China's Ruling Party Is Stoking the Fires of Nationalism

In 2002, the movie Hero became an instant hit in China, where it was made by Zhang Yimou, perhaps the best-known Chinese director. When it opened in America last year--complete with an above-the-title imprimatur by haute auteur Quentin Tarantino--it was billed as an action-romance of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon variety, complete with wire-guided swordfights and a melodramatic ménage-a-trois love angle. Yet, in addition to being a piece of post-modern eye candy, the film had a distinctly pre-modern theme: the glories of Chinese nationalism. The movie's central plot swirls around martial arts master Jet Li's decision to abandon his mission to kill the Qin emperor, who is marching his army to conquer Jet Li's homeland of Zhao. The hero recognizes that the establishment of "our land"--greater, imperial China--is a cause far greater than the enslavement of his native people. As New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis (a student of the Maureen Dowd school) summed up Hero's message: "Roll over, Chairman Mao, and tell the comrades the news: the history of the empire now comes wrapped in kaleidoscopic kung fu cool."

Unquestionably, nationalism is intended to be cool in China these days. Indeed it has become the replacement for communist ideology as the Chinese Communist party seeks to maintain its hold on power while embracing capitalist economics. The government is ritualistic in its fanning of the flames of this nationalism--the "spontaneous" anti-Japanese protests in Chinese cities on the first three weekends of April bore the unmistakable marks of Beijing's stage management. As student protestor Sun Wei told Joseph Kahn of the New York Times, "I felt like a puppet." The rally in Beijing ended when police told the crowds they had "vented their anger" long enough, shuffled them on to busses back to their campus. "It was partly a real protest and partly a political show," Sun declared.

The protests began in the city of Chengdu, in southwest China, April 2, but when they hit Beijing a week later they grew in size and seriousness; they were the biggest to take place in China since 1999, when huge crowds expressed their anger over the inadvertent bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade during the war in Kosovo. That the demonstrations continued into a third weekend is a measure both of the depth of Chinese anti-Japan sentiment and the level of official tolerance of such feelings. In Beijing, units of police and interior ministry troops were mobilized as protection for the Japanese embassy and the Japanese ambassador's residence, but they didn't prevent the crowds from throwing stones and bottles, or from looting Japanese businesses.

The roots of China's anti-Japanese anger are deep, based not just on the events of the World War II era but also the earlier flowering of Japanese power at the turn of the 20th century. Their devastating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 is widely regarded in China as a watershed event marking China's weakness before imperial powers, leading even intellectuals to fear national extinction. As J.A.G. Roberts writes:

The disastrous defeat in the Sino-Japanese War destroyed the credit of the self-strengtheners [in China] and raised acute fears for the nation's survival. In the aftermath, in response to the scramble for China, a determination to preserve all practical means to preserve China may be observed. . . . From these incidents and from the social changes which occurred in the late nineteenth century, there developed the sentiment which may properly be called Chinese nationalism.

Further, the Chinese Communist party bases much of its claims of legitimacy--and its dispute of Guomindang legitimacy--on its record of fighting the Japanese invasions of the 1930s and 1940s. As the Economist succinctly puts it in its explanation of the recent protests: "Animosity towards Japan is regarded as the hallmark of a [Chinese] patriot."

It also appears that anti-Japanese sentiment is a particularly useful tool for Beijing in its drive to assert both a global and a regional leadership role. For example, reminding East Asians of Japanese atrocities during World War II is an effective tool amongst Koreans. The visits of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Yasukuni, the Shinto shrine to Japan's war dead, have been pilloried as honoring "war criminals." The immediate spark for the latest demonstrations in China was the publication in Japan of an allegedly revisionist textbook playing down the atrocities, which also plays into the Beijing line that Japan has not sufficiently apologized for its past. Moreover, Japan's emerging new role as a "normal" geopolitical power and its renewed alliance with the United States--based in great measure upon fear of rising Chinese military power--and calls to make Tokyo a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council have focused the Chinese regime's interest in stoking anti-Japanese feelings.

Finally, it's almost certain that Chinese leaders are attempting to siphon a whole host of social troubles--economic and labor unrest, internal political repression, corruption, and the general lack of political development--into expressions of anger at Japan and other foreign sources. Murray Scot Tanner, a senior political scientist at RAND Corporation and perhaps the leading authority on rising unrest in China, observes:

China has taken a much riskier step beyond its emerging protest strategy of "permissive containment and management" by trying to tacitly "stage manage" angry young nationalist protestors. The leadership clearly hopes to ride this wave, buttress its popular nationalist credentials, and mobilize this popular anger as a diplomatic tool in its dealings with Japan over such issues as textbooks, Security Council membership, and cooperation with the U.S. to protect Taiwan. China can now claim--probably correctly--that its people would not stand for significant concessions on these issues.

But Beijing has chosen to run major risks that could end up creating serious challenges for its domestic stability and its foreign policy. By aligning itself with the protestors (not withstanding its public calls for restraint), it risks having its policies boxed in or manipulated by protestor demands. . . . Perhaps worse, if Beijing finds it must use coercion to limit the protestors, it risks putting its security forces in the dangerous position of being seen as the "protectors" of the "unrepentant Japanese"--a very dangerous situation for a government that has staked its claims to legitimacy on nationalism and economic growth.

