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Chinese Nationalism - Constructive or Destructive?

When societies urbanize and industrialize rapidly, it is common for feelings of nationalism to surge among the citizenry in general, and among college students and military officers in particular. We humans have a strong need to identify ourselves with a larger group (perhaps because our ancient ancestors hunted in packs, like wolves, not alone, like tigers, so individual survival required being a member of a pack, and success for the pack required the strong identification of each member with it). Migration from the countryside to the city, and shifting from work in agriculture to work in industry, disrupts many of the migrants’ traditional bonds, and their need to identify with a larger group turns them toward the nation. It appears that China is no exception.

When one’s nation is weak, bullied by stronger nations, and thus humiliated, there is little to inspire feelings of pride in one’s nation. The easiest substitute for unavailable pride is indignation: “Who did this to us?” The weak nation, being victimized, may well develop a culture of victimization, in the worst case verging on paranoia, seeing threats and enemies that are not there. When such a nation finally becomes strong, the old nationalistic feelings of humiliation, victimization, and indignation turn into a new nationalism that can be either constructive or destructive. As Cuban nationalist Jose Marti said: “Those who love, build. Those who hate, destroy.” If the old indignation can be replaced by new-found pride, the rising nationalism can be constructive.

However, that good outcome is not guaranteed. When the nation was bullied, its nationalists got mad; when it finally “stands up,” they may try to get even – by bullying other weaker nations and humiliating them for a change, and by taking belligerent stands in defiance of its still-powerful former tormentors. Such destructive nationalism helps no one, especially the newly-powerful, rising nation. Its bellicosity will frighten its weaker neighbors into banding together with stronger powers in a de facto defensive alliance against the emerging power as it not only stands up, but “acts up”. Such a situation is not Pareto optimal! Everybody loses.

China today has much of which its nationalists can be proud. It has set a world record for sustained high growth rates, become the world’s second-largest economy, lifted hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty, and restored its historical position as a great power. Chinese feelings of nationalism could now shift from humiliation and indignation to pride, making China a leader in international collaboration, rather than confrontation. This is certainly the positive image that China’s government tries to project with its talk of “peaceful rise,” “a new type of great-power relations” so as to avoid the “Thucydides Trap,” its sponsorship of Confucius Institutes worldwide, and its assurances that China, knowing what it is like to have been invaded by Mongols, Manchus, the Western powers, and Japan, will never itself be expansionist.

Unfortunately, in its policy actions in the South China Sea imbroglio, China has turned away from its ostensible collaborative approach at the time of the 2002 agreement with the ASEAN nations that territorial disputes should be decided on the basis of non-use of force and peaceful negotiations. Its unilateral interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the L:aw of the Sea (UNCLOS) provisions on freedom of navigation in EEZs, its feverish island-building, and its insistence that its claim to the waters within the dubious 9-dash line is non-negotiable now combine to present a face of confrontation, not collaboration. This has impelled the ASEAN nations to strengthen their relations with the U.S. China’s policy shift has puzzled outside observers who wonder why China seems to have abandoned its former collaborative approach that was serving its national interests so effectively. (1) China seems to be at a cross-roads between constructive nationalism based on pride and collaboration, or destructive nationalism still based on indignation and getting even.

From the outside, there are ways the international community -- sometimes governments, but primarily NGOs -- could nudge Chinese nationalism in the direction of pride and collaboration, thus helping to assure that in practice China’s policies reflect the Chinese government’s pronouncements of benign intent. Such efforts could concentrate on the two groups most prone to hyper-nationalism that could lead to confrontational rather than collaborative nationalism: the students and the military officers. (2)

Where students are concerned, foreign professors teaching Chinese university students, whether in the West or in China itself, should seize every opportunity to show approval and respect for China’s positive accomplishments, thus reinforcing the tendency towards nationalism expressed as pride, not indignation and aggressiveness. Developed countries with programs such as the U.S. Peace Corps or Japan’s Overseas Development Volunteers could invite some recent Chinese college graduates to join their contingents of recent college graduates serving in poorer countries. This would position China among the mentors for those still-poor LDCs hoping to be the next goose in the flying geese formation. The Chinese students would feel proud – of themselves and of China.

Regarding Chinese military officers, Western military officials, in their contacts with their Chinese counterparts, should go out of their way to heap praise on, and show respect for, China’s military forces when they act in conformance with the Chinese government’s portrayal of its military as acting collaboratively - stopping piracy in the Gulf of Aden, providing peacekeeping troops in conflicted African countries, and delivering emergency assistance to victims of natural disasters. (3) Providing such recognition would help to move Chinese military officers’ nationalism in a positive direction.

As China continues to grow and modernize, Chinese feelings of nationalism will also increase. It is important that this new nationalism be constructive, based on pride rather than on indignation about past humiliations and suspicion about possible future slights and threats.

  1. For example, see Dennis Blair and Jeffrey Hornung, “China’s Self-Defeating Provocations,” Washington Post, March 3, 2016, 17.

  2. On concern about hyper-nationalism among the Chinese military, see Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower, (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), 62-63; Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell, “How China Sees America,” Foreign Affairs, September/October, 2012, 35, 43.

  3. See Zhou Bo, “Station Looks Beyond Anti-Piracy Mission,” China Daily USA, March 18-20, 2016, 17.


Dr. William A. Douglas is Professorial Lecturer at Georgetown University and at Johns Hopkins SAIS, where he has taught courses on International Ethics and Labor in Developing Countries. He holds an MA from SAIS and a PhD in Politics from Princeton University.

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