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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

Based on the spontaneous nationalist quest, nationalism as an ideology was first officially established in China in the early 20th century. To the surprise of some, it was not introduced by the Communist Party of China, but by Sun Yat-sen and his Kuomintang, which somewhat illustrates that nationalism would be embraced by the Chinese no matter what form their government takes.

It is true that the Chinese Government has highlighted the promotion of patriotism and national spirit, which have contributed to national unity and ethnic solidarity since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. And it cannot be denied that some of the cultural products in China potentially promote anti-West or anti-Japanese emotions. But the role of government in this regard should not be overstated. One example is that the wave of nationalism in the new century started from overseas Chinese, who witnessed how Western media created stories to demonize China.

One may also note that it is a common practice by smart governments to publicize their achievements and enhance their citizens' sense of belonging to the state. Furthermore, as one scholar has stated, "For Western or Japanese analysts who fear that Beijing is inciting a rampant rise in Chinese nationalism, the reality is that Beijing is seeking to rein in rising Chinese nationalism." It is not in the interest of the government to ignore the risk of irrational nationalism to "kidnap" its foreign policy, because it would draw more criticism to and increasing pressure on diplomacy from both home and abroad.

So why has nationalism been heating up in the past two decades in China?

One fundamental reason is the acceleration of China's integration into the world. Before the beginning of its reform and opening up, China had little interaction with the West. This artificial insulation eliminated the inducement for triggering China's nationalism. Globalization and the end of the Cold War, however, paved the way for China to enter into the international system. But like a car driving on a crowded highway, the more China maneuvers, the more friction and collisions it encounters, under Western-dominated "traffic lights." Common Chinese people then find themselves walking out of the former isolation into a new discrimination, reviving their nationalist emotions.

Also, demographic and democratic changes in China account for much of the phenomenon. As the young people born in the 1980s and the 1990s, who experienced the rapid growth of their country, become the most active force in society, the expectations of playing a bigger international role and the incentives to say "no" are naturally on the rise.

The government holds a critical attitude toward nationalism, and comprehensive efforts have been taken to guide national emotions and avoid ultra-nationalism. A newspaper sponsored by the Ministry of Education, for example, urged Chinese students to refrain from the "victim complex" and handle different voices in a more tolerant way.

The West's role

How the West reacts to China's nationalism may have a bigger influence than what can be done inside China.

As they often did in other realms, the West has adopted double standards toward nationalism in different countries. With regard to nationalism in Japan, although with a risk of re-militarization, the U.S. response is to just ignore it, and what's more, the most constructive forms of Japanese nationalism are encouraged.

This is not self-contradictory, as there is actually only one standard: Whether it is in the interest of the West. The Chinese Government is accused of adopting "pragmatic nationalism," while the West also practices pragmatism on nationalism. If some Western countries and media continue to plant a jungle around China, the alternative to walk with the "big stick" in accordance with the "jungle law" would seem appealing for the Chinese, regardless of the efforts made by the government to limit extreme expressions of nationalism.

The author is an official with the Ministry of National Defense of China

Email us at: yanwei @bjreview.com

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