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UPDATED: January 30, 2012 NO. 5 FEBRUARY 2, 2012
Nation First
Properly managed nationalism can be a positive force in China
By He Tao

In addition to the success of economic integration, the cultural effects of globalization have been considerable. The increasingly globalized culture creates the potential to alter the way people identify themselves, eroding geographic boundaries as well as local and national cultures. While the West was happily appreciating this gift from globalization, they found themselves involved in an unexpected wave of reemerging nationalism in many countries.

With different reasons and targets, nationalist movements have ramped up in China, Japan, South Korea, Viet Nam, Russia and some other Eurasian countries since the 1990s. Among these movements, China has received the most attention and harshest criticism from the West.

Curse or blessing

Many in the West were shocked to discover an Internet posting with more than 20 million Chinese signatures opposing Japan's bid to join the UN Security Council in 2005. Massive anti-U.S. demonstrations and a public boycott for French commodities added to their astonishment. The West, having been accustomed to accusing China's "authoritative regime," was shocked when confronted with the popular outcry of the Chinese people.

While acknowledging China has legitimate grievances against Western powers, some Western observers tried to justify themselves by asserting the national sentiment was manipulated by an invisible hand. According to them, as Communist ideology quickly lost its credibility after Deng Xiaoping launched market-oriented economic reforms in the late 1970s, Deng and his successors wrapped themselves in the mantle of pragmatic nationalism, which they found remained the most reliable claim to the Chinese people's loyalty.

The West generally holds a negative view on nationalism, which actually was the product of the West's own culture. Nationalism as a doctrine was first introduced in Europe at the turn of the 19th century, and soon evolved into a national identification movement against the Vatican and theocracy.

At that time, people first acknowledged themselves as Christians, and then residents of certain regions, and reluctantly admitted being French or British. An ideology was thus needed to claim the loyalty to build unified and secular political entities. Advanced by nationalism, Britain and France became the strongest national states while Germany and Italy accomplished their national unity later in the 19th century, laying the foundation for the current world pattern.

The historical mission of nationalism for Western countries finally ended as a new wave of colonialism surged. Then nationalism began to be interpreted as a "devil" when worldwide nationalist movements were suppressed by suzerains after World War II. In the age of globalization, a new round of nationalism has been intensely scrutinized, as it may turn out to be beyond the control of not only its home country, but also the dominance of Western countries, which is detrimental to their global interests.

Should nationalism be simply condemned?

As a natural outcome of human development, nationalism can be interpreted in two aspects. Psychologically, it is a kind of consciousness advocating national interests, independence and unity. Politically, it is a movement dedicated to the establishment of a national state and the enhancement of national strength and wealth. Its essence is to emphasize national cohesiveness and cultural identification as the underlying force to achieve development.

So there is no absolute good or evil for nationalism itself. What matters, however, is how far it goes, or whether this love for one's own nation turns into a wild hatred of other countries. All we need to do is to prevent nationalism from going to the extremes—militarism combined with racism previously adopted by Japan and Germany, and from being blended with other dangerous ideologies like fundamentalism or state terrorism.

A deep-rooted tradition

Despite some claims that nationalism did not exist in China before the 19th century, it is deeply rooted in Chinese cultural traditions. Unlike Japan, China's 5,000-year history is a combination of both cultural integration and ethnic collision, as evidenced by the wars against Khitans, Jurchens, Mongols and Manchu people. But it was not until the Opium War of 1840 that the hibernating nationalist quest was awakened. Following the war, the Chinese suffered a century of shame and humiliation. It is this "victim psychology," mixed with long-dormant nationalist traditions, that makes China's reactions to outside stimuli sometimes beyond Western comprehension.

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