What is Chinese Nationalism

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    Nationalist sentiments and uprisings are becoming more frequent in domestic and international affairs around the world. It consists of a certain set of beliefs that distinguishes between the favored in-group’ – those that hold strong, nativist connections to country and territory, and the alienated out-group’ – those scapegoated and vilified by the former group. This can have significant impacts on a country’s foreign policy and international relations – militarily and economically.

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A leading example of this phenomenon exists in modern day China and the rise of Chinese nationalism. This marks a defining moment in Chinese policy, one defined by China’s growing economic, diplomatic, and military might in the twenty-first century. This is seen in the fact that Chinese leadership has become more receptive to the views of popular nationalism in its  approach to pursuing core national interests and foreign policy goals. Specifically, China is using nationalism not only to create and maintain domestic political stability, but also to create an international order more conducive to its vital interests – one that gives them leverage in the international arena. This has led China to promote its national interests with a much more assertive approach to international affairs and disputes.

By exploring the dominance of Chinese elite nationalism over popular nationalism in the shaping of foreign policy, and the manipulation of popular sentiments towards international disputes by the Chinese government, the contribution of Chinese nationalism to emerging patterns of aggression and leveraging in Chinese foreign policy can be seen. In turn, a certain danger is made apparent, as well. As the Chinese government takes these sentiments into account, as the line between state and popular nationalists sentiments become blurred, the harder it could be to make concessions, the more constrained Chinese officials can be in their options, and the more limited negotiations could be in future disputes, increasing the probability of interstate military conflict.

The Effects of Chinese Nationalism and its Rise

    From the Opium Wars to the repeated invasions by Japan over the course of recent history, China has had to endure, in its own terms, a Century of Humiliation.’ With the advent of China’s Miracle,’ it’s visibility on the world stage, China is increasingly wanting to make up for lost time, so to speak. Out of the growth of economic and military capabilities comes a Chinese desire to create a national restoration of prestige. This involved the aspiration to great power status. Coupled with these desires, was the fostering of a political ideology of nationalism – one that is that the center of Chinese desires for greatness. Essentially, Chinese nationalism’s main goal is to achieve a national salvation,’ a rescue of China’s image from the idea of it as a victim-nation.’ Thus, this nationalism and demand for more power is guiding China on the world stage – international affairs. Abanti Bhattacharya, associate professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, points out how in China has adopted two mechanisms in the wake of its nationalist rise in an effort to build its international status – greater economic interdependence and cooperation, (249). This was more assertive because in these efforts is an attempt to undermine U.S. power and unipolarity. By utilizing globalization to its advantage, China has pursued its goal to constrain U.S. unilateralism, as well as build up its own security in the face of U.S. encroachment, all in an effort to return China to its former glory.’ This reinforces the notion that China had used nationalism as a guiding principle to determine its goals and aspirations, lending credence to notion that Chinese nationalism is interacting with a more assertive Chinese foreign policy.

    This Chinese nationalism, defining China as a victim of Western encroachment, stresses Chinese victimhood at the hands of Western powers. Guangqui Xu emphasizes this in his article, Anti-Western Nationalism in China, 1989 – 99, published in the World Affairs Journal. Xu states how Chinese nationalism was preceded by Chinese feelings of its failure to overcome what it perceived were political and economic barriers established by the West. This was also an attempt by Western powers to guard their own interests, but nevertheless, Chinese nationalists have become moral vocal in wanting a change to the international order, one that has been dominated by the West and the U.S. after the end of the Cold War, (152). This establishes what the foundations are of Chinese nationalism, how and why it was cultivated within China and what its goals are moving forward. Chinese nationalism has aided in fostering a new image for China as its power grows in world politics, and had increased Chinese assertiveness when dealing with international disputes.

