The transformation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from revolutionary party under Mao Zedong into a Chinese nationalist party beginning in the early ‘90s has proven a double-edged sword for the CCP and for China. While cementing popular support for the CCP among ordinary Chinese, growing nationalism has also generated resistance along China’s periphery. This stability-instability paradox has driven Beijing to adopt a set of costly and dangerous policies that have sullied China’s international reputation abroad and pushed the dream of a unified China further out of reach.
The concept of nationalism was introduced to China by the West. Traditionally, China recognized no sovereign equals — the Chinese divided the world into civilized peoples, who observed Chinese culture and tradition under the leadership of the Emperor, and barbarians who could achieve civilization only through assimilation.
By the late 19th century, the press of Western imperialism forced Chinese intellectuals and political reformers to embrace nationalism as an element of modernization. As John Fitzgerald notes, however, nationalism in China arose not in the form of a people seeking a state, but in the shape of state-builders defining the Chinese nation in ways that facilitated their own aspirations to rule. This pattern of the state defining the nation rather than vice versa was itself rooted in traditional Confucian thought, which, as an ideology of the state, vested sovereignty with rulers rather than the people.
As a result, the scope and meaning of nationalism in China has varied. Influenced by Western intellectual currents, Sun Yat-sen conceived of the Chinese nation in terms of race or blood lineage. Reformers associated with the May Fourth movement of 1919 embraced civic nationalism with an emphasis on the rights and duties of citizens under a republican state. Under Mao, the nation was defined in terms of class, with China leading a global proletarian revolution.
Nationalism and CCP Legitimation Strategy
Following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, CCP leader Deng Xiaoping abandoned Maoist dogma in order to save both the nation and the party. Yet the softening of totalitarian controls, combined with market reforms and the opening to the outside world, created an intellectual vacuum, and ideas about liberal democracy gained popularity among young Chinese and intellectuals. This threat to CCP rule was met with violent repression of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere.
In the aftermath, Deng faced the puzzle of how to restore stability without capitulating to pressures from hard-liners to abandon economic reform and resurrect Maoism. For Deng and his successor Jiang Zemin, the answer was a reformulated nationalism, or, in the language of the time, patriotism.
The patriotic campaigns of the ‘90s stretched across education, culture, media, academia, and public displays, such as memorials, museums, and holidays. Aspects of pre-revolutionary Chinese society – rejected during the Cultural Revolution – were resurrected and reinterpreted to meet the political needs of the CCP. Embracing a politics of grievance and historical victimhood, party propaganda stoked anti-Western and anti-Japanese sentiment by underlining China’s century of national humiliation, brought to an end only by the victory of the CCP in 1949.
More recently, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has promoted a forward-looking nationalism that challenges citizens to “achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Throughout, Chinese patriotism was equated with loyalty to the CCP as the necessary instrument for overcoming past humiliations and achieving future national greatness. Each year on April 15, for instance, Chinese schools observe “National Security Education Day,” during which students are offered lessons on “political security,” which “concerns the safety of the Community Party and the nation.”
Along with rising living standards, the CCP’s emphasis on patriotism successfully garnered popular legitimacy for the party-state among mainstream Chinese. Opinion surveys, for example, consistently show high levels of public trust in Chinese political institutions and optimism about the future.
The Problems of the Periphery
Yet this formula for regime legitimacy could not be successfully applied to China’s periphery. Tibet and Xinjiang present the problem of geographically clustered non-Han minorities that could plausibly tell their own narratives of colonial victimization at the hands of the CCP itself. Taiwan remained beyond Beijing’s reach entirely while Hong Kong had, under British colonial rule, developed along a distinct political, cultural and economic path.
In dealing with both sets of problems, Chinese leaders carved out flexible and pragmatic exceptions. Following the Soviet example, the CCP gave non-Han minority groups official recognition and, where they constituted a majority, local autonomy (in principle – the realities were quite different). Minorities enjoyed preferences with respect to family size, university entrance, and targeted government support and investment, as well as tolerance of their cultural distinctiveness.
