“Even if China is covered with graves, we must kill all Japanese.” In 2012 a protester emblazoned these words on a sign contesting Tokyo’s claims to the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyutai islands in the East China Sea. Angry demonstrations roiled a number of major Chinese cities in the months that followed. Mobs destroyed Japanese businesses and restaurants, burned Japanese cars, and attempted to bar Japanese patients from receiving treatment at local hospitals. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) fostered this nationalist agitation not only to strengthen its diplomatic position, but also to promote domestic cohesion during a sensitive political moment.
In the fall of 2012, the CCP transferred power to a new generation of officials led by Xi Jinping, and the party expended considerable effort to distract public attention from this secretive process. Beijing’s relations with Tokyo have remained tense since that time, and Japan’s direct investment in China has fallen by a significant degree. The Senkaku protests illustrate the pernicious impact of militant Chinese nationalism on foreign policy, political culture, and capital flows — particularly when embedded within an authoritarian framework. Given these harmful repercussions, why does the government continue to manipulate the patriotic sentiments of its citizens?
After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the CCP came to rely on popular nationalism and economic prosperity to legitimize its power. As growth rates have slowed during the past two years, officials have increasingly appealed to the public’s pride in China’s rich historical and cultural traditions. Xi Jinping has articulated the vision of a China Dream that will lead to a “great national revival” and a “moderately wealthy society” by the year 2020. Yet he has more often linked nationalism to a collective sense of grievance, recounting the depredations of imperial powers such as the United States and Japan during a “century of humiliation” from 1842 to 1949. In Xi’s view, these foreign adversaries “subjected the Chinese nation to untold miseries and sacrifices rarely seen in the world’s history.” The CCP presents itself as the avenger of past victimization, a claim repeated by the media, the educational system, official histories, and the government bureaucracy.
The volatility of Chinese nationalism arises from this unstable combination of cultural narcissism and an insecurity born of the country’s modern historical traumas. Xi seeks to place this elemental force in the service of the party, but like the sorcerer’s apprentice in Goethe’s poem, in the end he may cry, “Help me, help, eternal powers! ... Spirits that I have cited my commands ignore.” In the past, state-sanctioned demonstrations like those in 2012 evolved into a critique of the CCP before frightened officials restored order. Nationalistic protests can pose a danger to the government because they offer one of the few legal means of expressing collective popular discontent. Yet this disaffection can metastasize into political dissent almost overnight. Are there alternatives to using nationalism to build support for the Chinese government?
China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644–1911), developed a form of multiethnic statecraft that reflected the heterogeneous character of their vast territories. The ruling Manchu elite remained a small minority of the population, relying not only on coercion but cultural patronage and power-sharing arrangements to maintain control. They supported classical learning and scholarship, adopted the rhetoric and rituals of Confucian monarchy, and reinstated the civil service examinations to win the loyalties of their hundreds of millions of Han Chinese subjects.
In contrast, the Manchu awarded powerful Mongols with positions in the military, encouraged the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, and presented themselves as the political legatees of the khanates of Central Asia. Official documents circulated in Manchu, Mongol, and Chinese-language versions, and the dynasty established a separate set of institutions known as the Court of Colonial Affairs to govern its tens of millions of Inner Asian subjects. Yet the Manchu dispensed cultural and political patronage on a selective basis, dislodging, assimilating, or killing ethnic minorities that contributed little to their own hold on power. In short, the Qing dynasty ruled its sprawling multiethnic empire through a type of cosmopolitan authoritarianism. Could Xi Jinping broaden the CCP’s base of support in contemporary China through a liberal iteration of this earlier multiculturalism?
In theory, such an approach holds the promise of a more just and equitable society, but both elements of this formula threaten the party’s existence. The government fears that restive groups such as Tibetans and Uyghurs would demand substantial political autonomy, if not independence, endangering the country’s territorial integrity. Instead the state will continue to rely on coercion, assimilation, and demographic engineering to control minority populations even if this exacerbates civil unrest.
In addition, Xi Jinping has denounced “Western constitutional democracy” as an “attempt to undermine the current leadership and the system of governance [called] socialism with Chinese characteristics.” He fears the CCP’s prospects for survival in a liberal political order and has rejected any effort to seek legitimacy in new forms of popular sovereignty. Not all Chinese societies have followed a similar course. The Taiwanese, for example, link national identity in part to democratic values, and this shift has eliminated or at least muted expressions of cultural chauvinism.
In the People’s Republic, however, a commitment to statist authoritarianism has led the CCP to foster a “nationalism of grievance,” and it can turn neither to the multicultural models offered by Chinese history nor the liberal alternatives of its neighbors. Even if the economy rebounds in coming years, Chinese nationalism may become more strident, menacing, and disruptive to the Asia-Pacific region. To maintain its position in the future, the Communist Party may have to exert itself ever harder to ensure that it remains the master of the powerful spirits it conjures.