Chinese nationalism oversimplified

The confrontations that marred the Olympic torch relay has led to an increasing focus on Chinese nationalism, in particular the young, conservative generation at its forefront. One recent example has been a Dateline story about Chinese nationalist hackers. I doubt that it will be an issue that disappears after the Olympics ends

Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of media has been fairly guilty of oversimplifying the nationalists as angry, violent, unable to express themselves in other ways so using nationalism as a way to vent or even unaware about Tiananmen Square and other acts by the Chinese Government.

Evan Esnos has a fascinating piece in the New Yorker that challenges the common assumptions about Chinese nationalism. It shows that some of the nationalists are highly educated and how there is a significant awareness amongst the young elite about Western philosophy, democracy and events such as Tiananmen Square. Despite any personal disagreements with their beliefs, it is clear that there is logic to it and it is not just an emotional reaction.

While it is undeniable that China is a totalitarian regime and has oppressed many groups, including Tibetans, context has been lacking from the discussion over Chinese nationalism and has meant that the issue can seem more clearcut than it should be.

This includes greater acknowledgment about Tibetan history such as the feudal regime that existed in Tibet before the Communist invasion and the fact that there have also been periods when Chinese influence has been strong on Tibet and it has played a role in choosing Dalai Lama.

Of course, it should also be noted the idea of assimilation has been a part of Han culture and the existence of a strong central government has been important since Imperial China and is not something new. Another issue less discussed is the somewhat more tenuous claims China has over parts of its territory (including Taiwan).

What cannot be ignored when discussing Chinese nationalism is the informal carve up of China by Western powers and the imposition of conditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which has not been forgotten. It is likely that there is significant resentment and resistance to any attempts by ‘outsiders’ to force China to adopt any policy. There have been overtones by groups trying to apply external pressure China into democratising and giving greater autonomy to Tibet.

I would argue that some of the more shrill pro-Tibet sentiments against China such as the disruptions of the torch relay has played in the hand of nationalists and led to a harsher stance by the Chinese Government. To the Chinese, the concept of ‘face’ is important. What occurred was to make the Chinese lose ‘face’ in front of the international community. That is one of the worst things you can do and they will not let it down.

This is not to say that encouraging democracy in China is wrong. What has been a problem is the means that shows a lack of understanding of China and has encouraged nationalist sentiment. In all likelihood, it has caused more harm than good. That said, one has to ask, what approach should be used?

I’ve been trying to find an article I read a few months ago written Hamish McDonald about Tibet. It addressed the pervasive view amongst many in China that the Chinese Government has done a lot for Tibet such as improving life expectancy and economic development yet is ungrateful.

He asked one Chinese person to apply a Tibetan’s perspective to his own situation. How would he feel if another power had done the same to China. It was something the individual hadn’t thought about before. While a simple act, an approach in that manner is more likely to succeed than a moral siege.

While there has been the misguided determinism that capitalism would lead to democracy in China by some, it is increasingly unlikely that what has happened over the past few months has encouraged such a sentiment. Rather, it has hardened any suspicions that much of the West is not willing to accept China.

My own view is that any change in China will come from within by an anti-corruption movement and if labour becomes organised. The focus on Tibet can, at times, be counterproductive and it won’t bring about a democratic China. Instead the best we may get is a quasi-democratic (at best) conservative state such as Singapore.

Who knows what the future will bring but hopefully a hawkish attitude to China that encourages conservative nationalism won’t be part of it.


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