The Debate

‘Good’ vs ‘Bad’ Nationalism in Asia

The task of keeping nationalism civic, rather than aggressive and authoritarian.

By Amitai Etzioni for
‘Good’ vs ‘Bad’ Nationalism in Asia
Credit: (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

Developments in India, Japan, and Hong Kong provide significant lessons for the intensive debate between those who view nationalism as inherently jingoistic and those who hold that nationalism can be civic. Historically, nationalism was considered to be a force of progress, as scores of people who developed national identities rose against colonial powers to form their own nations. These “wars of national liberation” first gave rise to the nations of Latin America and then dismembered the Austro-Hungarian Empire, leading to the formation of half a dozen nations in the Balkans. They spread to large parts of Asia and Africa after World War II. Thus, nationalism slew imperialism and was much lionized by poets, public intellectuals, and progressive leaders.

It soon became evident that nationalism has a much darker side. Once people became deeply identified with their nation, their loyalties could be exploited by demagogues, who mobilized them to make great sacrifices in order to lord over other nations. It is enough to remember that Nazi is an abbreviation for National Socialism to illustrate the point. And, in pre-World War II Japan, the emperor became the symbol of a fierce nationalism. Much more recently, nationalism is condemned as having led to Brexit and the rise of right-wing parties in France, Italy, and even Germany, among others.

In response, some intellectuals and progressive leaders have envisioned a post-nationalism world in which we are all citizens of one world, endowed with human rights, a world in which people and goods move freely across what used to be national borders. The EU tried to implement some of these ideas. The result has been to add fuel to the fire of right-wing nationalism that was already rising for a variety of other reasons. Hence, the most recent trend is to call for good or civic nationalism (I explore this idea in my just-released book, Reclaiming Patriotism). The idea is to build on the fact that, although people are not ready to give up on their nationalist commitments, we can redirect these allegiances to peaceful and civic expressions. Recent developments in Southeast Asia, particularly in India, Japan, and Hong Kong, tell volumes about this project.

India provides a cautionary tale. Indian nationalism is rising, and it is a dark one. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) advocate for Hindu nationalism and seek to promote India as a Hindu country, which contrasts with the more pluralistic and secular ideals held by the founders of India. In the last five years, India has seen rising levels of hate crimes, often religiously-motivated attacks perpetrated by Hindus against Muslims. Modi has been criticized for being slow to condemn these crimes, and BJP leaders drew on anti-Muslim themes during the spring 2019 nationwide election. In a recent expression of rising Hindu nationalism, in early August, the Indian government announced that it is revoking Articles 370 and 35-A of the Indian Constitution, which granted a considerable measure of autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, the only majority-Muslim state in the country. Most recently India moved to deny citizenship to millions of Indians, most Muslims, turning them into state less persons. Modi’s nationalism, like many other aggressive varieties, has some authoritarian shades. The Modi government has gone after opposition activists and lawyers, charged student protesters with sedition, and searched the offices of Greenpeace India and Amnesty International India. In short, the nationalism of the largest democracy in the world is growing darker.

In Japan, the two kinds of nationalism are vying with each other, but so far – despite some alarming statements – the peaceful and democratic nationalism Japan adopted after World War II holds. One of the issues that reflects this contest is the debate over changing the Japanese Constitution. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have sought to change Article 9 of the Constitution to allow for a much more assertive role for the Japanese military. In the July election, Abe did not secure the two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet (parliament) that is required to make a constitutional change. The Emperor, once a symbol of “bad” nationalism, has become greatly “secularized,” and is viewed now mainly as a benign unifying figure, of little power. In 2013, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which lists the names of 2.4 million people who died serving Japan, including approximately 1,000 convicted World War II war criminals, with 14 Class A war criminals among them. The Shrine is viewed as an expression of Japanese aggression by South Korea, North Korea, and China. However, Abe argued that his visit was not an effort to glorify war criminals but, rather, a trip to pledge his commitment to peace to those who died in past wars.

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The LDP has held power in Japan almost continuously for the last 65 years, making some wonder how effective Japan democratic processes are. However, the repeated victories of the LDP are the result of fair and free elections. While  Abe’s LDP occasionally struck right wing notes, Japan is unlike Britain, France, and Germany in that it does not have a popular far-right political party. One must conclude that, despite some challenges, Japan’s civic nationalism is holding.

Particularly interesting are the developments in Hong Kong. Nobody refers to Hong Kong as a nation, but in effect its people are acting as if they have a distinct national identity: They see themselves as a community separate from China and one that seeks to be embodied in a state, the very definition of a nation. And the people of Hong Kong have been drawing on their distinct identity and commitment to their community to rise to defend the democracy and individual rights they had under the British. Since the territory’s return to China in 1997, there have been multiple protest demonstrations, many centered on protecting one right or another. The original focus of the current protests was a proposed law that would allow China to extradite individuals from Hong Kong for prosecution, but the protests have continued, even after the government announced that it would not move forward with that legislation. Two of the overarching reasons people are flocking to these protests are their “fears of mainlandization” and “the intensification of a local Hong Kong identity” – in my terms, nurturing Hong Kong nationalism – but, above all, there is a strong desire to protect democracy in Hong Kong.  Although so far only a small minority seeks independence from China, I would expect in the longer run a Taiwanization of Hong Kong. Granted, the terms used here may seem odd to many, as I see it, Hong Kong’s “nationalism” is a model of the civic variety.

One can extend this assessment, for instance, by comparing the aggressive nationalism of North Korea to the civic nationalism of South Korea. However, the main point already seems clear: We are not ready for a post-nationalist global community and, for now, we must work for nationalism to be civic rather than aggressive and authoritarian.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. For a discussion of how to advance civic nationalism, see his latest book, Reclaiming Patriotism, just published by the University of Virginia Press.