dangerous to China but also to the world, because it is likely to put China’s economic and political development on a risky track and lead to assertive behavior in the international arena instead of peaceful coexistence within the status quo.


Does the interrelatedness of pride and critical views within Chinese nationalism make it a potentially fickle or dangerous force for the Chinese state to try to guide or manipulate?

Yes, it does. Actually, a definitive feature of Chinese nationalism and popular sentiments in China is this love-hate relationship with both the Chinese self and some foreign “other.”

Nationalist sentiments are even more fickle than confidence in the nation’s cultural heritage. This is certainly the case with sports competitions and national achievements such as the launch of high-speed trains. Victories and successes boost national pride, but losses and disasters lead to disappointment or anger. These days, the party-state is generally cautious enough not to make a fuss about such events until victory or success is achieved.

Its approach to anti-foreign sentiments is quite different. It is no secret that the party-state customarily manipulates such sentiments to its advantage. It is also no secret that such sentiments cannot always be controlled to the extent that suits China’s leaders. This becomes a problem for the CCP when Chinese nationalists blame the state for perceived inaction, unprincipled compromises, or humiliations, or demand more or tougher action from it than the leadership is prepared to take.

The Chinese government typically prefers to avoid confrontations with foreign countries while controlling the information available to ordinary Chinese citizens and manipulating their reactions to international events, ensuring that the situation does not backfire on the party-state or get out of hand. Although the CCP cannot afford to ignore popular demands entirely, it can afford not to respond to every popular demand. Its ability to do this is probably enhanced because it is not an elected government and is therefore less susceptible to popular pressure.


To what extent is nationalism controlled by the central government, rather than serving as an independent force?

Nationalism in China is certainly not an independent force. By “Chinese nationalism,” analysts often mean popular support for reunification with Taiwan or anti-foreign sentiments over bilateral tensions, territorial disputes, or isolated events like the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Such sentiments may be called nationalism insofar as they are related to national autonomy, unity, and identity, but the party-state is very much in control of this kind of nationalism, although it has proven a challenge from time to time, as previously mentioned.

Looking at the issue more broadly, most Chinese nationalists do not differentiate between nation and state but take the two as one and the same. The party-state latches onto nationalism parasitically and manipulates it by claiming that the CCP represents the whole nation and that its mission is to advance the nation’s interests rather than its own—in fact, the CCP pretends that it has no interests of its own. This conceptual manipulation is coupled with political control of nationalist sentiments and expressions, thus making Chinese nationalism subordinate to party-state interests.

Chinese nationalism will not become an independent force unless it rids itself of party-state control. Independence would probably start from a conceptual differentiation between the nation and the state, and between national sovereignty and state sovereignty. Indeed, Chinese nationalism cannot even be considered nationalism—in the original sense of the word—unless it embraces the notion of popular sovereignty, the notion that all power belongs to a nation of people, not the state.

The most well-known Chinese nationalist who has written on conceptual differentiation of this kind is Wang Xiaodong. He stresses the difference between national interests and state interests and between national rights and state rights, which do not always overlap and can even be contradictory. However, Wang’s viewpoints do not seem to have been noted or endorsed widely by other Chinese nationalists. Their lack of interest in Wang’s ideas is indicative of the intellectual poverty of Chinese nationalism as a political ideology. What such thinkers need is an ideological breakthrough and an ideological movement demanding popular sovereignty, which would pose a far greater challenge to the party-state and its dominance of nationalist discourse.


In an era of increasing connectedness, what happens when Chinese nationalism encounters foreign viewpoints that are skeptical or critical about China and its rise on the world stage?

There have always been some foreign viewpoints that are critical of China and others that are sympathetic to China. In the Mao era, the party-state constructed conceptions of the “self” and “other,” as well as positive and negative reference groups (“us against them”) on the basis of these viewpoints. Positive reference groups have come and gone, but the United States and Japan have consistently been framed as “others.”

Economic reform and the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and these two countries have brought about remarkable changes in both popular perceptions within China and the Chinese government’s approach to the other two major Pacific powers. The United States and Japan are not simply regarded as enemies but as successful examples as well, and many in China—including its leaders—would probably prefer to have them as friends. In addition, Japan and the United States represent both things to be rejected and things to be emulated; they are admired for their achievements in science, technology, and economic development, but resented for criticizing China or trying to contain it.

