From the Comments: China and the Future of Nationalism

Riffing off of my recent post on Chinese porn searches, Dr. Delacroix writes:

This piece is opening a big closed book about contemporary China. Many Western intellectuals keep pretending that Chinese society and contemporary Chinese culture are inscrutable. I am one of these but I can’t fool myself forever: The pretense is largely a way to avoid commenting on what we really, readily see […]

Think of the psychological implications of having no interest in seeing how others do it! Does it imply anything about the extent of the otherness of others?

Dr. Delacroix goes on to encourage more research on China in the near future and rightly points out that libertarians have not adequately studied the region. I wholeheartedly agree on this point. Libertarianism is extremely weak in most areas of intellectual pursuit. In fact, the only reason libertarianism has any clout at all in academia is because it has a strong showing in two of the most important academic fields of inquiry: economics and philosophy. Perhaps this blog will contribute towards shrinking that gap.

My own impulse is to look at institutions for cultural, economic and political explanations of society. I’ll have more on this later, but another fascinating post by Shanghaiist on the Russian state’s recent debut on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) is worth highlighting. From the report:

Following this tweet, most of the replies were unfriendly or even downright attacking. Netizens asked Russia to return the territory that China claims sovereignty over, and to undo the damage caused by Russia’s foremost export: Marxism-Leninism.

Shanghaiist goes on to report that some netizens were quick to welcome the Russian state to Weibo as well. As I think about the reactions of Chinese citizens to Russian overtures of friendship, and as I think about Chinese porn preferences (oh yeah baby!), I can’t help but be pulled into three different directions of thought. Bear with me!

On the one hand, it is obvious that a violent form of nationalism (much like the strain that the traditional West had to confront in Europe and the Pacific during the World Wars) is extremely prevalent in Chinese society. I can see this not because of the negative reactions highlighted in the Shanghaiist report, but because of the high preference for “East Asian only” pornography. The Chinese obviously have grievances with Russia about some past war that they must have lost (gold star for anyone who enlightens us as to which war in the ‘comments’ section!), and if I had to live through the horrors of state-socialism I too would be a little miffed at the state responsible for exporting such an ideology. Yet these latter two grievances can easily be traced back to institutions if one wants to understand them more clearly. The porn preferences of the Chinese can also be traced back to institutions, but it is not so easy to do (“isolation”).

Many people seem to yearn for a cultural explanation to China’s recent rise of xenophobia. This would be a big mistake. Declaring a social problem or puzzle to be cultural rather than institutional is a good way to further misunderstandings and mistrust between two groups of people.

On the other hand, bellicose nationalism is definitely on the rise in China, and even the goodwill gestures by Chinese citizens towards Russia on Weibo are not enough to convince me to ignore what I see as a big problem for the future. Let me be clear: I think the vast majority of Chinese citizens are probably peace-loving and relatively tolerant. However, this was also the case with the Germans and Japanese prior to World War 2.

I think the nationalism is wholly fueled by Beijing (the government). In this respect Chinese nationalism is different than the nationalism of contemporary Europe and more like the nationalism of pre-war Japan (or Bismarkian Germany). I think Beijing is doing this for a couple of reasons. Reason number one is that the economy of China is not as good as analysts say it is. China’s superb economic growth over the past few decades is not all that surprising when one thinks about where it started from. Nationalism is as good a tool as any for governments to use. Reason number two is that Beijing is still in the process of nation-building within its borders. That is to say, Beijing is still trying to mold a Chinese identity out of numerous kinds of ethnic groups.

There is no such thing as a Chinese ethnic group. To be Chinese means to take on a political identity, like American or Canadian (or Mexican). China is, like the US and Canada, dominated by a certain ethnic group, known as the Han. The Han comprise around 90% of the population of China, so they are much more dominant than even Euro-Americans here in the States. The Han, in turn, are divided linguistically into those who speak Mandarin (in the north) and those who speak Cantonese (in the south). The other 10% of the population is divided into roughly 60 different ethnic groups. Now, ten percent may not seem like a whole lot until you remember that China has over 1 billion people in it, so we’re looking at 100 million people who are not ethnically Han.

Here are the relevant maps:

The dispersion of ethnic groups on the map may be deceiving because it looks as if the Han only dominate a small portion of China.
The dispersion of ethnic groups on the map may be deceiving because it looks as if the Han only dominate a small portion of China.
Here is a good look at China's population density, which clearly shows a large population in the Han-dominated areas.
Here is a good look at China’s population density, which clearly shows a large population in the Han-dominated areas.

The dominance of the Han in the Chinese state has led policymakers to appeal to this ethnic group’s prejudices, whatever those may be. This Han-centered nationalism is going to have two major consequences, one domestic and one international. Domestically the fueling of nationalist sentiments will not bode well for other ethnic groups. As Beijing continues to pursue its nation-building strategy (based around Han cultural preferences and prejudices), it is going to inevitably alienate these 100 million non-Han Chinese citizens. Think of Tibet or the Muslim Uighurs in the eastern part of the country.

