Double-edged sword of Chinese nationalism

August 29, 2014 by Vaughan Winterbottom

“Nationalism is an unreliable friend and an unsafe historian,” remarked India’s emblematic statesman Jawaharlal Nehru in Glimpses of World History, the series of letters he wrote to his daughter Indira Gandhi from jail in between 1930-1933. While admitting nationalism “is good in its place,” he called for caution when considering the recent history of India, “lest we cast all the blame for our misfortunes on the British.”

China didn’t have a calming Nehru figure, but it did have a Mao Zedong. Unlike fellow communists Lenin or Stalin, who dismissed nationalism as a masking metaphor for class-based grievances, Mao liberally evoked the nationalistic lore of his party’s uniting the Chinese people against imperial struggle for political gain.

While communist legacies remain part of today’s Chinese government in the Leninist organization of the Party-state, it’s fair to say the country has moved on from Mao. What it hasn’t moved on from is nationalism.

In modern China, nationalism is a potent political force that the government willingly deploys and manipulates for its own ends. The Communist Party’s claim to having unified China in 1949 and kept the state intact ever since is one key source of its legitimacy, alongside its track record on economic growth.

Current Chinese nationalism can be divided into two categories, both of which are largely defined and controlled by the state. One is a defensive nationalism framed in opposition to the outside world. The other is an endogenous nationalism, built on the narrative of a united Chinese people who share a common past and present.

Chinese defensive nationalism is based on the idea that the country has been wronged – and continues to be wronged – by outsiders. It traces its origins back to the “humiliation” China sees itself as having suffered over a century under foreign imperialist powers, from the first Opium War with Britain in 1840 through to the end of the Sino-Japanese war.

‘The Century of National Humiliation’ was revived as a topic for study in school textbooks in 1991. Chinese scholar Zheng Wang says the move to introduce it as compulsory educational consumption was tied the Party’s crisis of legitimacy after the Tian’anmen Square massacre in 1989.

Humiliation nowadays is remembered ad nauseam in state-controlled media and ‘celebrated’ annually on 18 September, the date in 1931 when Japan staged the bombing of a railway in Northeast China as pretext for the full-scale invasion of Manchuria. The date has become an unofficial ‘National Humiliation Day,’ and defensive nationalism often reaches its yearly highpoint around the date in the form of anti-Japanese protests.

Japan’s squabble with China over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea speaks directly to those in the country who have grown up on textbooks that recount in minute detail the land grabs of imperialist powers a century ago.

For the government, defensive nationalist outpourings are useful in two ways. First, they serve to distract the population from real problems at home. Second – and arguably more importantly – in responding to the very nationalism that it has a large hand in incubating, the state gains legitimacy from being perceived as a defender of the national interest.

China routinely castigates Japan in diplomatic forums and official press meetings, not because Tokyo poses a real threat to national security, but because it plays well to a domestic audience.

Defensive nationalism is a double-edged sword, however. In stoking passions, the government sticks its own neck out; anti-foreign protests can easily spiral into anti-government ones.

Witness the demonstrations outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing in March after the disappearance of Malaysian airlines flight MH370: they were shut down when demonstrators started shouting, “The Chinese and Malaysian governments are the same. They’re all corrupt.”

Defensive nationalism based on national humiliation also alienates those in China who have access to alternative historical accounts, such as Hong Kongers.

“Contemporary Hong Kong politics is a battleground between Chinese nationalism and a globally inspired localism,” said Joseph Dobbs, an expert on Hong Kong identity at the University of Oxford.

“Chinese nationalism tells Hong Kongers they are descendants of a long and glorious Chinese history, and that a strong state is to the benefit of them all. The local, civic identity, which opinion polls shows is the more potent of the two, is inspired by a global history, in which individuals in Hong Kong are placed very much in the road to liberty and equality.”

The contrast is at the heart of protests against mainland rule in Hong Kong, such those this year that have demanded the government follow through on its promise of universal suffrage.

The pitfalls of defensive nationalism have led the government more recently to throw its weight behind the development of endogenous nationalism – patriotic pride springing from a promoted historical narrative of unity and cultural tradition. More so than defensive nationalism, endogenous nationalism is a product of combined effort by the state and its population.

A prime example of endogenous nationalism at work is in the Hanfu movement, which reached peak popularity in the late 2000’s. A movement to find a representative national costume for the country’s majority Han population, it was initially spurred by public interest in a man photographed wearing Han dynasty clothing in public in Zhengzhou, Henan Province.

Subsequent commentary pointed out that while China’s 55 national minorities wore ethnic garb to official government meets, Han wore Western suits. Han Dynasty dress, or Hanfu, ended up being the favoured national garb in subsequent national debate – though Tang Dynasty clothing was also proposed.

Although spontaneous at first, the state did have a role in promoting it to suit its own aims, said Anthony Garnaut, a historian of ethnicity in China’s western borderlands.

“(The movement) was in harmony with the propaganda imperatives of the state around the time of the Beijing Olympics, something that could inspire Chinese from across the world,” he said.

The movement has largely fizzled out since the Olympics. Han politicians still wear western business suits to their meetings.

Innocent as the case of Hanfu may seem, endogenous nationalism may also serve to alienate those for whom claims of a common Chinese historical and cultural experience ring hollow.

China’s restive ethnic minorities are a case in point. While the government claims that the Xinjiang and Tibetan autonomous regions have been part of China since ‘ancient times,’ language, culture and religion suggest otherwise.

In response to the obvious disconnect, the state increasingly promotes the narrative of a multi-ethnic China and Chinese history, despite the fact that ‘Chineseness’ during the dynastic period was seen in opposition to the ‘barbarians’ who inhabited the fringes of empires – the restive borderlands of today. The state’s task is further complicated by the fact that a truly ‘multiethnic China’ would still be dominated by Han, who make up 93% of its 1.4bn-strong population.

If the spate of Tibetan self-immolations in recent years and a dramatic uptick in violence in Xinjiang are anything to go by, China’s minorities aren’t yet buying the state’s push for a multi-ethnic nationalism.

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