Sino-U.S. and Sino-Japan relations were relatively less troublesome in the late 1970s and 1980s largely because the party-state and the populace as a whole were awestruck by the level of modernization in the United States and Japan and eager to learn from these countries and receive their aid and goodwill in trade and technological transfer. In other words, the two countries were benchmarks of modernization and sources of inspiration and aid as well as important trading partners. Ordinary Chinese could detach themselves from the occasional war of words between the Chinese and U.S. governments by treating the CCP, not China, as the target of U.S. criticism or by seeing that tension as an ideological conflict between capitalism and Communism.

However, things seem to have changed a fair bit in the last two decades or so. For one thing, amid the hype about China’s economic miracle and its rise, few are mentioning the United States or Japan as models for emulation. Quite the contrary, both countries are believed to have performed poorly in the recent global financial crisis and to be troubled by fundamental problems in their economic systems. With the recent U.S. reassertion of its presence in the Asia-Pacific region and its efforts to strengthen ties with China’s neighboring competitors—especially Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and India—it is now increasingly easy for ordinary Chinese to view Sino-U.S. conflict as a conflict of national interests. In any case, the United States seems to be looming large again as a threat in the eyes of both CCP leaders and the Chinese populace. This perception is not simply detrimental to Sino-U.S. relations but has the potential to further erode the attraction of the U.S. model. It also adds to the difficulty of separating national interests from party-state interests.


Do you agree with Robert Kagan’s suggestion that China is a 19th century power in a 21st century world, due to its focus on nationalism, state-building, development, and territorial issues?

There is a lot of truth in what Kagan said. A caveat to add, though, is that the Chinese party-state is not backed by an ideological movement that aspires to institutionalize popular sovereignty. Time lag is evidently a problem that the party-state has to grapple with—that is to say, it must deal with a set of issues that most advanced industrial societies encountered and managed to resolve in the nineteenth century, and deal with these issues in an era when those other societies have moved on from values that were considered justifiable, appropriate, or acceptable then but are not considered viable now. The time lag is compounded by the imperatives of different political systems and historical circumstances. State-building and development, for example, are not only necessary for a system like China’s in the 19th century but also in the 21st century and beyond. Territorial issues are by no means confined to the 19th century or to any particular kind of nation-state, although some believe that democracies are less likely to get into territorial disputes than totalitarian or authoritarian systems.


What role do China’s ethnic minorities play in complicating Chinese nationalism?

China is obviously not a unified nation-state but one that comprises multiple ethnic groups, some of which can even be seen as nations. Not only do some minorities refuse to identify themselves as Chinese, but several of these groups also aspire to full autonomy or independence. The party-state often evokes the image of China as a big family that includes all the ethnic groups within the territorial boundaries of the PRC, but the dilemma for the CCP is at least twofold. First, the markers of Chineseness are mostly derived from the dominant ethnic group, the Han, while the characteristics of the ethnic minorities are largely excluded. It is not surprising then that minorities do not identify with them. In a democratic system, the lack of a common cultural identity can be compensated for by having a strong civil identity based on citizenship and political institutions, but there is much less substance to citizenship in China since its political institutions tend to alienate citizens rather than encouraging identification.


What developments can we expect in the near future, as a result of these ongoing changes within Chinese nationalism?

The transformation of Chinese national identity is essentially the reconstruction of the Chinese value system or what makes the Chinese Chinese. A process like this is usually ongoing and contested. It may lead to a lack of national cohesion but not dramatic changes or immediate economic and political catastrophes.


Dr. Yingjie Guo is an Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, where he is head of the academic group on social and political change. Previously, he was a lecturer at Shanghai International Studies University. His publications include Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary China: The Search for National Identity under Reform (2004).

Jonathan Walton is a project manager and former Next Generation Fellow at NBR.




Strategic Asia 2011-12: Asia Responds to Its Rising Powers—China and India explores how Asian states are responding to the rise of China and India and the strategies these states are pursuing to preserve their national interests. Read the free overview chapter by co-editor Ashley Tellis: The United States and Asia's Rising Giants.