The COVID-19 outbreak has triggered a new Cold War.
While the citizens in the United States and China alike are recoiling from the aftermath or ongoing turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, American and Chinese political hawks view the pandemic as the perfect opportunity for actualizing some long-standing ideological fixations. Neoconservatives in the West see in COVID-19 a pivotal opening for restraining what they view as a foundational and ideological threat to the Western liberal order; whereas Chinese hawks see the backlash toward overseas Chinese and Chinese companies – exacerbated by the ongoing epidemic – as a vindication of their rhetoric, that only aggressive tightening and bellicose defensiveness could “uphold” China’s interests on the international stage.
The Domestic Turn in Chinese Nationalism
A critical component of the Chinese response to the COVID-19 outbreak is the promulgation of state-sanctioned nationalism, and tacit endorsement of grassroots-initiated nationalism. While past crises have sparked a similar response, COVID-19 constitutes a distinct event within Chinese political history, and its repercussions for Chinese nationalism diverge from past nationalistic campaigns in significant ways.
First, the target audience of nationalistic rhetoric has drastically shifted from a mixed audience, including both foreign states and domestic populaces, to primarily the domestic population. Many China watchers have noted the rise of a distinct brand of “wolf warrior diplomacy.” Chinese diplomats have always deployed outspoken, at times pugnacious, rhetoric in direct confrontation against what they perceive to be “foreign interference” with Chinese domestic affairs, but now the COVID-19 pandemic has generated an opening for directly responding to critics of the Chinese regime’s response to the crisis. Such defensive rhetoric gains credibility in the eyes of the Chinese public thanks to the increasing popularization of what had previously been a fringe within international discourses about China – an ethnocentric repudiation of the Chinese people, accompanied by a smorgasbord of disproportionately abusive tropes about the country’s ordinary citizens. Chinese diplomats – many of them young, invigorated, and eager to ascend in the foreign affairs department – have found resonance in domestic citizens enamored with their performative “fortitude,” while concurrently burning bridges in their overseas posts through combative yet equivocal public media appearances.
It is increasingly apparent that the diplomats are not speaking to a foreign audience, but catering to “domestic consumers,” who – amid times of relative turbulence – are in search of impassioned, at times zealous, speech in defense of the Chinese nation. Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” previously championed establishing sociocultural ties and seemingly respectful relations with the country’s neighboring states; that has been set aside in favor of visceral displays of loyalty and devotion to the Chinese state. A confident, potentially even “combat-ready” collective of diplomats is precisely what is needed, from Beijing’s point of view, to assuage public uneasiness about the country’s international standing. This tactical pivot could perhaps best be epitomized by the Chinese phrase“出口转内销,” which broadly maps onto the re-designation of exported and exportable goods for domestic sales and consumption. Chinese nationalism is what is sold here, and the new consumers are China’s COVID-battered population.
It is no coincidence that the nascent brand of Chinese nationalism has sought to incorporate the experiences of Chinese diaspora across the world into an expanded, Sinocentric imagined community. Recent addresses given by officials such as the Foreign Ministry spokespersons have consistently framed the backlash toward Chinese overseas citizens and migrants as an attack on “the entirety of the Chinese population.”
The COVID-19 pandemic marks a significant transformation in how the Chinese public understands its sphere of moral responsibility. From speaking out against the abuse hurled toward ethnically Chinese individuals residing in the West, to chastising certain fringe discourses in the West propagating conspiracies about the origins of COVID-19, Chinese diplomats have actively sought to portray the ongoing political fallout from COVID-19 as an ethnocentric assault on all Chinese, regardless of nationality and political citizenship.
There is indubitably some element of truth to this. There is indeed a resurgence in right-wing conservative xenophobia that seeks to demonize all Chinese regardless of their political beliefs or citizenships. Yet it is equally apparent that Beijing’s fierce defense of the Chinese diaspora is a strategic move designed to reorient media focus away from questions over the Chinese state’s alleged responsibility for the COVID-19 outbreak.
What explains this inward pivot in Chinese nationalism? What accounts for the ramping-up of domestically oriented discourses, and the receding of “outward-looking” Chinese nationalism?
A Brief Historical Detour
Here, a temporary segue is warranted. As Suisheng Zhao aptly argues, Chinese nationalism seeks to orient its imagined community around a duality of narratives: 1) a negative thesis of resisting Western, imperialist humiliation, and 2) a positive thesis of national pride in the country’s collective achievements, which are attributed to the collective sacrifices and hard work of the Chinese people.
Some have aptly noted that China’s nationalism in the post-Deng era has also become increasingly bellicose, adopting characteristics of what some term “assertive” or “aggressive” nationalism. The former refers to the country’s continued efforts to establish its influence and status on the global stage; the latter denotes the country’s militaristic and rhetorical escalation toward the West. Both labels frame China’s behaviors – which others have characterized as typical, if not acceptable, of a rapidly growing economic power under American hegemony – as foundationally transgressive against the global order. More importantly, these frameworks treat Chinese state rhetoric and symbolism as tools through which the country interacts with its global counterparts – thus the diagnosis is oriented overwhelmingly toward portraying Chinese nationalism as an international force, as opposed to a domestic phenomenon.