In the cases of Taiwan and Hong Kong, Deng in 1984 announced the “one country, two systems” principle, which would allow each wayward territory to retain its own social, economic and legal system following reunification. Although rejected by Taiwan, the formula was applied to Hong Kong following the handover of control from Britain to China in 1997.
This flexibility did not prevent the CCP from diluting the concentration of minority populations in Tibet and Xinjiang by encouraging Han migration (in Xinjiang, the Han share of the population grew from 6.7 percent in 1949 to 40 percent in 1980) and imposing state regulation over religious institutions. Nor did it stop the mainland from threatening military force against Taiwan to forestall a formal declaration of independence. Nevertheless, Beijing recognized the distinctive histories, cultures and even political institutions of these peripheral areas.
Yet such expedients failed to offer peripheral peoples a genuine place to belong within the CCP’s vision of the Chinese nation. Indeed, the limited pluralism tolerated along the periphery combined with the fusion of nationalism with CCP rule within the bulk of China led to a growing divergence. Peripheral peoples developed increasingly distinct political, ethnic and national identities out of sync with the CCP’s overall legitimation strategy.
Spooked by the role that local separatisms played in the collapse of the Soviet Union, Xi has cast aside ethnic and institutional pluralism along China’s periphery, seeking instead to impose Beijing’s will over what the CCP considers rebellious local populations. The result has been the abandonment of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong, growing coercive pressures on Taiwan, and policies of forced assimilation aimed at restive minorities.
Taiwan and Hong Kong
Deng Xiaoping recognized that the imposition of direct CCP rule in either Taiwan or Hong Kong would fail. After all, Taiwan had been ruled for decades by the CCP’s defeated rival, the Kuomintang (KMT), while Hong Kong was home to generations of dissidents and refugees. Both developed strongly anti-communist political cultures.
Deng’s “one country, two systems” formula offered a pragmatic exchange – accept Chinese sovereignty in return for a high degree of political autonomy. Yet in the case of Hong Kong, where this blueprint was applied, autonomy was highly circumscribed. Beijing relied upon byzantine electoral rules and influence over local business tycoons to ensure favored outcomes. This strategy finally reached its limits in recent years. As older pan-democratic politicians proved ineffectual, they were pushed aside by younger and more militant activists, who took to the streets to demand full democracy and to push back against Beijing-inspired national security laws, patriotic education, and extradition.
Deng’s confidence that Taiwan and Hong Kong could be managed also rested upon the assumption that the peoples of both would be bound to the mainland by a shared attachment to Chinese nationhood. Yet as Taiwanese and Hong Kongers have increasingly embraced liberal democratic values at odds with Beijing’s concept of national patriotism, they have also increasingly questioned their own identities as Chinese.
After more than two decades under PRC sovereignty, over half of Hong Kong residents identify exclusively as Hong Kongers. Trust in the “one country, two systems” formula has plunged, while roughly 40 percent of young Hong Kongers favor eventual independence.
This identity conflict also cuts through Taiwanese politics. The Republic of China established by the KMT on Taiwan declared itself the legitimate government of all China. The CCP and KMT thus agreed that Taiwan was part of China, but disagreed about which party deserved to rule.
The notion of “one China” lacked appeal, however, for Taiwanese who populated the island prior to 1949 and whose connections to the mainland had been attenuated by five decades of Japanese colonial rule. Tracing back to the 1920s, Taiwanese nationalists found a home in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the wake of Taiwan’s growing democratization beginning in the 1980s.
Whereas in 1991 less than one-fifth of Taiwan residents identified themselves as exclusively Taiwanese, three-quarters now identify as Taiwanese only. Less than one-quarter of Taiwanese have favorable views toward mainland China, while three-quarters would favor Taiwanese independence if this would not trigger military attack by China.
