Fact or fiction? Doubts over China’s ‘rising nationalism’

Nationalist rhetoric may have only limited appeal among today’s more educated and informed Chinese citizens

The Shanghai site of the first Chinese Communist congress 96 years ago might be expected to draw admiring crowds as the party gathers in Beijing for its 19th such meeting.

But despite a nationwide propaganda blitz for China’s most important political gathering, only a few scattered elderly comprise the noon rush at what is now a small museum, and visitor Cai Tian thinks he knows why.

“These days, most people don’t pay much attention to this, just the older ones,” said Cai, a 46-year-old Shanghai accountant.

“Today’s people aren’t so nationalist. They are thinking more about their jobs or personal lives.”

The twice-a-decade meeting in Beijing will further enshrine the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who has launched an unprecedented push for a stronger China since taking over in 2012, stirring worries over resurgent nationalism.

His rallying cry has inspired patriotic rappers, film-makers and state-run media.

But analyses of Chinese public opinion suggest nationalist rhetoric has only limited appeal among today’s more educated and informed citizens, while stability-obsessed authorities are wary of stoking nativist flames that could burn the party itself.

After peaking with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, nationalist sentiments have actually declined, according to a study of Chinese opinion surveys by Harvard University academic Alastair Johnston.

“On a number of measures, levels of Chinese nationalism have stagnated or dropped since around 2009, even as annual economic growth rates have declined somewhat,” said the study released this year.

“Moreover, it is clear that younger respondents are less nationalistic than older ones.”

– Filling the vacuum –

Since launching economic reforms that introduced market forces and foreign capital four decades ago, the Communist Party has occasionally leaned nationalist to fill the ideology vacuum, especially in times of trouble such as the 1989 Tiananmen protests crackdown.

Xi has accelerated this, calling for a “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese people — which he hammered home during his congress speech on Wednesday — while imposing new restrictions on foreign companies, organisations and media.

Chinese offshore territorial claims and a tense border standoff with India this summer have added to “rising nationalism”.

“Wolf Warriors 2”, a flag-waving action movie about Chinese commandos battling Western baddies, shattered national box-office records in August.

The twice-a-decade party congress in Beijing will further enshrine the leadership of President Xi Jinping

The twice-a-decade party congress in Beijing will further enshrine the leadership of President Xi Jinping

Internet trolls — some believed to work for the state — attack those who make perceived slights against the country.

“Yet all these efforts have so far not produced the envisioned result: a broad societal consensus on China’s future path,” said a survey of internet discourse released this month by the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

The survey concluded that despite heavy censorship, a range of diverse viewpoints have been let loose as China has opened up.

“Strikingly, no unified ideology predominates in China’s online forums where views on politics, economics or society are intensely disputed,” said the study, which added that official warnings about “‘hostile enemy forces’ do not seem to have permeated social media debates.”

That could change if China experiences an economic downturn, war or other radicalising event that forces a tougher government line, analysts warn.

Xi’s government is better-equipped than ever to orchestrate this through a sophisticated arsenal of social-media accounts and other digital tools to reach millennials, while increasing suppression of unapproved views.

Even some Chinese rappers have gained notice with pro-China rants.

Under Xi, the party’s “more accessible style” could mean that “popular nationalism in China may begin to rise again as the effects of this propaganda campaign become felt,” the MERICS study said.

The repercussions could be global, with China increasingly assertive abroad and more willing to promote a “Chinese way” in international affairs at a time when Western liberalism appears in retreat.

“For Western liberal democracies, a gradual build-up of Chinese nationalism may turn out to be very challenging on a global scale,” MERICS said.

– Double-edged sword –

China occasionally allows nationalist-tinged protests, including violent demonstrations against the US and NATO after the 1999 bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade during the Balkans conflict, and periodic brief outbursts against old rival Japan.

College students waving national flags as they watch the opening of the Communist Party Congress in Huaibei in China's east

College students waving national flags as they watch the opening of the Communist Party Congress in Huaibei in China’s east

But eventually authorities step in, apparently out of fear that the passions could spiral out of control and somehow challenge the party.

China “recognises the double-edged nature of nationalism and tries to keep it in check,” said Kaiser Kuo, who hosts the “Sinica Podcast” on Chinese current affairs on SupChina.com.

Last year after a Hague tribunal rejected certain South China Sea territorial claims by Beijing, demonstrators who blamed Washington protested at KFC restaurants in several Chinese cities.

That sparked an online public backlash against “irrational patriotism”, and party-state media outlets soon also told protesters to pack it in.

Says Kuo: “Surely most millennials recognise that (China’s) prosperity resulted from its engagement with and participation in global systems, and in large measure from repudiation — not embrace — of traditionalism and rigid ideology.”

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