Rajiv Ranjan states that the leadership is aware of the negative fallouts of nationalism in the form of expansionist movements and secessionist tendencies. But can China contain its nationalism from being aggressive in the future? From New Delhi.
Nationalism, in China has its root in the early twentieth century, as an ethnic state-seeking movement led by the Han majority to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. Ethnic nationalism views the nation as a politicized ethnic group and often produces a state seeking movement to create an ethic nation-state. James Harrison (1969) observed that ‘the traditional Chinese self-image has generally been defined as ‘culturalism’, based on a common historical heritage and acceptance of shared beliefs, not as nationalism, based on the modern concept of the nation-state’1.
After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the Kuomintang (KMT) and then the CCP in 1949 defined China as a multiethnic political community. Presently, ethnic nationalism has survived only among ethnic minorities on China’s frontiers, such as Tibetans, Uygurs, and Mongols, who are denied the right to establish separate states. From Beijing’s perspective, these groups pose a serious threat to the unity of a multiethnic Chinese state, and as a result, great care has been taken to suppress ethnic nationalism.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, liberal nationalism was introduced in China as a means to improve China through political and social reforms. According to liberal nationalism, the nation is a group of people who support and defend their nation in the international sphere. After the end of ‘Politics in Command’ or say ‘Ideology in Command’ era of China under Mao Zedong, the post-Mao reforms in the 1980s coupled with Deng Xiaoping’s call for ‘thought liberation’ has created new opportunities for liberal nationalism to gain greater influence in contemporary China. Although, liberal nationalists have identified with the Chinese state in its battle against foreign imperialism, they have not necessarily supported the Communist party, pressing for greater public participation in the political process and challenging authoritarian rule. After the end of the Cold War, liberal nationalists have called explicitly for the adoption of liberal democratic ideals as the best means of promoting China’s renewal2.
The populist nationalism is a comparatively recent development in China. It began to take recognizable shape after 1996, as a joint result of the evolving nationalist thinking of the early 1990s and the ongoing debate on modernity, postmodernism, post colonialism, and their political implications3. From the late 1989 to early 1992, nationalism was primarily an official ideology. In order to divert people’s attention from the Tiananmen massacre, the government adopted new means to promote nationalism by celebrating the 1919 ‘May Fourth Movement’ and the 150th anniversary of the Opium War, both of which reminds of China’s past humiliation by Western powers.
Nationalism and Policy
Nationalism, as a system of belief, an ideology and as a political movement has been one of the formative processes in the creation of the contemporary world. It has been for the past two centuries the moral, normative basis for the system of states. It both legitimates states and has been promoted by states as part of nation building. It has been the justification for secession and territorial claims. It has been responsible for fueling much warfare in the first half of the twentieth century.
As a system of belief, an ideology and as a political movement, it has been one of the formative processes in the creation of the contemporary world.
The recent rise of Chinese nationalism has raised much alarm. Scholars like Allen Whiting, Strecker Downs, Philip C. Sanders, and Michael Oksenberg have raised question of whether Chinese nationalism is affirmative, assertive, or aggressive4.
In China, nationalism has reemerged in a big way and has gained foothold in the public domain. This nationalism has caused serious concerns in the Western camps. China has progressed immensely in the economic and military spheres and has left a visible mark in almost all the fields globally. On its way to be the next ‘super-power’, China seeks to balance the use of its ‘rising mass nationalism’. This ‘mass nationalism’ is evident in the form of the large-scale anti-Japanese and anti-U.S. demonstrations on various diplomatic issues. For instance, a large-scale anti-U.S. rally was held in the protest against the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in May 19995. Similar massive demonstrations were witnessed in April 2001, when a collision took place between a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea6. Worth mentioning is the anti-Japanese demonstration regarding Japan’s ambition of acquiring permanent seat in the UN Security Council and its alleged distortion of history7. The West scholars have come up with the ‘Chinese threat theory’. Scholars, like Peter Gries8, Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro9, caution the influence of rising Chinese nationalism on its foreign policy, stating how it would underpin China’s urge to be a super-power.
Therefore, scholars like Ying-shih Yu, sees the rise of new Chinese nationalism aiming at “replacing the dominant position of the West in the world and making the twenty-first century a Chinese century.” Eminent writers like Samuel P. Huntington, James Lilley and Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro all reasserts China’s desire to replace the super-power U.S. and to achieve its vendetta against Japan. Thus, making Chinese nationalism can be viewed as a “defensive nationalism”- assertive in form, but reactive in essence10.
But scholars have differed on the means and developed three different nationalist perspectives: Nativism, Anti- traditionalism, and Pragmatism.
Scholars have differed on the means and developed three different nationalist perspectives: Nativism, Anti-traditionalism, and Pragmatism.
Mainly advocated by traditional elites and at times supported by the people at large. It is labeled by Xiao Gongxin as “Confucian fundamentalist nationalism” and by Edward Friedman as “anti-imperialist nationalism”11. Nativists stress the revival of Confucian tradition, which constitute the root of Chinese virtues. The dilution of Chinese values due to the impact of imperialism has ultimately led to China’s decay and humiliation. The solution lies in the removal of the external influences. Nativism has lot of weightage as it portrays imperialism as the enemy and its call for national independence is truly appealing.