If the history of the Old World tells us anything about nation-building as it pertains to ethnic minorities, it is that the liberty of hundreds of millions of people is in grave danger so long as the Chinese state seeks to foster a national consciousness to go along with its statecraft. Yet here is where the xenophobia in China comes into even sharper focus. If ethnic minorities are going to be subjected to Beijing’s attempts at imposing Han culture upon them, while simultaneously being courted by Beijing as Chinese citizens, then what we will get is an underclass of ethnic groups who may even be more xenophobic than Beijing anticipates. See the opening paragraph of this article for an example of what I mean.

On the international scene we are going to see a stark contrast in how Beijing wields its potent nationalism. None of the violent, chauvinistic actions that we’ll see domestically will play out on the international scene. The reason for the lack of violent action in the international arena is simply an interest of state: war is bad for the economy, especially if you are surrounded by neighbors that are at least as strong as you are (if not stronger). In addition to the lack of military strength relative to its neighbors, the Chinese state has an interest in maintaining its trading ties with its neighbors. If there is one thing that would delegitimize Beijing’s domestic drive for a national cohesion, it would be presiding over a bad economy.

However, just because Chinese elites have an interest in maintaining friendly, commercial ties with their neighbors does not mean that they won’t sometimes employ violent rhetoric in regards to foreign affairs. If Beijing elites are able to successfully employ nationalistic rhetoric that appeals to the xenophobia of their relatively isolated citizens, then the world may be hearing a lot more about China’s long-term strategy goals in the future. This does not mean that the Chinese will actively seek to implement such strategies. This type of rhetoric should be viewed by analysts and interested laymen as an appeal to domestic xenophobia and nothing more.

From an American policy standpoint, I would recommend just three changes, one minor and the other two relatively major.

  1. I would remove all US troops from South Korea. If there is one thing that will fuel Beijing’s hardened rhetoric to its masses it is the presence of the American military just beyond its borders. Removing troops will pull the rug out from underneath Beijing’s harsh rhetoric and force it to interact with Seoul, Pyongyang, Moscow and Tokyo in a manner that is more conducive to openness and cooperation. As of now, Beijing doesn’t have to do this because they can simply point to the 38th parallel and say “see.”
  2. I would relinquish all pretenses to alliance with Taiwan. Taiwan is a sore point for China that Washington need not pressure anymore. Beijing has long ago given up its foreign policy of exporting revolution, and its track record of letting Hong Kong and Macau pursue their own policies since reintegrating with China suggests that China will take a pragmatic approach to Taiwan. Why on earth would the Chinese seek to implement policies that reverse the progress Taiwan has made in the areas of democracy, prosperity and trade with the world? Policymakers in China are not stupid. Taiwan would most likely become another “special economic zone” rather than another Tibet.
  3. I would eliminate all anti-dumping laws and agriculture subsidies in the US. Doing so would inevitably push the US and China closer together, and would have the added bonus of helping the US become closer to much of the developing world elsewhere in Asia and Africa.

These three policies are by no means exhaustive, but I think they would go a long way towards helping the Chinese state develop (making everybody else in the world much better off), decentralize, and avoid the unnecessary oppression of hundreds of millions of people within its borders in the name of national cohesion.

9 thoughts on “From the Comments: China and the Future of Nationalism

  1. Good start. Brandon. And citing an intellectual giant does not hurt either!
    Your essay would be better if there were less of it. As usual, your soup is too rich.

    A small point and a big point in three parts

    First, I wonder how many Chinese know that Marx was a German so they could be angry at Germany too.

    Second, your frequent contrasting of institutional explanations and of cultural explanations is almost forcing me to go where I don’t have time to go: a conventional authoritative essay on the relationships (plural) between action and culture.

    I will begin right here with three statements that will probably agree with your underlying impression:

    Cultural explanations of anything are usually lazy explanations.

    To make matters worse, the people who provide such explanations often don’t know the culture to which they impute X,Y and Z.

    It’s not obvious that many people understand the meaning of the concept of culture well enough for one to contrast culture with anything else.

    Now, I have to return to my main task, one of pure imagination, writing smut for women.

  2. Great piece.

    It is important to distinguish between China and the CCP in discussing Chinese foreign policy. The CCP inherently suffers from a legitimacy crisis and endeavours hard to remedy this. CCP’s legitimacy to rule is largely premised on delivering sustained economic emancipation to its populance and encouraging nationalism. Their strategy of promoting nationalism is two pronged: emphasising China’s growing international presence and reminders of China’s abuse at the hands of foreign powers in her recent history.

    The latter, the promotion of a “victim mentality” by the state, can be seen in Instances such as the public protest allowed at the M’sia embassy in Beijing in the aftermath of MH370 and public protest allowed in the aftermath of a anti-China Vietnamese riot.

    This has ramification for Chinese foreign policies. The CCP will be increasingly forced to deal a tougher hand in response to the growing nationalism, even in instances contrary to national interests. To this end, appeasing policy adopted by US may have little traction as long as the CCP still control the narrative.

    • Thanks for the kind words FPW.

      Just curious: What part of the world do you hail from at the moment? (I’m in the capital city of Texas, for what it’s worth).

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