The Coming Clash of Chinese and Western Nationalism
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2017-03-07 07:46:09

This article is the second in a two-part series examining nationalism in China. The first article can be found here.

In recent years, communities of highly nationalistic web users have sprung up across the Chinese internet. The online crusades launched by groups of so-called little pinkos, together with the violent protests that broke out following the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the 2012 decline in China-Japan relations, are often invoked as standard evidence proving the dangerous militancy of Chinese nationalism. 

To me, however, the conventional wisdom that Chinese nationalism represents a threat to Western liberalism is rather frustrating. Clearly, media reports on the subject show a marked selection bias, drawing highly general conclusions about Chinese public opinion on the basis of a comparatively small group of vociferous individuals. The silent majority, meanwhile, are conveniently ignored. In fact, Chinese nationalism is far more complex than the aggressive rhetoric employed by such keyboard crusaders would have you believe.

Political theorists tend to agree that there are two major branches of nationalism. The “benign” form of nationalism is also called patriotism and encourages citizens to take pride in their nation’s achievements as a means of staying loyal to the state. When American children sing the national anthem before school or a Chinese swimmer wins an Olympic medal, what we witness is an outpouring of relatively “healthy” nationalistic sentiment.

Yet nationalism also has a “virulent” form, one that is frequently associated with anti-foreign sentiment and feelings of superiority, even domination, over other nations. Blanket bans on travelers from Muslim-majority countries and the destruction of property belonging to Japanese-owned businesses are two examples of how virulent nationalism has played out in both China and the U.S. Academic studies of Chinese nationalism show that the country’s groups of benign and virulent nationalists are two rather distinct demographics.

While certain principles remain constant across China’s benign and virulent nationalist groups, they are distinguished by several marked differences. Members of both communities, for example, will probably agree that China suffered great humiliation at the hands of colonial powers from the 19th-century Opium Wars onward and are keen to redress this through realizing some future ideal of national rejuvenation. However, benign nationalists are more likely to have an internationalist perspective on how to achieve this goal. Patriots more keenly desire international recognition of China’s growing status and hope to see the country actively participate in resolving global challenges. China’s positive role in assuaging the 1997 financial crisis is therefore a source of pride, as is the spectacular opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Benign nationalists usually hold more pragmatic views on China’s place in the world. For example, they may attribute the country’s so-called century of national humiliation to a lack of modernization, economic isolation, and impotent imperial governance, and thereby perceive integration into a globalized economy as key to China’s ascendancy. In short, benign nationalists are more likely to rally behind the “peaceful rise” argument commonly cited by policymakers.

A clash of nationalisms is imminent unless both China and the U.S. divert their energies away from blaming each other and toward tangible domestic reform.

Who are the benign nationalists? Analyzing patriotic sentiment on the basis of social class tells us a lot. In the last few years, scholarly works on this topic have found that China’s emerging middle class tends to hold a more liberal attitude toward free trade, to oppose increases in military expenditure, and to exhibit a higher-than-average degree of amity toward the United States. Other studies report that individuals whose incomes have risen in the past five years and who expect them to rise further in the years ahead are more likely to hold benign nationalist sentiments.

At present, China’s virulent nationalists are in the minority. Yet I am concerned about how long their views can be kept out of the mainstream. Little by little, benign nationalists are coming into conflict with the populist movements gaining power in the West. U.S. President Donald Trump and his supporters have blamed the Chinese middle class — along with those in other developing nations — for the loss of vast numbers of American jobs. We cannot discount the prospect that such so-called American hate will manifest itself in a trade war. Should this happen, the Chinese middle class may find their incomes undermined. If the West lurches away from globalization, the resulting economic downturn would deprive many Chinese of the opportunity to catch up with Western living standards.

A heady cocktail of protectionism and stagnating living standards would breed widespread resentment in China and turn current benign nationalists toward a more virulent ideology. Having shared in the benefits of China’s peaceful rise to date, the tolerant views of the middle class are dependent on international economic cooperation and growing household wealth. A retreat from globalized economics would undermine the foundations of this position and give the upper hand to virulent nationalists more supportive of a hard-line, military-backed approach.

A clash of nationalisms is imminent unless both China and the U.S. divert their energies away from blaming each other and toward tangible domestic reform. On the American side, this calls for a rapid de-escalation in anti-globalization rhetoric and large-scale reinvestment in the blue-collar communities decimated by technological advancement and corporate outsourcing. A combination of protectionism and populist mobilization is simply not the answer to globalization’s discontents, but putting money back into re-employment services — which currently command a paltry 0.1 percent of the U.S. GDP — just might be the solution.

For its part, Beijing must show that it is committed to resolving its citizens’ dissatisfaction with existing socio-economic inequality, even as the country moves into a protracted period of slower growth — what the government calls “the new normal.” Sustaining China’s image as a bastion of free trade will be key to ensuring that incomes continue to rise and to combating the economic impact of Western protectionism, but so too will be narrowing the yawning wealth gaps between rural and urban areas, and east and west. Reform that effectively addresses inequality will, in turn, contribute to social stability and promote a benign, inward-looking nationalism that allows citizens to identify with the regime while remaining tolerant of other countries.

I have faith that the Chinese government is more likely to view militant forms of nationalism as a menace to domestic society, and as such will seek to contain them wherever they threaten to get out of control. Anti-foreign demonstrations since the turn of the century have consistently been tempered by government calls for so-called rational patriotism — in other words, the benign kind.

Citizens in both China and the U.S. must be wary of tendencies that sidestep the reduction of domestic inequality, especially those that employ the diversionary use of force to temporarily contain any domestic crises that may arise. Historical examples as varied as the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the 1982
Falkland War, also known as the Malvinas War, show how easily citizens can be rallied around the flag when governments are threatened with severe discontent at home. China has a number of unresolved territorial disputes on its doorstep — several of which have attracted Western attention and raised concerns — yet warmongering has not been in China’s nature during its miraculous economic rise so far. Now is not the time to start picking fights.

Editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: Chinese overseas students wave national flags as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visits Downing Street on a state visit to London, U.K., June 17, 2014. Kieran Doherty/VCG)