This article is the first in a two-part series about nationalism in today’s China. The second article can be found here.
Back when I was a graduate student, I once told a professor of our department that I planned to write a dissertation on Chinese nationalism. “I wish you good luck,” he replied. “Nationalism is notoriously difficult to conceptualize.”
How right he was. By the time I had written my thesis, I still wasn’t sure if I had captured the essence of nationalism. To a large extent, this is because nationalism is an empty vessel that can be filled with opposing ideologies. These ideologies can be civic or ethnic, left-wing or right-wing, conservative or progressive. At its core, nationalism is most strongly characterized by its philosophical poverty, even incoherence.
There’s another term that frequently pops up alongside nationalism: populism. Last year, nationalism and populism were used interchangeably to explain Donald Trump’s victory in the American presidential election and the U.K.’s decision to exit the European Union. While the rise in Chinese nationalism has been criticized by many Western observers since the 1990s, strong nationalist movements have now sprung up in the backyards of countries like Germany, France, and the Netherlands, to name a few. Many Chinese scholars see the surge of populist nationalism in the West as a severe challenge to globalization.
Nationalism and populism have a great deal in common. For one thing, both appeal to the elusive concept of the “average citizen.” To nationalists, each nation has a unique character, and loyalty to it overrides all other loyalties. Nations are the ultimate sources of political power, and so individual rights can be sacrificed when deemed to conflict with national interests.
Populists also extol the virtues of the masses. While some populist leaders also articulate a nationalist rhetoric, most gain legitimacy by claiming that they represent the collective will of the majority. Yet whether leaders act in the name of the nation or in the name of the people, the upshot is the same: Individual liberties can be suppressed if they are out of step with mainstream public opinion.
There are also differences between the two ideologies. Nationalists concern themselves more with the political autonomy of a nation and the solidarity between its people. In comparison, populists often target small groups of elites within the national community, such as rulers, bankers, the super-rich, and so on. Populist politicians claim that the political, social, and economic privileges enjoyed by elites undermine the well-being of the majority and must be redressed. Yet far from mollifying existing differences in society, populists further it — because their ideology inherently presupposes, highlights, and intensifies social conflict.
During his electoral campaign, Trump and his supporters frequently pointed the finger squarely at developing countries — particularly China — for job losses in the U.S. And they have a point: Between 1999 and 2011, Americans lost an estimated 6 million manufacturing jobs, one-fifth of which were caused by competition from China. Liberals also agree that developing countries are the greatest beneficiaries of globalization.
Conventional liberal wisdom holds that the free movement of goods, capital, and labor makes countries better-off by improving efficiency. On a macro level, the marked decrease in global inequality since 2000 bears out this assertion. Inequality within nations, however, has continued to creep upward. In developed countries, this has led to a rise in joblessness and unstable incomes, particularly among the poor and lower-middle class.
Campaigners for Trump and Brexit thus capitalized on nationalist and populist rhetoric on the issues of trade and immigration. Indeed, part of the reason these discourses are currently so seductive is because they claim to represent those who have been left behind by globalization.
The economic argument for the resurgence of American nationalism is therefore clear enough. In purely political terms, however, Trump’s message resounded so coherently among disillusioned voters partially because it is easier for politicians to rally support around a nationalist or populist flag than to articulate complex, multi-layered solutions to social issues. In addition, relatively consistent groups such as jobless former industrial workers are easier to appeal to than a more diverse base of support.
China’s middle class is one of globalization’s big winners. Today, there are more middle-class people in China than there are in the United States, even though they account for only 11 percent of the country’s total population. In the States, this figure is 50 percent. This proportional difference is important because it implies that wealth inequality is more prevalent in China than it is in the U.S. If populist nationalism across the Pacific has been spurred on by the forgotten have-nots in a globalized economy, then we should expect China’s considerable rich-poor divide to contribute in some way to nationalist movements at home.
Except it doesn’t. Chinese nationalism, by and large, does not demonize those for whom the forces of globalization have brought greater prosperity. This is firstly because nationalists in China embrace key tenets of the globalization creed — free trade, liberalized markets, and flourishing competition — as an aspirational foundation for national resurgence.
Second, unlike its counterpart in the West, Chinese nationalism lacks a populist element. In today’s China, the promotion of patriotic pride is mainly aimed at reinforcing social solidarity. Ordinary nationalists, the majority of whom come from the lower social classes, tend to shy away from speaking openly about economic grievances. Instead, people tend to depict less well-off lifestyles with a dash of irony or self-deprecation, and state that broader political issues should be the concern of the government, not themselves. As members of a rapidly enriching society, many Chinese tend to put faith in the idea that domestic inequality will be resolved as long as the country continues its rise. Development, after all, is a tide that raises all boats.
Is Chinese nationalism on a collision course with Western forms of nationalism? As a country with a huge vested interest in the continued globalization of the world economy, the isolationist noises emanating from the U.S. and Western Europe make me fear a coming clash of some kind. On one hand, the threats of trade wars and punitive tariffs against China substantiates a conspiracy theory prevalent among Chinese nationalists that Washington plans to sabotage China’s economic development. On the other, Western protectionism will enhance Chinese nationalists’ misperception that China has become the world’s standard-bearer for globalization — a cause worth fighting for. Both of these scenarios presage conflict. If 20th-century history is any indication, those inclined to fan the flames of rival nationalisms should proceed with the utmost caution.
Editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A woman welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping as he arrives at Downing Street, London, Oct. 21, 2015. VCG)