In East Asia, nationalism never acquired quite as bad a name as it did in Europe, and it is not uncommon to hear politicians go on record with nationalistic statements. Yet, it is a force that is often disruptive of international relations and dangerous for domestic politics if it gets out of bounds.
China has experienced an upsurge of nationalism in recent years that is viewed as a matter of concern by politicians in East Asia and elsewhere because it coincides with the country’s emergence on the world stage as a major power. “China’s New Nationalism” is a useful and enlightened account of the currents that are feeding this surge.
Where does China’s new nationalism come from, and why did it surface when it did? Popular explanations by Western observers allege that it is an outgrowth of China’s state-dominated society, a top-down movement promoted by government propaganda to fill the void left by the waning attraction of communism. Peter Hays Gries, professor of political science at the University of Colorado, thoroughly discredits this view.
The major result of his study is that China’s new nationalism is genuine. It is borne by the people and their sentiments that in combination with electronic communications media are quite beyond the control of the government. This tends to be overlooked since the Party frequently participates in nationalist politics and is, therefore, assumed to be its sole originator. That assumption, the author contends, is simplistic.
The two load-bearing pillars of the new nationalism embodied in the writings of Chinese intellectuals in their 30s and 40s are Japan and the United States. It is in competition with these two countries that Chinese nationalists are trying to define China’s role in the world today. In view of the history and current politics of both countries’ relations with China, this is anything but hard to understand.
Japan’s aggressive stance against China did not begin with the “Rape of Nanking.” As Gries shows, the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese war, which resulted in the incorporation of Taiwan in Japan’s expanding empire, is still considered a defining moment in bilateral relations. And it is against this background that outbursts of popular anger about any move that smacks of support for Taiwan’s claims to independence must be seen.
The “War of Resistance” in the 1930s and ’40s is where the Japanese and U.S. sources of the new Chinese nationalism join together. The story line of the nationalists is that China suffered aggression at the hands of the Japanese, but eventually prevailed. Although the Japanese have produced numerous apologies, these cannot be trusted, because their words and deeds do not match. While one high-ranking politician voices repentance, another visits Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are honored.
As for the United States, it has not only failed properly to acknowledge China’s decisive contribution to the victory over Japan, but pursued an anti-Chinese policy for almost three decades after the war, blocking Beijing’s admission to the United Nations. Current American discourse about containment of the rising competitor does little to enhance Chinese trust in Washington’s good intentions.
Hays Gries’ analysis of the new Chinese nationalism focuses on a number of recent events such as the failed 1998 state visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Tokyo, the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and the Nanjing Massacre controversy. In each case it did not take much to trigger waves of anti-Japanese and anti-American demonstrations in the streets of Chinese cities.
Although the political elite unfailingly reacted to what they perceived as Japanese and U.S. threats, they did not fan the flames of popular nationalism. The people needed no encouragement to put up banners to tell the world that “China cannot be insulted!”
Using the socio-psychological concept of “face,” Hays Gries is able to show how personal vanity and national pride contribute to mutual animosity. While psychologizing politics and diplomacy has its risks — after all, countries are said to have interests but no friends — his approach is a useful reminder that politicians and diplomats are not immune to the contagious bacteria of self-love and excessive concern for social recognition.
Careful examination of how Chinese and American media reacted to incidents that put the two countries at odds with each other reveals how American self-righteousness and Chinese distrust complement each other to heighten rather then diffuse tension. Similarly, the perceived need to save face time and again gets in the way of Japanese and Chinese politicians to accommodate each other.
China’s new nationalism is a byproduct of the giant country’s struggle to find a new place in the world. At this time, its relations with its two main competitors, or rivals, are uneasy. Hays Gries analyzes with admirable clarity the risks involved in the volatile mixture of popular sentiments and politics.
An important lesson to be drawn from this book is that a proper analysis of nationalism leads nowhere if it looks at one country in isolation. For nationalism is not a solitary game. It is fueled by distrust and resentment rooted in historical memory. In this regard, Hays Gries demonstrates with many quotes that China-bashers in Washington and Tokyo have little to recommend them over China’s new nationalists.