But Chinese nationalism sees many devils other than the Japanese. Indeed, beginning with the Opium War of the 1840, there began what Sinologists call a "victimization narrative," essentially a chronicle of Western exploitation of--and contribution to--Chinese military and political weakness. Naturally, this victimization narrative contrasts Chinese nationalism with Western imperialism, and often--with the Boxer Uprising of 1900 taken as the mythic prototype--calls forth a peasant movement in response. This also serves to link the narrative of modern Chinese history with the dynastic cycles of the more distant past. Thus the late Qing period is described as China's "century of humiliations," with the strong implication being that this pattern has been broken by the rise of the Communist party to power and now, with China's emergence as a regional and global power.

To today's Chinese nationalists, the United States stands as the ultimate Western hegemon and practitioner of, in the government's favorite phrase, "power politics" aimed at blocking Beijing's rightful place in the international order. However, in this view, the narrative of the 21st century will have quite a different outcome than that of the 19th century: In their 1996 screed Surpassing the USA, authors Xi Yongjun and Ma Zaithun declare that "China's rise is the sign for America's fall." This is the strong belief of the so-called "fourth generation" of Chinese Communist party leaders, the generation of Hu Jintao, who, "because of the education they have received, in their subconscious the West, and the U.S. in particular, has always been our enemy, oppressing us, invading our motherland; and even killing our countrymen."

The character and virulence of modern Chinese nationalism goes a long way toward explaining Beijing's response to the crisis over the mid-air collision between a Chinese fighter and a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft in early 2001. Although it was almost immediately clear that the incident resulted from overly aggressive tactics on the part of the Chinese pilot and a fatal error on his part, there seemed to be no way that the Beijing government could admit the facts, especially to its own people, and thus bring the crisis to resolution. Viewed as an element in the narrative of Chinese nationalists, the crash of the Chinese MiG and the death of the pilot were evidence of continuing attempts by the United States to humiliate China, consequently a hostile response was the only palatable option for the government in Beijing. Such are the dangers to the leadership of "riding the tiger," as Murray Scot Tanner puts it, of Chinese nationalism.

In theory, the phenomenon of nationalism, the love of one's country, or patriotism, is neither good nor evil. At the core of American "nationalism" is the narrative of the Declaration of Independence--a document often targeted by Chinese nationalists as indicative of the immaturity of American culture--with its enunciation of natural, universal political rights. Even "Chinese" nationalism, as now expressed in Taiwan, can be energetically, even brawlingly, democratic.

Yet modern Chinese mainlander nationalism is marked by a number of darker qualities, as Yu Maochun of the U.S. Naval Academy argues. It is deeply chauvinistic, celebrating not only millennia of Chinese civilization but the virtues of the Han people. And it is an important staple of Chinese popular culture--or at least that popular culture endorsed and promoted by the government. Observes Yu:

[I]nternalized chauvinism in China's popular culture remains pervasive among ordinary Chinese citizens. The Chinese government in its vigorous campaign of "Patriotic Education" strongly endorses "patriotic songs" that blatantly advocate chauvinism. Earlier this year, the [Party] authorities in Shanghai endorsed three such songs for all high schools in the region. One of them is called "The Chinese," by the pop star Liu Dehua. The lyric defines what qualifies one as a "Chinese," [that is,] one must have "yellow face and black eyes." . . . Perhaps the most popular "patriotic song" in the last 25 years in China is Zhang Mingmin's "Dragon's Descendents," which defines a Chinese as someone with "black eyes, black hair, and yellow skin." The latest "patriotic song" performed at every major national TV event is Ye Fan's "Dear China, I Love You!," which goes even further by claiming that "my yellow skin is china's national flag."

It's important to note that there are alternative interpretations of Chinese tradition that would make for a less disturbing form of nationalism. The assimilative notion of "Sinicization" for centuries turned Tibetans, Mongols, Turkic peoples, Muslims, Buddhists, Koreans, and others into Chinese; in this narrative of Chinese history, acculturation was a means to civilize the barbarians. Thus conquerors became dynasts; outsiders were integrated into Chinese politics.

But that's not the kind of nationalism that appeals to the leadership in Beijing today. Thus the notion of China's "peaceful rise," so appealing to Western Sinologists, is difficult to square with the chip-on-the-shoulder attitudes that percolate under the banner of modern Chinese nationalism. Thus Yu Maochun's review of Zhang Yimou's movie Hero is much darker than that of the New York Times. The "biopic," as he calls it, of emperor Shi Huangdi, who militarily "unified" China in 221 B.C., is more than kaleidoscopic kung fu cool. It's also is a thinly veiled argument for an attack on Taiwan as well as an expression of an aggressive nationalism. "Through stunning cinematography, the movie reminds" Yu of Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will, in which Hitler and National Socialism are equated with German nationalism. Hero's message "is unmistakable--no matter how brutal a dictator might be, no matter how many people he might have to murder, as long as he could unify China by any means, he is China's hero."

Whether or not Hu Jintao imagines himself as such a hero is impossible to know. But in promulgating such a model of heroism in service to an imperial ideal, the Chinese Communist leaders are riding a very powerful tiger, notorious through history for slipping the leash.

Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at AEI.

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