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Nationalism in China

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
April 23, 2008
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

With China hosting its first-ever Olympics, the country has seen a surge in national pride. But Chinese are angry at what they see as the West trying to spoil their party. In March, anti-government protests in Tibet followed by human rights’ demonstrations during the international leg of the Olympic torch relay sparked a sharp response from Chinese both at home and abroad. Their anger has taken the form of public demonstrations, newspaper editorials, online petitions, and other Internet activism. Olympic protests in Paris during the torch relay have drawn particular ire in China and have led to calls for a boycott of French goods. Flaring nationalism is not new. It has been set off in instances such as the accidental bombing of a Chinese embassy in 1999 during the Kosovo War and a 2001 incident in which a U.S. surveillance aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet off China’s coast. But experts say this time the public outrage appears to be more genuine, instigated by perceived unfair treatment by the West rather than stoked by the Communist Party. This change could pose challenges not only for the West coming to terms with a rising China, but also for China’s government trying to maintain peace and stability within its borders.

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A Pillar of Legitimacy

China’s nationalism today is shaped by its pride in its history as well as its century of humiliation at the hands of the West and Japan. China expert Peter Hays Gries writes: (PDF) “Chinese nationalists today find pride in stories about the superiority of China’s ‘5000 years’ of ‘glorious civilization.’” This yearning for lost glory is accompanied by the story of victimization in the past, a narrative central to what being Chinese today means, says Gries. China perceives itself as a victim of Western imperialism that began with the First Opium War and the British acquisition of Hong Kong in 1842 and lasted until the end of World War II in 1945, during which it suffered humiliating losses of sovereignty.

“Chinese nationalism was actually partly a creation of Western imperialism,” says Minxin Pei, a senior associate in the China program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Pei says the first surge of Chinese nationalism was seen in 1919 in what’s now widely referred to as the May 4th Movement when thousands of students demonstrated against the Treaty of Versailles’ transfer of Chinese territory to Japan. Some of these student leaders went on to form the Chinese Communist Party two years later in 1921. “The current Chinese communist government is more a product of nationalism than a product of ideology like Marxism and Communism,” says Liu Kang, a professor of Chinese cultural studies at Duke University. Kang says today nationalism has probably “become the most powerful legitimating ideology.”

“The current Chinese communist government is more a product of nationalism than a product of ideology like Marxism and Communism.” —Liu Kang, Duke University

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the opening up of the Chinese economy by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, and the pro-democracy protests of 1989, nationalism was once again revived by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), say experts. Gries writes: “Lacking the procedural legitimacy accorded to democratically elected governments and facing the collapse of communist ideology, the CCP is increasingly dependent upon its nationalist credentials to rule.” As the International Herald Tribune noted in an April 2008 editorial, stripped of Maoism as its guiding light, the CCP frequently has fallen back on nationalism as societal glue.

Beyond the party’s control, the emergence of the Internet in the last two decades has given nationalists more power to vent their anger after particular incidents. It has also brought the huge Chinese diaspora in places like Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Europe, and North America, into closer contact with those residing within China’s borders, facilitating an easy flow of information. “It makes it much easier for the nationalistic rhetoric,” says Pei. He says the young, urban, and educated Chinese are more nationalistic and they are the ones using the Internet. “Compared to before, the Internet has democratized opinion but this democratization of opinion is not evenly distributed and the fringe elements tend to exploit this new opportunity far more actively than the mainstream,” Pei says.  

Anti-West Sentiment

On May 8, 1999, a U.S. plane accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade mistaking it for a Serbian arms depot, killing three Chinese and injuring several others. Protests erupted around China. The Chinese government called it a “gross encroachment upon China ’s sovereignty,” demanded an apology from the U.S. government, and asserted: “The great People’s Republic of China was not to be bullied.” Chinese nationalism was also active on the Internet at the time. In his book China’s New Nationalism, Gries writes: “deluged by e-mail from China, the White House Web site in Washington, D.C. was temporarily shut down” and “cyber-nationalists also hacked into the U.S. embassy’s website in Beijing, inserting ‘Down with the Barbarians!’ on the homepage.”

