Four Types of Chinese Nationalism10 min read

How nationalism in today’s China is far from monolithic – Chang Che 

71 years ago, at 3pm on October 1 1949, Mao Zedong stood at a podium above Tiananmen square to found the People’s Republic of China. Soldiers in pine-green tunics marched across the square in triumphant celebration of victory in the Chinese civil war, four years after Japanese occupation ended. Now the anniversary is commemorated with a military parade, nighttime firework displays, and an extended national holiday called “Golden week.” Yet October 1, National Day, is not fully analogous to a day of independence. It commemorates not a nation’s birth, but a nation under new management — that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

After seven decades, the Party has undergone a marked transformation. Once a fledgling faction with revolutionary ambitions, it is now a ruling party that detests radicalism and claims exclusive representation over the interests of the Chinese people. National Day is an occasion for patriotic festivities, yet hides within it a hidden premise: by presenting an anniversary for the Party as one for the country, it implies the nation and the Party are one and the same.

Xi’s political success derives from his ability to broker between the competing strands of nationalism brewing in his party”

That assumption is becoming more plausible now. Due to Party reforms that have reduced barriers to membership, the CCP is now made up of a large cross-section of civil society. Today,  the 92 million members in the Party include such diverse groups as entrepreneurs, doctors, academics, tech employees and scientists; many are not ideologues. Moreover, a decade-long opinion poll released in July by the Harvard Ash Center concluded that 93% of Chinese citizens were “satisfied” with their central government in 2016. Regardless of the forces behind such support – which, apart from performance, could include censorship, propaganda and even fear – the fact of the matter remains the same: the Party is intricately bound to the life of the country, and projections of a popular upheaval remain illusory.

Yet none of this proves that China is united. Just as members of the US Democratic Party are ‘satisfied’ with Joe Biden while remaining divided on the viability of a progressive agenda, not all of those ‘satisfied’ with the CCP parrot the official Party line. Factions abound within Chinese society, and these divisions have only deepened thanks to the radicalizing effects of the Internet. The reality is that China’s public sphere remains vibrant, and its internal debates contentious, all while being under the tight auspices of state censors. The same goes for Chinese nationalism, which is presented as monolithic but comes in many forms.

China’s public sphere remains vibrant, and its internal debates contentious, all while being under the tight auspices of state censors”

There are four main types of nationalism found in today’s China: liberal, conservative, populist, and revanchist. Adherents of these nationalisms vary in age, class and occupation. Some are for the elites, while others are more common among ordinary citizens. Some portray support for the CCP as dogma, while others believe the Party is not dogmatic enough. Many of them take Community Party elites to task for failing to live up to their own ideals. Understanding these internal debates can give us a better sense of the perspectives that will shape the course of China’s rise in the years to come.

Liberal nationalism reminds us that love for China does not always entail love for the Communist Party. Characterized by a commitment to liberal democracy and human rights, adherents of this form of nationalism first came to prominence during China’s Republican period (1912-1949). Their universalist assumptions were an outgrowth of engagement with Western imperialism, which culminated in the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Largely educated in the West or Japan, these nationalists included prominent intellectuals such as the translator Yan Fu, the stateman Sun Yatsen, the linguist Hu Shi, and the novelist Lu Xun.

As their name suggests, the liberal nationalists were unabashed in their exploitation of Western ideas for nationalist ends – mainly, the building of a modern nation-state and the expulsion of foreign threats. Despite their unwavering patriotism, they believed that China’s path to modernity did not run counter to the West, but parallel to it. Half a century later, these ideas were resurrected by those born in the 1960s and 70s. Growing up after the Cultural Revolution during the reform era, some in this generation channeled the May Fourth spirit of dissent and became active in the pro-democracy movements of 1989. Those patriots have now been silenced or expelled from the mainland, and liberal nationalists are continually persecuted today – as seen in the recent oustings of Xu Zhangrun and Ren Zhiqiang – yet they live on in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Liberal nationalism reminds us that love for China does not always entail love for the Communist Party”

By the 1990s, in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre, the liberal nationalists had lost – ousted by an older, conservative nationalism among the ruling classes. This second type of nationalism is represented by the generation of post-Mao reformists including Deng Xiaoping, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Their ideology may have been more hardline, but their outlook was pragmatic, as captured in such idiomatic phrases as “keep a low profile” (taoguang yanghui) and “crossing the river, while reaching for the stones” (mozhe shitou guo he). Leading China in a changing world that evinced deep hostilities toward Communism, these leaders abandoned rigid ideology in favor of pragmatism and diplomatic charm.

These conservative nationalists were responsible for many of China’s present-day successes and failures. Their openness to compromise led to such feats as the opening up of China’s economy, China’s entrance into the WTO, and a (provisional) status quo across the Taiwan straits. Yet rapid economic growth also led to severe wealth disparity and rampant political corruption – growing pains associated with capitalism and, ironically, the bane of Communist ideology. Yet they did not compromise on their vision of one-Party rule. After the violent suppression of student protesters in 1989, the conservatives shored up their legitimacy through a series of patriotic measures designed to heighten nationalist consciousness. Among the most ambitious  was a nationwide patriotic education campaign launched in 1990. For decades, these policiess set the official definition of nationalism in China, creating meta-narratives that centralized the Communist Party’s role in liberating China from outside aggressors after the “century of humiliation”.

