Why China’s nationalism is a threat

Posted on September 21, 2012


The mid-August protests in Chinese cities and accompanying media and internet commentary against Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea put pressure on Chinese officials to be firm in countering Japanese “intrusions”.

They followed calls by prominent Chinese commentators and other constituencies for Beijing to adopt a tougher approach on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Beijing in that case employed extraordinary measures including repeated use of security forces, economic sanctions, fishing and oil ventures, administrative fiats, diplomatic warnings and other intimidating means short of military force in thus far successful efforts to cow Southeast Asian claimants and preclude ASEAN from taking a united stand.

Foreign commentators are correct that a good deal of the impetus for popular and elite pressure for a tougher Chinese approach on territorial issues rests with the type of nationalism that has been fostered with increased vigour by the Chinese authorities since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism. The nationalistic discourse emphasises that since the 19th century, China has been treated unjustly and its territory and related sovereign rights have been exploited by other powers; China remains in a protracted process of building power sufficient to protect what China controls and regain disputed territory and rights. On the whole, the nationalistic discourse leads to a sense of “victimisation” by Chinese people and elites, who are seen having greater influence on China’s foreign affairs decision-making now that the strongman politics of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have given way to a collective leadership that is more sensitive to popular views.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on perceived past and current victimisation represents only part of the self-absorbed nationalism fostered by Chinese authorities. As important are the extensive efforts to build an image of China as a righteous actor on the world stage, different from other world powers seen to follow selfish pursuits of national interests. These efforts have been carried out by the Chinese foreign ministry, various other government, party and military organisations that deal with foreign affairs, ostensibly NGOs with close ties to Chinese government, party and military offices, and the massive publicity/propaganda apparatus of the Chinese administration. They boost China’s international stature while conditioning people in China to think positively about Chinese foreign relations.

Thus, for example, China’s foreign policy is said to follow principles in dealing with foreign issues that assure moral positions in Chinese foreign relations; principled and moral positions provide the basis for effective Chinese strategies in world affairs. Remarkably, such strategies are seen to insure that China does not make mistakes in foreign affairs, an exceptional position reinforced by the fact that China is portrayed as having avoided publicly acknowledging foreign policy mistakes or apologising for its actions in world affairs. Undoubtedly, some Chinese foreign policy officials may privately disagree with the righteous image of Chinese foreign relations; but they don’t depart from the official orthodoxy which is broadly accepted by elite and public opinion. Whatever criticism elites and public opinion register against Chinese foreign policy tends to focus on China being too timid and not forceful enough in dealing with foreign affronts.

Today, China’s image-building efforts support a leading role for China in Asian and world affairs, which enjoys broad support from Chinese people; they forecast optimistically that China will follow benign policies emphasising recent themes stressed by the Chinese administration. The themes include promoting peace and development abroad, eschewing dominance or hegemonism in dealing with neighbours or others even as China’s power grows, and following the purported record of historical Chinese dynasties in not seeking expansionism.

Such image building in the nationalistic discourse of modern Chinese foreign relations is a lot further from the truth than the victimisation depicted in Chinese discourse. China was oppressed by various powers for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. In contrast, the evidence of a moral, principled, and benign approach has been the exception rather than the rule in the zig-zags of the often violent foreign relations through much of the People’s Republic of China’s 60 years. This has been the case particularly in Asia, which has long been the area of greatest Chinese influence and the area that has received the lion’s share of Chinese foreign attention. Most of China’s neighbours have experienced intrusions or invasion by Chinese security forces; they and others further away have contended with insurgent armies or armed proxies fully supported by China. Such violence and excesses continued after Mao’s “revolutionary” rule. Strong Chinese support for the radical Khmer Rouge increased in the later Maoist years and remained high throughout Deng’s rule. During such turmoil, Chinese leaders avowed support for principles and righteousness in foreign affairs, but from the viewpoint of the neighbours and foreign specialists, the principles kept changing and gaps between principles and practice often were very wide.

In the post-Cold War period, China has tried with mediocre results to reassure neighbouring leaders who well remember the violence and threatening Chinese practices of the past. China’s recent truculent behavior in the South China Sea and in the East China Sea has recalled past Chinese efforts at intimidation and coercion. Part of the problem in Chinese efforts at reassurance is that Chinese elite and popular opinion shows almost no awareness of past Chinese violence, and therefore has little appreciation of the reasons behind the suspicion and wariness of many neighbouring governments, and of the main outside power in the region, the United States. Regarding the latter, one other practice supported by the strong nationalistic discourse in China has been to register strident opposition to efforts by outside powers to establish and sustain positions of influence and strength around China’s periphery. Such moves, by the Soviet Union in the past and by the US, Japan and India now, are repeatedly seen by Chinese authorities in grossly exaggerated terms of being a threat to China, involving a revival of Cold War “containment” or other schemes.

Chinese elite and popular opinion is strongly influenced not only by nationalistic discourse emphasising China being victimised by other powers. As important, Chinese nationalistic discourse also involves a unique and strong sense of morality and righteousness in foreign affairs. As a result, Chinese opinion sees whatever problems China faces with neighbours and other concerned powers including the US over sensitive issues of sovereignty and security as caused by them and certainly not by China. Thus, it has little patience with the complaints of other claimants and calls for China to compromise on sensitive issues involving sovereignty and security. As a result, Chinese elites and public opinion push for tougher policies in defence of Chinese interests. Chinese image-building has successfully conditioned Chinese opinion; it adds to the difficulty of managing tensions in the seas near China and makes resolving those issues unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Robert Sutter

Posted in: Economy, Politics