The Problem of Chinese Nationalism

Thursday, April 30, 1998

As the Chinese economy continues to experience rapid rates of growth, as China reabsorbs Hong Kong, and as China takes steps to expand its military, many in the West take a dim, pessimistic view of Chinese intentions for the future. They fear that China, borne along on waves of nationalistic pride, will pursue an aggressive, expansionist policy, seeking to dominate all of Asia. But are the Chinese truly in the grip of a passionate, sustained nationalism--a nationalism impervious to any American spirit of conciliation?

The Middle Kingdom

Nationalism is a complex topic, and its nature varies greatly depending on the historical roots of the modern nation involved. Thus the pessimists like to say that the nationalistic goal of the Beijing regime today is the restoration of China's historical position in Asia, which they describe as "hegemony."

In fact, however, the pessimists misunderstand Beijing's historical baggage. It is true that, even before the days of Confucius (551–479 b.c.), the Chinese saw themselves as the one and only civilized or "flowery" (hua) part of the world. By 100 b.c., picturing the earth as a four-directional layout with a center, they viewed their "state" or "states" (kuo) as occupying that "center" (chung). (Hence the "middle kingdom.") Confucius and especially his followers believed that the world would fall into chaos unless it was humanly controlled and that such control could be exerted only by the one ruler of the one center of the world. Hence, even today, Chinese cannot quite imagine a normative international order with more than one center or fully accept as normal an international system the center of which is not China, not to mention a system in which China is not even the equal of any other nation.

This persisting feeling of global centrality, however, has always differed from a simple feeling of identification with the existing Chinese state. Instead, it has invariably been combined with the premise that this centrality could be fully realized only if the leadership in the center were morally ideal--in Confucian eyes, a morally perfect sage; in the eyes of Sun Yat-sen, a totally enlightened political party guided by the most advanced philosophy in the world (the Three Principles of the People) and free of all selfish interests.

Because Chinese today as in the past have always perceived the actual Chinese government as drastically failing to reach this ideal, they have long accepted as normal a global situation in which the balance of power was tilted against China. In other words, their sense of "thwarted grandeur" happens to be not a new feeling of frustration but a traditional one with which Chinese leaders long ago learned to live.

Learning "Realpolitik"

Ever since the defeat in a.d. 751 of T'ang forces by the Arabs at the battle of Talas in central Asia, the balance of power between China and the states or mobilized peoples north of the Great Wall increasingly shifted in favor of the latter. These included the Liao and the Chin dynasties, which pressed down on the Chinese during the era of the Northern and Southern Sung dynasties (960–1279); the Mongols, who conquered all of China, ruling it in 1279–1368; and the Manchus, who ruled it in 1644–1912. Thus the famous tribute system, through which the Chinese (and non-Chinese dynasties in China) tried to actualize the ideal of Chinese global centrality by defining foreign states as tributaries, was frequently adjusted to respond to the realities of the global distribution of power. For instance, the Manchus in 1689 signed a treaty with Russia basing relations between the two on the principle of equality.

Beijing knows that efforts to intensify ethnic feeling would collide with its main goal, which is stability and modernization achieved by joining the world system.

In thus recognizing and adjusting to the unhappy military and logistic realities of their international situation, Chinese in imperial times developed a tradition of realpolitik. This point is illustrated by the great number of writings on border defense problems collected by the "statecraft" (ching-shih) school since the sixteenth century showing that Chinese statesmen often pursued aggressive foreign policies unless they believed their adversaries would stop them. This aspect of China's historical heritage suggests both that the United States today should deal with China from a position of strength and that Chinese will prudently adjust their policies to take U.S. power into account.

Contrary to the claims of some American sinologists, it does not suggest that the foreign policy of late imperial China was "aggressive" and "expansionist." In fact, this policy was weak and fundamentally defensive all through the Ming period (1368–1644) and only spasmodically aggressive when the Manchus conquered China and established their dynasty (1644–1912). After all, the Chinese did not even bother to start settling Taiwan until late Ming times, which they did as private citizens acting illegally and without state support. If one wants to argue that Chinese foreign policy today is expansionist, one cannot easily do so by claiming it was expansionist traditionally.

