(Published in China Briefing, Center For International Relations, August 2008, pp. 9-11.)
On May 12, 2008, China’s Sichuan province was struck by a massive 7.9 earthquake. In the aftermath, Chinese people rallied together in an unprecedented show of national solidarity and fellowship. Many volunteered to excavate victims still buried in the rubble; others donated money to help survivors; still others offered to adopt the children whom the quake had made orphans. A week after the disaster on May 19 at 2:28 p.m., people all across China mourned in silence for three minutes. All of which led outside observers to remark that we might be witnessing the beginning of a genuine civil society in China. As longtime Sinologist Ross Terrill put it, “A new China could be glimpsed after the earthquake.”
But a month before the quake, the world had seen an uglier face of Chinese nationalism. As human rights protesters dogged the Beijing Olympics’ torch relay around the world, Chinese convulsed in collective outrage against international criticisms of their government’s violent crackdown in Tibet and support of the genocidal regime in Sudan. In online forums and chat rooms, Chinese youth blasted their leaders in Beijing for not being tougher against the Tibetan “separatists.” Some 20 million signed an online petition calling for a boycott against Western businesses, such as the American chains McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Chinese ire especially targeted the French retailer Carrefour—protests and demonstrations in front of its outlets in Wuhan drew thousands.
Chinese nationalist anger even spread to college campuses in the United States. At the University of Southern California, Chinese students harassed a visiting Tibetan monk. At the University of Washington, hundreds protested outside during a speech by the Tibetan spiritual leader-in-exile, the Dalai Lama. At Duke University, a Chinese student who had tried to mediate between pro-China and pro-Tibet protesters was branded a traitor by her compatriots. Her photo was posted on the Internet, together with her contact information and her parents’ address in China.
These incidents are a reminder of Chinese nationalism’s volatile mix of prickly pride and smoldering resentment. The same nationalism exploded into anti-Japan riots across China in 2005, against Japanese school textbooks that minimized Imperial Japan’s World War II atrocities. The visiting Japanese national soccer team was brutally attacked; Japanese missions and businesses were trashed. The same Chinese nationalism also burst into violent anti-American protests in 1999 after NATO’s accidental bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. And when the United States was attacked by Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2001, some Chinese exulted over America’s pain. One student told pollsters that “When the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, I really felt very delighted.”
Nationalism may be defined as the sentiments of affinity and love for one’s national group. China’s thorny nationalism was birthed out of the turmoil of what Chinese still call their “hundred years of humiliation.” That century began with Great Britain’s trouncing of Imperial China in the Opium War (1840-42), which opened the floodgates to more defeats, unequal treaties, economic turmoil, territorial losses, a massive rebellion, dynastic collapse, revolution, warlords, Japan’s colonization and invasion, and a ruinous civil war from which the Communist Party emerged as victor in 1949.
Unlike organic nations that are formed naturally over time, the Chinese nation is a product of the Chinese people’s experience of being abused and humiliated by outside groups. Their shared suffering at the hands of common enemies transformed Chinese from being “a tray of loose sand” into a nation. In effect, Chinese nationalism from its very beginning has been reactive and xenophobic.
After its bloody suppression of the pro-democracy movement in 1989, the Chinese government initiated a patriotic education campaign, using nationalism to shore up its legitimacy. School textbooks focus on China’s past humiliations, while the state media, such as the People's Daily, highlight contemporary China’s perceived mistreatment at the hands of the United States and other powers. As Hong Kong legislator Christine Loh observed, “If you don’t bear a grudge against China’s historical oppressors, then you don’t ai guo (love your country) enough.”
At the same time as it encourages reactive nationalism, the Chinese government also fears that runaway nationalist passions may harm the economy by alienating foreign investors or, worse yet, mutate into unrest and insurrection against Beijing. Thus far, Beijing has been able to douse the fire of populist nationalism when it became excessive. As an example, in 2005, although Beijing initially had stoked popular anti-Japan resentments, it later brought out riot-control police to restore order in the cities.
Today, on the eve of the opening of the Olympics in Beijing, the true face of Chinese nationalism remains an open question. Is it the peaceable face of herbivorous nationalism, wherein love of one’s own nation does not require hating others, or is Chinese nationalism carnivorous, wherein love of one’s own is intertwined with hatred and aggression towards other groups?
Whatever precedents there are in history are not encouraging. Recall that the nationalisms of both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were of the reactive carnivorous variety. Both saw themselves as having been victimized by others; both turned to grandiose dreams of empire in compensation; and in both cases, voices of reason and moderation were silenced by the authoritarian governments.
As China takes its place as a newly arrived member among the world’s great powers, which face of nationalism it wears carries serious implications for regional peace and security. So long as Chinese continue to overreact to international criticisms with hypersensitivity and rage, the world has reason to be wary. For the mark of a truly great power is the ability to undertake critical self-examination and to admit to flaws and mistakes when warranted.
For an extensive treatment of Chinese nationalism, see Maria Hsia Chang, Return of the Dragon: China's Wounded Nationalism (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001).