Chinese Government Manipulation of Popular Nationalism:

    The rise of nationalism and the utility of popular nationalism is also highlighted in the use of coercive diplomacy by states like China. China will often manipulate – tolerate or suppress – the emotions and whims of the Chinese people in order to cultivate a space of leverage for themselves in international disputes. This point is developed within this framework by explaining the management of national protest, as well as the domestic and diplomatic benefits and trade-offs associated with the allowance or repression of protest. By allowing domestic protests to continue, weighing the costs and benefits of allowing protests to continue, China can signal to other states that their options are constrained and limited in interstate disputes. This operates under the impression that foreign governments, in situations of wanting to avoid instability, will have incentives to make concessions in some cases, to preserve the status-quo in the face of popular uprising. This demonstrates how Chinese leaders, given the right circumstances, would be emboldened to tolerate and even encourage popular protest, reinforcing the effects of nationalism on Chinese assertiveness. This point is reinforced by Jessica Chen Weiss, associate professor of government at Cornell University, in her article, Authoritarian Signaling, Mass Audiences, and National Protest in China, published in the Cambridge Core. Weiss explains how, in bargaining terms, by tolerating anti-foreign protests at home sends signals to other states that the Chinese state possesses resolve and a commitment to stand its ground. Hawkish’ protests make the domestic costs of concession known. The Chinese government sees more of a benefit in being firm in its position and having their adversary ready to concede, as opposed to having themselves make too many concessions and deal with the wrath of the people back at home, (2-3). On the other hand, if the state were to suppress and quash any forms of domestic unrest visibility to foreign governments, it might send a costly signal that reassures them and their own actions, showing that domestic unrest is too destabilizing for the Chinese government in those situations. Weiss goes on to explain this argument in two steps. First – nationalist protests can spin out of control,’ which in turn can cause political destabilization, as well as do serious harm to diplomatic relations. To tolerate domestic protests is to signal the importance and significance of the issue at hand to the Chinese government. Second – since it is easier for the government to stamp out popular uprising from the start then to try and end them after they have already begun, the continued rise of popular demonstrations enhances the credibility of the Chinese state in regards to an unyielding diplomatic stance,’ (3). The underlying theory proposes that international along with domestic incentives are involved in the regime’s cost-benefit trade-off – the potential costs and constraints of national protest can benefit a government’s objectives in current and future scenarios, and how severely nationalist sentiments can constrain a government depending on how the protests are dealt with. This also highlights how popular nationalism, by itself, doesn’t necessarily make Chinese foreign policy more aggressive. Instead, the Chinese government can encourage its rise in order to foster a bargaining space for themselves in future disputes. This would then be a factor that contributes to the increasingly aggressive nature of Chinese foreign policy, especially concerning disputes it has with other states, including the United States.


The Effects of Elite Nationalism Over Popular Nationalism:

    When discussing the rise of nationalism in China, it’s important to note the distinction between elite nationalism and popular nationalism. Popular nationalism tends to be emotional, reactive, and defined by those who feel it is the citizen’s duty to support their country. Elite nationalism is more pragmatic, not boxed in by specific principles or methods in the same way popular nationalism is.

Prior to 2008, it was not uncommon for the Chinese government to try to balance the pros and cons of outbursts of popular sentiments. A good example would be the protests that took place during the crisis caused by the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in 1999. Chinese officials would encourage these protests in the wake of the bombing. However, in fear of the deterioration of U.S.-Sino relations, the Chinese leadership discouraged any forms of extremism or political destabilization. This measured control of domestic nationalism began to unravel in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, however. As Western powers buckled under the weight of the economic disaster, China continued to rise. With its rise came military strength and economic growth – and an increase in demands as a rising power. This desire of China’s to start throwing its weight around more, so to speak, can be seen throughout different bureaucratic apparatuses of the Chinese government. This point is made by Suisheng Zhao, professor of Chinese politics and foreign policy at the University of Denver, in his article, Foreign Policy Implications of Chinese Nationalism Revisited: The Strident Turn, published in the Journal of Contemporary China. Zhao states that not only did popular nationalism rise after the global crash and China’s ascendancy, but to the surprise of many observers, so did the nationalism of many active duty senior military officials. These officials would voluntarily pressure the government to provide resistance and push back’ against the United States on a range of foreign policy issues that are in dispute, (9). A specific case would be of Colonel Dai Xu who, in his popular book and numerous speeches, would call for China to light a fire’ in the United States backyard as they did to China. In essence, the strident turn’ that followed 2008, and the seismic economic and political shifts that came with it, characterized a tipping point for Chinese policy. It illustrates how the state nationalism promulgated by high-level, bureaucratic officials – senior military officials in this case – was fostered through the economic and military growth characterizing the twenty-first century. Popular nationalism, in and of itself, is not the main driver behind Chinese aggression and assertiveness. Rather, Chinese leadership has come to be more receptive to, and share more of, the views of popular nationalism in its approaches to pursuing key national interests and foreign policy goals. Because of these changes, Chinese leadership is more constrained in its options when dealing with issues of national significance, like those pertaining to Taiwan or the dispute over the Daiyou/Senkaku Islands with Japan in the East China Sea. This convergence of nationalist sentiments between the state and the populace have lead to the incorporation of bold, controversial issues, such as the disputes in the South China Sea, into its core, national interests.