The massive Hong Kong protests of 2019 drove home these realities, prompting Beijing to abandon the “one country, two systems” formula in all but name. With the imposition of the new national security law, attempts by Hong Kong citizens to exercise political autonomy are now defined by Beijing as unpatriotic, illegitimate, and illegal. Arrests of opposition figures have already begun, candidates for local political offices have been ruled ineligible, and legislative elections have been postponed. Restrictions on freedoms of speech have tightened and plans to introduce patriotic education into the school curriculum are being readied. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has declared that school children should be taught the message: “I am Chinese.”
It also seems evident that Xi has given up on luring Taiwan onto a peaceful path toward reunification. Beijing has cut off most official contacts with Taiwan authorities since 2017, when President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP won office. China has also stepped up pressures through military incursions into Taiwan’s waters and airspace. Xi has remarked that “our country must be reunified, and will surely be reunified” and that the problem of Taiwan “should not be passed down generation after generation.”
In short, Beijing’s previous flexibility in managing ties with Hong Kong and Taiwan has been overtaken by increasingly forceful efforts to assert direct control in the face of centrifugal forces drawing peoples in both places toward identities that are not simply anti-CCP, but also anti-Chinese.
Tibet and Xinjiang
In Tibet and Xinjiang, religious and ethnic minorities have felt increasingly marginalized, leading to significant unrest, including violent clashes in Tibet in 2008 and in Xinjiang in 2009 and 2014. Xi Jinping responded with orders for state security to show “absolutely no mercy” in the “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism.”
According to James Milward, the special rights and formal political recognition accorded minorities by the CCP after 1949 were aimed at the problem of “how to run an empire without looking like colonialists.” Chinese scholar Ma Rong, however, has argued that the “politicization” of minority status only encouraged separatist sentiment. Instead, he has suggested that ethnicity be “culturalized” – stripped of special political connotation while permitting distinctive ethnic traditions. Influential intellectuals Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe have gone further, advocating thoroughgoing assimilation of minority peoples to the dominant Han culture.
These ideas likely inspired the recent crackdown against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In 2016, Xi declared that religious communities must “promote Chinese culture, strive to integrate religious belief with Chinese culture.” Minority cultural and religious identities, practices, institutions, and language have been repressed in favor of Han culture. Over a million adults have been forcibly detained in re-education camps alongside hundreds of thousands of political prisoners. Many others have been involuntarily transported to distant provinces for factory work. Over a half million children have been separated from their parents in boarding schools where they are taught to resist “deviant thinking.” In a December 2017 campaign, 1 million CCP cadres moved in with Uyghur families to teach “unity.” The CCP is conducting a massive campaign to suppress births among Muslim minorities through mandatory birth control measures and forced sterilizations. Both Xinjiang and Tibet are subject to mass surveillance, ubiquitous police checkpoints, and location tracking through smartphone apps and social media.
With information about Tibet and Xinjiang heavily censored in other parts of China, many ordinary Chinese support coercive assimilation, as reflected in the remark offered by one elderly woman to reporter Isobel Yeung: “Uyghurs should be the same as Han people, I don’t feel sorry for them.”
The Stability-Instability Paradox
In seeking domestic legitimacy, China’s rulers have promoted a top-down and increasingly narrow brand of nationalism centered around loyalty to the CCP and attachment to Han culture and identity. In the process, the CCP has largely abandoned policies toward the periphery – “one country, two systems” in the cases of Taiwan and Hong Kong and ethnic-pluralism in the cases of Tibet and Xinjiang – that, if far from perfect, at least included significant elements of flexibility and pragmatism.
Whether this insistence upon assimilation to a singular Chinese identity will bring the stability and unity that Beijing craves seems doubtful. Minxin Pei warns that such policies have “greatly strengthened the local identities, sharpened the sense of alienation and grievance felt by the targeted groups, and radicalized the activists among them.”
The CCP continues to face a paradox: the nationalism that has brought relative support and stability among the Han majority has been purchased at the price of instability along China’s periphery. The challenge of fashioning a basis for regime legitimacy that is inclusive of all of China’s people remains unmet.
David Skidmore is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, the U.S. He received his Ph.D. degree from Stanford University.