To be sure, Chinese for centuries have felt themselves to be a distinct, superior ethnic group made up of people with the same blood, customs, and language. Wang Fu-chih (1619–1692) called this group a tsu, the same term used for "clan." Deploring the weakness in China's international position since 751, he was horrified by the way "barbarians," "peoples of a different kind" (i-lei), had "interfered" in China's political affairs over the centuries.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, this sense of ethnic identity was frequently translated into popular expressions of outrage directed against foreigners who had insulted Chinese or seized their territory. From about 1900 on, innumerable popular protests and demonstrations expressed "an intense, widespread fear that China would be partitioned and the Chinese disappear as a people." Such nationalistic feelings were especially aroused when the Japanese seized large parts of China during 1931–1945.

Yet even during 1842–1945, when Western and Japanese imperialism overlapped with and then to a large extent replaced Manchu hegemony, nationalistic movements in China did not suggest that densely populated China required lebens-raum beyond its traditional borders. Moreover, intense nationalistic feelings largely took the form of spasmodic outbursts, not movements mobilizing the population in a sustained way. Sun Yat-sen and others thus lamented that the Chinese people, in contrast with the Japanese, were unable to "unite" (t'uan-chieh) and just amounted to a "pile of sand" (i-p'an san-sha). As Suisheng Zhao, editor of the Journal of Contemporary China, writes:

When the content of contemporary Chinese nationalism is compared with nationalism in other countries, it appears to be exceedingly thin. . . . What is missing . . . is the collective ideals and shared aspirations which have to be coherently expressed in meaningful symbols and myths.

The idea of being the descendants of the Yellow Emperor (Huang-ti-te hou-i) never aroused Chinese passions the way the idea of Mother Russia inspired the Russians during the Second World War.

Kin, Not Countrymen

This "thinness" of the purely nationalistic sense of solidarity arises from the Chinese emphasis on family, or kinsmen, as opposed to countrymen, or fellow citizens. This tilt toward kinsmen has impeded the rise in China of that civic spirit of cordiality, trust, and fellowship different equally from the love within the family and instrumental market relations. Moreover, nationalistic feeling in modern China has often been mixed with a feeling of proud identification with the glories of China's Confucian civilization. This image, in turn, connotes the utopian ethical vision of world harmony mentioned above, not a narrowly ethnic sense of solidarity or a feeling of civic solidarity.

True, Mao used Marxist theory to merge utopianism with patriotism and mobilize the Chinese people. He did this, however, only by establishing his "uninhibited, transformative political center" and demanding that devotion to the public good override all the "selfish," familistic feelings of his citizens. It is extremely unlikely that the leaders of post-Teng China would ever try to restore this uninhibited, transformative center. After all, their regime derives its stability precisely from the support of Chinese allowed to pursue their private, familistic interests in the pursuit less of nationalism than of a passionate consumerism. Moreover, promoting too much nationalism could arouse separatist tendencies among China's fifty-five minority groups.

Some scholars argue that because the Maoist or Marxist ideal of socialism is no longer taken seriously in China, Beijing will have to depend on nationalism to hold the country together. Yet Maoism in China today is far from dead. In his 1995 Spring Lecture for the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Wang Gungwu, perhaps the most insightful observer of contemporary China, emphasized how important the Maoist ideological heritage still is in China and analyzed how this heritage is interwoven with the "various layers of self-perceptions" forming the leadership's concept of nationhood: "China as a nation, empire, or civilization, as developmental model or unique socialist market economy." Similar views have recently been expressed by some mainland scholars, including Hsiao Kung-ch'in.

All in all, the feeling of ethnic solidarity shared by China's "Chinese" (i.e., Han) majority will always be linked to the traditional definition of China as the one vehicle of humanity's highest ideals. But Beijing's leaders, masters of realpolitik, know that efforts to intensify this ethnic feeling would collide not only with particularism, consumerism, ethnic diversity, the revival of Confucian values, and cynicism about their leadership but also with the pursuit of their main goal, which is political stability and modernization achieved by joining the world system.