China's Self-Absorbed Nationalism
Image Credit: Augapfel (flickr)

China's Self-Absorbed Nationalism


The mid-August popular demonstrations in Chinese cities and accompanying media and internet commentary against Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea put pressure on Chinese officials to be firm in protecting Chinese claims and countering Japanese “intrusions.” They followed calls by prominent Chinese commentators and other constituencies for Beijing to adopt a tougher approach on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Beijing in that case employed extraordinary measures including repeated use of security forces, economic sanctions, fishing and oil ventures, administrative fiats, diplomatic warnings, and other intimidating means short of military force in thus far successful efforts to cow Southeast Asian claimants and preclude ASEAN from taking a united stand in the face of China’s power.

Foreign commentators are correct that a good deal of the impetus for popular and elite pressure for a tougher Chinese approach on territorial issues rests with the type of nationalism that has been fostered with increased vigor by the Chinese authorities since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of international communism. The nationalistic discourse emphasizes that since the 19th century China has been treated unjustly and its territory and related sovereign rights have been exploited by other powers; China remains in a protracted process of building power sufficient to protect what China controls and regain disputed territory and rights. On the whole, the nationalistic discourse leads to a sense of ‘victimization’ by Chinese people and elites, who are seen having greater influence on China’s foreign affairs decision making now that the strong-man politics of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have given way to a collective leadership that is more sensitive to nongovernment elites and popular views.

Image Building in Foreign Affairs

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Unfortunately, the emphasis on perceived past and current victimization represents only part of the self-absorbed nationalism fostered by Chinese authorities. As important are the extensive efforts to build an image of China as a righteous actor on the world stage, different from other world powers seen to follow selfish pursuits of national interests. These efforts have been carried out by the Chinese foreign ministry, various other government, party and military organizations that deal with foreign affairs, ostensibly nongovernment organizations with close ties to Chinese government, party and military offices, and the massive publicity/propaganda apparatus of the Chinese administration. They boost China’s international stature while conditioning people in China to think positively about Chinese foreign relations.

Thus, for example, China’s foreign policy is said to follow principles in dealing with foreign issues that assure moral positions in Chinese foreign relations; principled and moral positions provide the basis for effective Chinese strategies in world affairs. Remarkably, such strategies are seen to insure that China does not make mistakes in foreign affairs, an exceptional position reinforced by the fact that the People’s Republic of China is portrayed as having avoided publicly acknowledging foreign policy mistakes or apologizing for its actions in world affairs. Undoubtedly, some Chinese foreign policy officials and specialists know better and may privately disagree with the remarkably righteous image of Chinese foreign relations; but they don’t depart from the official orthodoxy which is broadly accepted by elite and public opinion. Whatever criticism elites and public opinion register against Chinese foreign policy tends to focus on China being too timid and not forceful enough in dealing with foreign affronts.

Today, China’s image building efforts support a leading role for China in Asian and world affairs, which enjoys broad support from the Chinese people and various constituencies in China; they forecast optimistically that China will follow benign policies emphasizing recent themes stressed by the Chinese administration. The themes include promoting peace and development abroad, eschewing dominance or hegemonism in dealing with neighbors or others even as China’s power grows, and following the purported record of historical Chinese dynasties in not seeking expansionism.

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