On the other hand, those who diagnose Chinese nationalism as a predominantly domestic issue have often sought to investigate the issue through the culturalist lenses of Chinese ethnocentrism and the tensions between the Han majority and ethnic/fringe minorities. This analytical framework has the advantage of interpreting and recognizing the domestic political interactions propelling nationalistic rhetoric amongst the Chinese grassroots, but also offers a convincing account of the constitution of the imagined community about which such nationalism is articulated.
Yet concurrently, what appears to be missing in such analysis is an explicit clarification of the link between domestic and state-based political interests and movements, and foreign policy. There is limited to no accounting for the role of powerful domestic actors and politicians navigating a highly centralized and network-authoritarian system, which may have yielded conditionally beneficent outcomes for some yet remains hugely defective in some other areas.
Accounting for the Domestic Turn
The following explanation, while only a partial and incomplete diagnosis of the political forces propelling this shift, seeks to grapple with the incentives of actors within the politico-bureaucratic system.
First, the deprioritization of foreign perceptions has largely followed from the sidelining of moderates and “dovish” diplomats within the system. The increasingly bellicose rhetoric adopted by media outlets, critics, and governments in the West has acted as a vindication of radical hawks in the Chinese foreign service, who view the onslaught of inflammatory rhetoric as both a make-or-break career opportunity and a personally compelling window for emotive catharsis. Doves are viewed as capitulatory and concessionary, and un-conducive toward China “standing its ground” in what the government perceives to be an approaching war. Traditionally praised traits – of putting politeness and courtesy above aggression, or of prioritizing forms of reasoning more palatable to the Western public – have become vulnerabilities, those in the Foreign Ministry posit, given that it is highly unlikely that willingness to reconcile and compromise on the part of Chinese diplomats would be reciprocated warmly by the West. Such perceptions may well give rise to a vicious cycle – the heightened belligerence of Chinese diplomats delegitimizes the voices of progressively minded moderates within the West calling for de-escalation to the conflict; this, in turn, reinforces the case for staffing more diplomatic positions with hard-liners. The domestic reorientation is thus a by-product, as opposed to a product of active engineering.
Second, the contentious debate over the origins of COVID-19 has given credence to the more confrontational wing of the “mask diplomacy” campaign. The dual-track response of 1) vigorously disputing China’s alleged moral responsibility for the outbreak, and 2) buoyantly sharing Chinese medical equipment and resources with countries in need has gradually dwindled to predominantly the former. The modest successes of China – in gaining support from politicians leading countries that perceive themselves to be alienated by the liberal Western order – have bolstered the credibility of the more aggressive diplomats. As such, the pivot toward catering to domestic impressions and nationalistic sentiments is well-founded in the interplay between different factions within the official bureaucracy. It does not matter that diplomats may struggle to convince Western audiences that the virus did not originate in China (although it should be noted that evidence for this conclusion remains sparse and highly partisan in origins) – what matters (for these diplomats) is that they come across as responsible and skillful to their domestic audiences. In the meantime, advocates of a “softer” and more medical resource distribution-centered approach have faced pushback from a significant proportion of the Chinese public, who view the repudiation of Chinese aid as blatant signs of a lack of gratitude from smaller or Western states.
Third, all governments with some degree of dependence upon popular support have the active strategic incentives to maintain “legitimation narratives” so as to establish the credibility of their rule. In this context, nationalism is perpetuated as a means of deflecting or diverting from more substantial underlying issues. While China seems to have now largely weathered the COVID-19 pandemic, the prognosis for the country was looking substantially grimmer in February and March.
Thus the effervescent, galvanizing nature of Chinese nationalism provided a convenient and powerful tool of public mollification – any and all criticisms of governmental responses to the crisis were framed as antithetical to the interests of the entire nation. What cannot be underestimated here is the extent to which such support genuinely emanates from the public; highly symbolic gestures of goodwill and high-level “concern” for citizens, exemplified best, perhaps, by second-in-command Li Keqiang’s leadership of the Crisis Response Team, have amplified both regime credibility and mass support in the eyes of an overwhelming majority of the country’s populace.
Finally, the surge in racist xenophobia in the West has provided Beijing with significant ammunition to portray itself as the ultimate defender of all Chinese’s interests — including members of the Chinese diaspora and overseas migrant communities. Such ethnocentric nationalism not only enables the fostering of ties and connections between the Chinese civil society and state with pockets of the Chinese migrant community abroad, but also offers an easily accessible account of why Chinese citizens ought to care about the welfare of those who do not reside in China.
The above explanations hopefully fill in an existing gap in the literature concerning the role played by short-term factors and strategic considerations that shape Chinese diplomatic decisions. Domestic politics within China tends to be far more intransigent and obstinate as compared with the country’s foreign policy. What the above suggests is that the heightening vigor in Chinese diplomacy is unlikely to be diffused in the short to medium run.
Brian Wong is a Rhodes Scholar-Elect from Hong Kong (2020), upcoming DPhil Candidate at Oxford, and a current MPhil in Politics at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. They are the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Political Review; Founding Secretary of Citizen Action Design Lab, Founding Fellow of Governance Partners Yangon, and a frequent contributor to media and academic publications.