There are also historical examples in the developing of certain states that articulate the fusion of elite and popular interests by way of nationalism, and what type of repercussions this hand on these states’ foreign policies at the time of their development and expansion. This analysis can be significant in terms of providing an adequate lens to view the development of the state in modern day China, and its relationship to the rise of nationalism at home.

Specifically, Great Britain developed much earlier than a state like Germany in its rise. Britain’s earlier development was marked by more liberal reforms in its formation, the establishment of democratic institutions, a middle class marked by its appreciation for liberalism and free trade. On the other side, later development in states like Germany and Japan, cultivated a property-owning class that became dependent on the state, and repressive in the face of demands for more political and economic liberty. As Jack Snyder states in his piece, The Double Dilemma Facing Rising Powers: German History as a Cautionary Tale, in both instances of Germany and Japan, nationalism began to develop, tying the ruling elite class to the class of property-owners, vilifying the working class as unpatriotic.’ The coalition of elites were then unified and maintained power by pursuing colonial expansions and militarization – issues defined as national’ issues, (2-3). The fruits of this strategy, and the effects of nationalism on Germany and Japanese foreign policy, then began to blossom. Throughout the history succeeding both states’ rise was a history enmeshed in constant colonial conflict, new arms races, and diplomatic strife with other great powers. Snyder goes even further into detail hear by explaining how Otto Von Bismarck, the Minister-President of the Prussian state and unifier of the German states, engrained this strategy of rule by militarized nationalism, recruited the middle class into the dominant political culture. The manufacturing,’ as Snyder puts it, of international crises and arms races prolonged the life of this strategy, (6). In fact, it is argued that Germany’s belligerency in the wake of this rising nationalism and the direction of the elite in Germany lead to the catastrophic decision that began World War I. In sum, the political strategy of manipulating popular nationalist sentiments, and the pursued interest of the elites in combination with nationalism, provided the groundwork for what lead to the start of the war, and more generally, conflict overall. The ruling classes in Germany and Japan, in the absence of full-fledged democratic institutions, would instead create divisions in the masses, and then unify parts of the middle class with the elite, to cement popular support against calls for further democratization, with an apparent influence on these late-developing states’ foreign policy and more aggressive tendencies.

These revelations are cause for concern when one addresses the similarities between these states’ developments and that of China’s. As economic growth continues, it should be anticipated that the Chinese population will demand more democratic reforms – something that can pose a problem to the authoritarian elites who govern China. Snyder remarked on this in his comments on the Chinese state’s hopes for its own version of democratization’ when push comes to shove and it can no be ignored. China hopes their own democratization’ can go hand-in-hand with its peaceful rise.’ However, a more violent, belligerent path is also likely if China continues to pursue the manipulation of mass politic without the establishment of true liberal institutions, (22). By showing these parallels, Snyder articulates how the types of military and diplomatic strategies pursued in Germany and Japan, as well as in tandem with the absence of strong democratic institutions, were integral to the continued rule of elitist classes, but also facilitated the conditions necessary for war and conflict. It illustrates the effects nationalism can have on a country’s foreign policy, and gives a warning sign for what may come if China follows down the same path.

If Nationalism Didn’t Constrain China’s Options:

    Popular nationalism and nativist sentiments in China can, hypothetically, constrain the ability of Chinese leaders to de-escalate tensions with other nations by limiting the scope of options governments have in settling international disputes. However, this is not to imply that Chinese leaders don’t have the ability to control and quell popular uprising through different incentives and scenarios. Alastair Iain Johnston and Kai Quek, professors at Harvard University and the University of Hong Kong, respectively, make this argument in their piece, Can China Back Down? Crisis De-Escalation in the Shadow of Popular Opposition, published in the MIT Press Journal. Johnston and Quek are critical of the previously established notions of audience costs. They explain how most prior research on the subject failed to take into consideration a nation’s leadership’s ability to strategically control and manipulate the public sentiments towards state bluffing and actions, (13).

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What Is Chinese Nationalism. (2020, Mar 23). Retrieved November 27, 2022 , from

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