Conservative nationalists were responsible for many of China’s present-day successes and failures”

The recent rise of populist nationalism – the third form – are one consequence of these reforms. Tech-savvy, chauvinistic and unapologetic, adherents of this nationalism are common among Chinese born in the 1980s and 90s, a generation that has matured in a rising China, a nationalist education system, and a censored web. In their anti-Western and anti-Japanese attitudes, they often display the most xenophobic aspects of Chinese society. While populist nationalism can be seen, in part, as a byproduct of years of Party propaganda, they “cannot simply be dismissed as top-down government manipulation,” writes Shih-Ding Liu. Rather, they “claim for the nation a vision that is not necessarily in line with the official discourse.”

This vision has been on prominent display in the vitriolic online reactions to Hong Kong protesters and Western criticisms of China’s handling of the pandemic. Distinctive to this nationalism is its raw, conspicuous character, which often manifests itself in calls for a more muscular foreign policy and public outrage in the wake of perceived foreign threats. China’s populist tradition has existed long before 2020: it appeared in 1999, after the American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, and in 2005, during a controversy involving Japanese history textbooks.

The conservative elites’ relationship to the populist hard-liners is notably ambivalent. At some times, they fan and nurture them; other times they quell or suppress them. This tug-of-war mirrors current dynamics in the US or Britain, between a center-right government establishment and its far-right flank. In Tuesday’s presidential debate, for example, Donald Trump consistently equivocated on the issue of white supremacy because he walks a tightrope between appeasing his populist base (a major source of legitimacy) and remaining palatable to the mainstream. CCP elites walk a similar line from across the Pacific: they cannot concede too much to foreign adversaries lest they run afoul of the ultra-nationalist purity test. As such, conservative nationalists face a problem that is largely of their own making: in seeking to patch a legitimacy crisis by pandering to nationalist emotions, they have now become beholden to a populist nationalist constituency they helped to create.

In their anti-Western and anti-Japanese attitudes, populist nationalists often display the most xenophobic aspects of Chinese society”

In 1992, Deng Xiaoping warned that China would need to maintain “vigilance against the Right”, but “primarily against the ‘Left’.” Deng was referring to the fourth form of revanchist nationalism, drawn from the socialist ideals and practices of Mao Zedong. Represented by such officials as the now-fallen Bo Xilai, this group came to prominence as vocal critics of Deng’s market reforms. Drawing from intellectual elements of the New Left (critical of capitalism and sympathetic to the working class) and neo-Maoism (a return to the grandiose dreams of the Mao years) they prioritize the revival or “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation.

The revanchist nationalists are a motley crew: they include members of the old Red Guard (born in the 1940s and 50s), leftist academics, and laborers disillusioned by free market policies, to name a few. Yet they are held together by their connection to Mao, a leader whose symbolic legacy is as pluralistic as it is sacrosanct. The Maoist mantle also gives these nationalists a degree of immunity to government censorship. “By dressing their political activities in Maoist symbolism,” writes Jude Blanchette, these red nationalists “occupy the ideological high ground, thus raising the cost of the Party for any overt repression.”

Though the revanchist left and the populist left approach nationalism from different angles  – the former from a nostalgia for the Mao era, the latter from an emotional attachment to their motherland – they have found common cause in their opposition to the West, along with their support of Xi Jinping in the highest political office. Xi’s political success derives from his ability to broker between the competing strands of nationalism brewing in his party. Straying from the pragmatism of his conservative predecessors, he has strategically pandered to each group. For the populists, a rambunctious group known as the wolf warrior (zhanlang) diplomats now serve in the Chinese foreign ministry. For the revanchists, a return to a Maoist cult of personality, and the grand narrative of a “Chinese Dream”.

Revanchist nationalists prioritize the revival or “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation”

Yet a recognition of China’s liberal nationalists is notably absent from Xi’s factional diplomacy – instead, they are now deemed foreign subversives. The annual celebrations on May Fourth have, in turn, become an arm of Party propaganda, a lifeless day stripped of its radical message of freedom and democracy. Will liberal nationalism ever return to China? Or will the Party remain tethered to a partial reality?

Observers of the National Day celebrations this year will find no trace of liberal nationalism and its role in the Civil War. For the current leaders in Beijing, its end represented China’s true beginning. “Happy birthday, China,” tweeted Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry. A video of the flag raising ceremony at Tiananmen square depicts a row of soldiers chanting the national anthem. Standing beside them are a clump of young children, arms raised up to their foreheads, eyes glistening with hope and blind adoration. For this younger generation, China’s current history spans only decades, yet lessons on how to relate to authority span millennia. This is how you worship god; this is how you treat your king; this is how you respect your elders; this is how you love your country. ∎

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