In 1949, Edgar Snow, one of the few foreign reporters to ever interview Mao, concluded that “Soviet Russia would not hold effective domination over the extremely nation-conscious Chinese Communists.” The Soviet misreading of the nationalist aspects of Chinese communism led to the Sino-Soviet split, which in turn led to the Sino-U.S. rapprochement in 1972. Like the Soviets, the United States was too overconfident in ideological influence and overlooked China’s Sino-centric worldview and prideful national identity. One may recall in 2000, when then-U.S. President Bill Clinton expressed the idea that China’s accession to the WTO would allow the import of “one of democracy’s most cherished values: economic freedom.” The misjudgment that China would progress toward a Western liberal democracy is often sneered at by Chinese academics and officials.
Since Mao’s declaration that “the Chinese people have stood up” at the founding of the PRC, Chinese nationalism has continued to be fueled by the history of humiliation by foreign powers. Despite China having adopted a Western-centric conception of modernization and made English a mandatory course from primary school, the attachment to historical greatness largely remained. Whether seen through the “5,000 years of history” narrative (which ignores scientific archaeological perspective that dates Chinese civilization to 3,500 years ago) or the professor who was suspended for dismissing China’s “four great inventions,” the demand to acknowledge “cultural superiority” is pervasive and substantial at all levels of Chinese society.
Against this backdrop, Xi Jinping’s announcement of “The Chinese Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation” made the West realize that China had its mind set on walking a exceptional, nationalist path – one “with Chinese characteristics” — all along. With the call for the “fostering of Chinese spirit, Chinese values, and Chinese strength” under the guidance of the “four confidences,” the process to restore China’s long-lost dignity has transitioned to a clear, nationalist campaign for global respect – evident in China’s now frequent self-identification as a daguo (大国, great power or great nation).
What is troubling is that China’s nationalism is ethnic-based and built upon both cultural superiority and a narrative of victimhood.
Under the cultural superiority-mindset (which long predates the PRC — recall Emperor Qianlong’s referral to all Europeans as “barbarians”), China’s nationalist narratives have encouraged double standards and racism. During cases of discrimination against ethnic Chinese and culture, the common basis for criticism is that such actions are “insulting China,” rather than speaking on the moral basis of anti-racism. As a result, while Dolce & Gabbana’s inadequate portrayal of Chinese culture and racist tweet caused an uproar in China, CCTV’s 2019 New Year’s Gala applauded China’s aid to Africa by depicting Kenyans as dancing monkeys and black-faced tribesman with fruit baskets. Despite the contempt of Chinese officials toward underdeveloped countries and cases of calling Africans “monkeys” on their own soil, the government still tries to portray racism as primarily a Western problem. This ethnicity-based nationalism has undercut China’s soft power, as it makes people-to-people interaction displeasing for other cultures and ethnicities. It also casts China’s rising leadership status in an unfavorable light as it hints at the possible revival of a traditional Sino-centric world order, which neglects principles of universal respect.
The victimhood mindset coupled with institutionalized nationalism has also generated an increasingly nationalized and combative population, which in turn incentivized authorities to cater to nationalist demands for legitimacy under a risk-reward calculus. While the furor over the NBA Hong Kong tweet incident died down thanks to censorship, an upward nationalist spiral, which risks driving the country toward a conflict-heavy nationalist path rather than an internationalist one, can be observed as witch-hunting for “anti-Chinese foreign brands” becomes more frequent. This leads to the question of whether the government is capable of containing the nationalist sentiment in the long term. What to do if McDonald’s, Windows, and Coca Cola are next to “insult China”? The Chinese might want to deliberate on Walter White’s famous quote in “Breaking Bad”: “Do you really want to live in a world without Coca-Cola?”
A critical aspect of nationalism is it sugar-coats the nationalist group’s behavior as noble and benevolent and undercuts tolerance and adaption of pluralistic ideas. These ideas have been brought overseas as well. Citizens of Australia and Canada may remember the fluttering red PRC flags and singing of the Chinese national anthem on city streets during the Hong Kong protests. As considerable numbers of Chinese immigrants exhibit greater adherence to Beijing’s interests and values than to their citizenship country’s constitutional freedoms, the Chinese-nationalist image projected by these mainland immigrants not only casts doubt on foreign interference but also propels other ethnic Chinese to distance themselves from China.
While China’s socialist system has its strong points, intensive nationalism risks trapping China in its nationalist rhetoric, which leads to outright rejections of “foreign ideas” without considering their compatibility with the current political design. Such is the case for establishing governance based on rule of law — Beijing easily brushed off the idea of judicial independence and ceased all discussions by framing it as “Western ideology.” While it may be wrong to “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” awareness of other people’s feelings may be necessary if China wants to maintain the image of a peaceful rise.