China’s Competing Nationalisms

David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs; Director of the China Policy Program - Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

May 5, 2008

Which of the competing Chinese nationalisms will show up at the Olympics in August? An aggrieved, defensive nationalism, or a confident and proud nationalism?

Chinese society embodies both types, reflecting a deeper dualistic set of identities: one xenophobic type rooted in past indignities experienced by the Chinese people, the other more cosmopolitan version taking shape along with globalization and China’s integration into the international community.

In recent weeks, as the Olympic torch has wound its troubled way around the globe to Beijing, the world has been shown the virulent form of Chinese nationalism. While Chinese audiences were genuinely shocked and hurt by the pro-Tibet and anti-China demonstrations on three continents, the resulting anti-Western invective and demonstrations inside China and by Chinese abroad have surprised many around the world.

While it is not becoming to Chinese culture, heritage or dignity – and not representative of all Chinese nationalist feelings – the world should brace itself for more such xenophobic outbursts in the run-up to – and possibly during – the Olympics.

Where does it come from? This aggrieved strain of Chinese nationalism has deep roots stretching back to the indignities foisted on China by European colonial powers, American missionaries and Japanese invaders from the 18th through the mid-20th centuries, a period officially referred in Chinese textbooks today as “the century of shame and humiliation.”

The Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the 1902 anti-American boycott, the May Fourth Movement of 1919, the New Life Movement of 1934 and similar events animated anti-Western nationalism during the first half of the 20th century, until Mao and the Communists were able to capitalize on these powerful emotions and seize power in 1949.

The international community needs to understand the depth of this historical experience and sentiment in Chinese society and collective psyche.

It represents the raison d’être of the modern Chinese Communist state, which came to power on a promise to unify the nation, restore its dignity and never again permit foreigners to subjugate, discriminate against or try to “split” China.

Fifty-plus years of government propaganda and indoctrination have further embedded these beliefs in the populace. This is why the issues of Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang strike such a nerve in Chinese society. A part of China’s psyche has a very low threshold for foreign criticism, zero tolerance for “losing face” and little self-awareness of how nationalistic eruptions appear abroad.

As a Chinese colleague recently pointed out to me, the current hyper-nationalism is also fueled by the deep feelings of discontent and resentment currently gripping large sectors of Chinese society – wage arrears, stagnant incomes, unemployment, inflation, corruption, severe class disparities, environmental deterioration, moral vacuum and a deep sense of losing ground in China’s Hobbesian economy.

To some extent, the government is seeking to divert these social frustrations into nationalism and away from the Communist party-state.

Fortunately, the aggrieved nationalism witnessed in recent weeks is only part of China’s collective psyche. The other dimension is what can be described as China’s “confident nationalism.” This more confident Chinese nationalism is still a work in progress, and it coexists uneasily with China’s aggrieved nationalism.

This strain of popular discourse and feeling in China is more patriotic than nationalistic. It has its roots in China’s present and future instead of its past. It is proud of China’s accomplishments over the past 59 years of the People’s Republic, but also modest about the myriad challenges the country continues to face.

It is a nationalism that is cosmopolitan rather than insular and xenophobic. It is a nationalism of many (but not all) urbanites and intellectuals. It is a nationalism that is proud of China’s newfound role in world affairs, its new status as a major power, its permanent membership on the UN Security Council, its prowess as the engine of global economic growth, its dramatic socio-economic transformation, its lifting of 200 million people out of absolute poverty, its contributions to addressing international “hot spot” problems like North Korea, and its role as an upholder of the international order.

This is the China the Olympics were supposed to celebrate. Instead, China risks squandering its credit through its nasty nationalism.

If hypernationalist hysteria gets out of hand during the Games themselves – as Chinese athletes either win or lose events – it will be a public-relations fiasco for the country, setting back China’s international image and its “peaceful rise.”

If Chinese nationalism continues to show its insecure rather than its self-assured side, other nations will adapt their China policies accordingly, and instead of winning the world’s respect, China may bring upon itself exactly the kind of “containment” policies it regularly denounces.

In 2006, as I sat in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, the site of the Nazi Olympics of 1936, watching the exuberant crowd as Germany defeated Argentina in the World Cup, I witnessed Germany’s confident but not excessive nationalism of today, and I wondered whether China would exhibit the same self-control at the 2008 Olympics. We will see in August.