For the last 25 years, nationalism has proved to be the Chinese Communist Party’s favorite ideology. Under Xi Jinping the Party’s commitment to the patriotic narrative has only strengthened.
Last year Xi announced the creation of three new holidays, two of which are pointedly anti-Japanese. The first, on September 3, is called “Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression” and will mark the end of the “World Anti-Fascist War.” The second, on December 13, is a national memorial day for the victims of the Nanjing Massacre.
As China previously only had seven official holidays, the significance of embedding anti-Japanese sentiment into the national definition of what China “is” cannot be understated. Yet historically speaking the trend is a recent development, the term “Century of Humiliation” was not present in Chinese textbooks until 1990. What marked its introduction and brought about a new (historically speaking) Chinese nationalism was a crisis of legitimacy caused by the shifting global order of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The Patriotic Education Campaign
The Tiananmen Square protests and collapse of the USSR shocked CCP leadership, and marked the end of Maoist Communism as a legitimizing political ideology. Reflecting on the roots of the crisis, Deng Xiaoping concluded the CCP’s greatest mistake in the years leading up to Tiananmen Square was a lack of attention paid to ideological education:
I have told foreign guests that during the last ten years our biggest mistake was made in the field of education, primarily in ideological and political education — not just of students but of the people in general. We didn’t tell them enough about the need for hard struggle, about what China was like in the old days and what kind of a country it was to become. That was a serious error on our part.
From then on, shaping the historical memory of “what China was like in the old days” in the eyes of its populace became the crux of the CCP’s patriotic education campaign. Emphasizing founding myths (“the old days of the party”), historical enemies (the Anti-Japanese War), and historical grievances (foreign aggression), the campaign stressed the CCP’s role in China’s historical struggle for national independence from foreign invaders. The amalgamation of these messages is meant to repeatedly convey a “fundamental truth” in the minds of its people; the CCP is the defender and savior of the Chinese nation.
The difference between Mao’s nationalism and the new Chinese nationalism is a shift in national self-perception, from that of victor to victim, as Zheng Wang notes in his book Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. While Mao’s nationalism glorified the victorious revolution against the KMT and the Taiping Rebellion, new Chinese nationalism focuses on the century of humiliation (百年国耻) at the hand of foreigners and the joint CCP-KMT’s (verses exclusively the CCP’s) role in ending it.
Both views legitimize the Party’s political rule. In Mao’s era, the hybrid Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology of class struggle gave raison d’être to the revolution; the modern version emphasizes the CCP as the savior of the Chinese nation. In emphasizing the nation post-Tiananmen Square, the CCP redirected youth anger and frustration away from its domestic failures to problems with foreign countries.
Another notable difference is the inclusion of the KMT in the CCP’s narrative. As the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis demonstrated military force would not be a viable means of reaching one of its penultimate goal of reunification, the CCP has attempted to seduce Taiwan through diplo-economic means instead. By positively including the KMT in the inception of the People’s Republic of China, it seeks to re-anchor the “us vs. them” mentality from one of China vs. Taiwan/PRC vs. ROC/CCP vs. KMT to that of a unified China vs. the World.
Historical Memory and Nationalism
It is essential to note the link between historical memory and the rise of nationalism. Only through founding myths, shared memories, cultural traditions, and symbols of heritage does nationalism arise. Very much cognizant of that fact, the CCP Central Committee put forward in 1994 its “Outline on Implementing Patriotic Education”:
If we want to make the patriotic thoughts the core theme of our society, a very strong patriotic atmosphere must be created so that the people can be influenced and nurtured by the patriotic thoughts and spirit all times and everywhere in their daily life. It is the sacred duties for the press and publishing, radio, film and television departments of all levels to use advanced media technology to conduct patriotic education to the masses.
In addition, most schools in China–from kindergarten to college–are under the State’s control, thus ensuring nearly all school officials are selected by the Ministry of Education’s local government branch. It is not hard to see why educated, young Chinese “rank among the most patriotic, establishment-supporting people you’ll meet.” Without a doubt the CCP’s patriotic education campaign has been wildly successful, but it has its limits.
A study by Andrew Chubb at the University of Western Australia’s Perth USAsia Centre (covered fully in this article by The Diplomat) noted that the “post-90s” generation is more patriotic when it came to disputed maritime claims, but less willing to use military force for those very claims. “You might say that the younger generations are more nationalistic if by that you mean they’re more likely to view the world through the lens of the past,” Chubb said. “But they’re not more nationalistic if we’re talking in terms wanting to go to war. Essentially it suggests that you need to tease the two apart.”
Doubling Down on Patriotic Education
Last month marked the kickoff of patriotic build up to the September 3 military parade with the opening of the “Great Victory and Historical Contribution” exhibition at the Museum of the War of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. The exhibit was inaugurated on July 7, the 78th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, considered the first battle of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
The bridge was also chosen as the site of the September 3 military parade over Tiananmen Square, the usual venue for military parades. “It’s a way of showing that they have absolutely no interest in improving relations with Japan,” notes Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan Campus. “Rather than symbolizing the defeat of the Fascists, the Axis, it would commemorate the victory over Japan because Marco Polo Bridge has nothing to do with the Fuhrer or Mussolini.”
On July 7, Xi and all the other members of China’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee visited and left flowers at the new exhibition, leaving no doubt to the Party’s official position. One of the seven, CCP propaganda chief Liu Yunshan, commented on the exhibition’s use to remember “martyrs, to cherish the peace and look ahead to the future” as well as serve as “an excellent platform for patriotic education.”
To further stir up patriotism in anticipation of September 3, Beijing announced it would stage 183 war-themed performances, screen new movies, documentaries, T.V. series, and even cartoons, all intended “to increase patriotism.”
We should not expect the trend of top-down nationalism (known as official nationalism) to lessen. China is at the historical apogee of its power, and nationalism along with continued economic growth has offered the CCP a silver bullet for addressing deep anxieties around its territorial integrity, social stability, and political legitimacy. Though nationalism is a double-edged sword that threatens its wielder as much as it protects it (as Jessica Chen Weiss has argued), the CCP has proved to be an apt student. As China’s economic growth continues to slow a change, let us hope the CCP has other tools besides war to once again re-legitimize its reign.
Alexandre Dor is an editorial assistant with The Diplomat