In contrary to nativism, anti-traditionalism assumes the Chinese traditional values as the root cause for its weakness internationally. Its early advocates were the so-called new elites, including intellectuals in new schools and ‘treaty ports'12 merchants. They advocated complete rejection of the Chinese tradition and unquestioned adoption of the Western culture. Anti-traditionalism was first expressed in the May Fourth Movement in 1919 and then the liberal intellectuals brought it to the forefront in the early reform years of the 1980s. Rather than criticizing the Communist party of the backwardness of China the Chinese intellectuals began criticizing the Chinese traditions.
Unlike the above two, pragmatism considers the foreign economic exploitation and cultural infiltration as the source of China’s weakness. Pragmatists are the “opportunist” who would like to adopt any approach that would make China strong. As said by Deng Xiaoping, “it doesn’t matter if it is a black or white cat as long as it can catch mice.” This approach is the most dominant. It is instrumental, state-led and reactive.
The Pragmatic leadership of China places the economic development of the country above all. Because the very survival of the CCP depends on addressing the economic needs of the Chinese citizens well.
In respect to foreign policy, the Nativists preaches Xenophobia and an aggressive approach towards the Western powers where by anti-traditionalist attempts to adapt to the modern world by supporting certain foreign models. Finally, the pragmatists fall between these two extremes, they prefer progress of China’s national interest by balancing the external factors. Their policies are situational and they go for both nativists and anti-traditionalist approaches to foreign policy.
Regardless of the non-official nature of nationalism and its authenticity, the fact remains that the party still enjoys full monopoly control. Ben Xu states that the party exercises this authoritarian control over the mass opinion through three levels. They are: firstly, ‘the use of coercion and influence’; ‘intimidation and the rule of anticipated reaction’ and lastly, the control exercised by state through media and other institutions of socialization, which creates hegemony of the state and submission on the part masses. And the unquestioned rule of the party lies in keeping the rising nationalism under control. It is certainly not in the Beijing’s interest to allow the emotional, nationalistic rhetoric heard on the street to dictate Chinese policy13.
Chinese leadership as well as its intellectuals are aware of the negative fallouts of nationalism in the form of expansionist movements and secessionist tendencies. The economic restrains and the fear of political instability are keeping the Chinese nationalism under control. But it is difficult to state that once the apex position in the global economic pyramid is achieved, will China be then able to contain its nationalism from being aggressive?
1. Harrison, James (1969), Modern Chinese Nationalism, (Hunter College of the City of New York, Research Institute on Modern Asia, New York).
2. See Zhao, Suisheng, (Winter 2005-06) “China’s Pragmatic Nationalism: Is it Manageable?” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 29, No.1, pp.131-144.
3. These debates have resulted in the special issues of New Literary History, 28(1 (Cultural Studies and the West, Winter 1997); Boundary Vol. 224, no.3 (Postmodernism and China, Fall 1997); et all in Ben Xu.
4. Whiting, Allen, Assertive Nationalism in Chinese Foreign Policy”, Asian Survey, 23, August 1983, pp. 913-933; and Whiting, “Chinese Nationalism and Foreign Policy after Deng”, The China Quarterly, June 1995, pp.-295-316; Erica Strecker Downs and Philip C. Saunders, “Legitimacy and the Limits of Nationalism: China and the Diadyu Island”, International Security 23, Winter 1998-99,pp. 114-146; Michael Oksenberg, “China’s Confident Nationalism”, Foreign Affairs 65, Winter-Spring 1986- 87, pp-504.
5. Nam, Lee Jung, “The Revival of Chinese Nationalism: Perspectives of Chinese Intellectuals”, Asian Perspectives, Vol.30, No.4, 2006, pp.141-165.
6. “Wang Wei, the Chinese pilot killed in the collision, was instantly declared a “martyr of the revolution” and praised as heroic defender of the motherland.” John Pomfret, “New Nationalism Drives Beijing; Hard Line Reflects Popular Mood,” Washington Post, April 4, 2001, p. A1.
7. Thousand of Chinese protestors demonstrated in Beijing, shanghai, and Guangzhou in April 2005, enraged over Japan’s approval of history textbooks that protestors claim whitewashed Japan’s wartime atrocities, as well as Japan’s recent pledge to help the United States defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. In May 2005, Beijing’s dramatic last-minute cancellation of a meeting between Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and Chinese vice minister Wu Yi to protest Koizumi’s contentious visits to the war-tainted Yasukuni Shrine, which serves as a memorial for Japan’s war dead, including convicted World War II criminals, plunged relations between Beijing and Tokyo to a perilous low.
8. Peter Gries, China’s New Nationalism (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 12.
9. Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, “The Coming Conflict With America,” Foreign Affairs 76, no. 2 (March–April 1997): 19.
10. Shambaugh, David, “Containment or Engagement of China,” International Security, 21, Fall 1996, pp-205
11. Gongxin, Xiao, “The History and Prospect of Chinese Nationalism- Strategy and Management” 2, 1996, pp-59 and Friedman, Edward, “Anti-Imperialism in Chinese Foreign Policy” in Samuel S. Kim, ed., China and World, Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 1994, pp-60-76 in Suisheng Zhao
12. Treaty Ports were established by foreign power in China under ‘unequal treaties’ after the Opium War.
13. See Zhao Suisheng.