Sometime vehement explosions of nationalism have worried both the outside world, and the Chinese government. But today, nationalism is in decline, notes China-watcher Kaiser Kuo in SupChina. “I’m coming around to the view that we’ve exaggerated its proportions and the dangers it poses.”
But the appeal of nationalism in China appears to be dwindling. A recent paper by Alastair Iain Johnston of Harvard University, examining survey data measuring nationalist attitudes in the Beijing area over a period of 13 years from 2002 to 2015, suggests that at least in the vicinity of the capital, nationalism is indeed in decline. Johnston, aware that Beijing is not necessarily representative, notes that his findings nevertheless accord with nationwide surveys measuring those attitudes.
The rising nationalisms of our times — and Trump’s “America First” approach in particular — may even have the ironic effect of diminishing nationalism’s appeal in China still further: Xi Jinping has, after all, stepped (even if opportunistically) into the role of standard bearer for globalization. His unapologetically globalist Davos speech played well at home. And if nationalism has an opposite number today, it is globalism…
The specter of Chinese nationalism is invoked with some frequency by those who would douse the ardor for multiparty democracy. It’s invoked in this way, indeed, by many a liberal. It’s a twist of course on the familiar sùzhì 素质 argument — that the unwashed Chinese masses just aren’t ready for democracy. In this telling, the problem is that freed of its fetters, nationalism would run the table: “If we had free elections in China tomorrow,” said one liberal Chinese friend of mine, “we would elect Hitler next Tuesday and be at war with Japan by Friday.” The message is “Careful what you wish for.” In this view, some gratitude is perhaps due to an illiberal Party that serves as a bulwark against a nationalism that would be more illiberal still.
The jury is out on what would actually happen were that bulwark to be dismantled, but I’m coming around to the view that we’ve exaggerated its proportions and the dangers it poses. While I’m not suggesting that Chinese nationalism is innocuous, and is not something we ought to continue to concern ourselves with, we really should keep in mind that nationalism is an ideology that feeds on perceived slights and tends, conversely, to diminish when it can’t claim to feel put upon. We should recognize it for what it mostly is — the unsurprising residue of China’s historical experience, utterly comprehensible by anyone with the least capacity for empathy, and remarkable mainly for its relative impotence.
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