In April 2001, a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane, in what China says was a violation of its airspace, collided with a Chinese F-8 jet fighter, killing the Chinese pilot. Chinese authorities took the crew of the U.S. spy plane into custody after it made an emergency landing in China and said it would only be released after Washington issued a formal apology. The crew was eventually released after U.S. expressions of remorse over the loss of the pilot and aircraft. Experts say China's government stoked nationalism during the incident.

“I think that it is not only nationalism in China that gets more attention. It is almost everything in China that gets more attention.” —Kenneth G. Lieberthal, University of Michigan

These incidents are not seen as isolated incidents in the Chinese view. Experts say the Chinese see them as the latest in the long series of Western aggressions against China. Pei says the Chinese feel very strongly about issues such as sovereignty and integrity of their territory because “they still have the historical memory of Western imperialism.” And so the current protests in support of Tibet in the West, the coverage of the issue in the Western media, and linking the Olympics to the Tibet issue rouses anti-West sentiment in China. 

On the Tibet issue, Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a professor at the University of Michigan, says the Western view is shaped by a notion of Shangri-La while the Chinese views are shaped by the assumption that Tibetans are backward, feudal, superstitious, and badly in need of modernization—Chinese style. “So I think they regard it as bizarre that the advanced industrial countries would humiliate them by boycotting the opening ceremonies of the Olympics over the Tibet issue,” he says, “as America would find it if President Hu Jintao suddenly refused to visit the United States because of our history of treatment of Native Americans.” Lieberthal says the Chinese see these anti-Olympic protests as an indication that regardless of how much China strives to become a constructive player in the world, “many in the West will never accept that, [and] will seek to humiliate them.”

Conflict with Japan

Tensions between the two countries date to the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War, and more recently Japan’s abusive conduct during the 1931-1945 occupation of China. As this Backgrounder points out these animosities surface in recurring cycles, often involving Chinese anger over Japan’s perceived lack of contrition for wartime crimes. Instances of recent Chinese nationalism against Japan include outcries over the annual pilgrimages of former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to a Tokyo shrine that contains the remains of convicted war criminals from World War II and outrage over a 2005 Japanese history textbook that has been criticized as soft-pedaling Japanese wartime atrocities. The 2005 textbook incident led to riots against Japanese businesses in cities across China.

Edward Friedman, an expert on Chinese nationalism at the University of Wisconsin, says when Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1977, “anti-Japan nationalism became a great legitimating glue to hold the society together, eventually ending up in the really ugly April 2005 anti-Japan racist riots in China.” But under the administration of Hu Jintao, China has sought better relations with Japan. Experts say outbreaks of virulent nationalism can become a problem for the Communist Party. Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International writes, “in the past they have stoked anti-Japanese and anti-American outbursts, only to panic that things were getting out of control and then reverse course.”

Unwarranted Focus?

Lieberthal says since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, China is regularly blamed for abuses on a wide range of issues. “I think that it is not only nationalism in China that gets more attention. It is almost everything in China that gets more attention,” especially if they are negative. He says Chinese nationalism is a “natural outgrowth of (China’s) recent accomplishments and very unhappy narratives.”

From the Western perspective, Pei says fears regarding Chinese nationalism spring from the negative feelings toward the communist regime. “Somehow they believe the political system in China is not legitimate,” he says.

Lieberthal says nationalistic protests are a combination of genuine popular outrage and government manipulations to let that protest grow, which often helps the Chinese government’s bargaining position as that incident is negotiated with the offending party.

A Double-Edged Sword

Beijing’s top priority today is to maintain peace at home while pursuing its development goals and a greater role in global affairs. Experts say while nationalism may be an effective tool for the Chinese regime to maintain control at home, it can harm its claim of “peaceful rise” globally. Pei says nationalism is certainly an obstacle in China’s image as a responsible stakeholder. “A very nationalistic public makes foreigners very wary of China and harms China’s image,” he says.

Domestically, too, excessive nationalism poses problems for the authoritarian government. The government takes great care to suppress ethnic nationalism among its minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs who are denied the right to establish separate states. Nationalism in Taiwan, too, is seen as a threat by Beijing, which hopes to unite with the island someday. The Chinese leaders also fear nationalism could turn against them in the form of criticism if they failed to deliver on their nationalistic promises. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof writes: “All this makes nationalism a particularly interesting force in China, given its potential not just for conferring legitimacy on the government but also for taking it away.”

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