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Society & Culture

Beware the Ides of Hyper-nationalism

Aug 24, 2021
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

From the haranguing of athletes from rival nations (and from China – those who lose) to the heckling of “biased” Western media and journalists, China’s recent nationalistic turn may seem – to observers – both jarring and incongruous with the country’s past track record. 

Indeed, one could be forgiven for finding uncanny the disparity between the rhetoric espoused during the 2008 Beijing Olympics (“Beijing welcomes you!” was the prime slogan that epitomised China’s attempt to court the world – including many in the West), and the assertive confidence exuding from the rhetoric of the country’s international representatives.  

Much ink has been spilled over the origins, benefits and costs of China’s nascent style of diplomacy – yet what has perhaps been hitherto under-discussed, is the extent to which the bravado, the bellicosity characterising China’s diplomats is in fact a bottom-up phenomenon. As much as it is tempting to fall for the view that Chinese policies across all fronts are determined from Zhongnanhai, this reading neglects a precipitously potent force in national politics – the tides of domestic hyper-nationalism. 

The first point to note here, is that much of the nationalistic aggression is, really, not as new as many may think. The U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 propelled Beijing to term the act a “barbarian act,” and precipitated a surge in anti-Western and anti-American sentiments as thousands took to the streets in protest of what was viewed by some as an “act of war” against China. 

Thirteen years later, in 2012, another wave of protests swept through China – this time, their targets were Japanese firms, corporations, and capitalists, who were targeted as a result of the vociferous anger over Japan’s attempt to nationalise the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands. Both incidents saw geopolitical grievances escalated to the level of “national pride”, with Chinese commentators and civil society leaders framing the respective acts (bombing and nationalisation) as an active infringement upon China’s core national interests. 

Hence the ongoing backlash towards the “unfair treatment” of China by the West – indubitably exacerbated by Trump’s reckless, impetuous actions and the sustained hostility towards China from leading advanced industrial democracies – should not come as a surprise. Grassroots nationalism is by no means a nascent phenomenon – it has merely reared its head again, as both China and the rest of the world alike are struggling to come to terms with the risks and opportunities associated with the country’s rapid and comprehensive ascent. 

Amongst the most vocal and outspoken elements in the Chinese public are those who decry the arrogance of the West, the ostensible double standards exhibited by Western critiques of China, and the much-derided “universal values” championed by policy advocates and activists. On the other hand, an increasingly bipartisan consensus in America takes the retaliatory lashing-out from the Chinese public as emblematic of an irrevocably radicalised, zealous population. 

This takes us to the second point today. Trump’s four years of rambunctious governance offer a fitting glimpse into what triumphalist nationalism could look like at its worst – destructive, isolating, and stifling. The ides of grassroots, bottom-up Chinese hyper-nationalism could prove to be equally perilous, to the world and, no less, the country. 

Hyper-nationalism alienates – as opposed to wins over prospective allies and friends. Through framing foreign states, including many of the world’s leading or large economies, as ideological enemies and structural opponents to the country’s continued rise, nationalistic discourses feed into those who paint China as a systemic threat to global order, as opposed to a player that is seeking to adapt to the rules of the game whilst – admittedly and expectedly – advancing its own interests. The accusatory language and inflammatory rhetoric employed by netizens and citizens do more to provoke, than they do to impress. Even amongst countries that had previously maintained cordial relations with China – including ones of economic mutual interdependence – there has been an increasing volume of alarm and opprobrium towards speech that is, frankly, both out-of-line and unconducive towards bridging differences. In short, the aggression on display has dragged the country into the crossfire and open fire on all fronts, and by no means coheres with the vision espoused by President Xi, a China that is “more lovable and respectable”. 

Hyper-nationalism also undermines the capacity of the central and provincial governments to rule effectively. This is a critical lesson that Chinese leaders, throughout the past decades, have very well been attuned to – this was also why the zealous “patriotism” on display during the Anti-Japanese boycotts and Anti-American protests was managed with delicate care and tact. Jingoistic aggression is neither conducive towards an internationally amenable and open business environment, nor particularly helpful in the preservation of national unity: after all, even those who fought valiantly for the country at the Olympics have found themselves on the receiving end of relentless abuse. The vocal minority of fiery netizens may consider themselves to be defending the interests and pride of a “Great Nation” – yet, in doing so, they undermine the social fabric and solidarity that has long been a distinctive and potent feature of modern China. 

Finally, of course, one may ask – what’s the alternative? The alternative should and need not be one in which China relents upon any and all of its interests, or admits “defeat” and engages in explicit “capitulation.” This is not what is being called for here – the claims of Chinese citizens to prosperity, respect, and inclusion at the international table have always been valid and legitimate. It would be bizarre – unjust, even – to demand the rescinding of these claims, or the under-weighing of them in comparison against those by citizens of fellow states. Nor is the prescription therefore one of abandoning nationalism altogether – that is, quite simply, infeasible and unnecessary. 

Let’s be very clear here: to love one’s country – to be patriotic – is no crime or sin. Yet as for hyper-nationalism that is unbridled, trenchant, and excessively confrontational, that we can do without. . Hyper-nationalism conflates a healthy respect for one’s national history, identity, and origins, with a dangerously provocative and combative outlook towards current affairs and the world at large. In pushing local and national actors to satiate domestic demand through partaking in particular forms of reciprocal rhetoric and actions, it could also pave the dangerous path towards unwanted escalation in military contexts, as well as impede China’s ability to make and keep friends – as it should – across the world. Beware the ides of hyper-nationalism. 

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