China’s Nationalism, and How Not to Deal with It

An interesting analytical commentary on China’s latest wave of (ultra-)nationalism, and how the West lessons from dealing with Germany’s in 1930s. Translated by CDT from Southern Breeze magazine, via sina.com:

[The term most used here is “angry youth,” (愤青)referring to those young Chinese who are the front runners in “patriotic” proclamations and movements, including boycotts of foreign goods and accusations of Western media bias against China, etc. The phrase has a negative connotation as it suggests that they are more “angry” than “rational.”]

There have been endless “sensitive incidents” in 2008, confrontations between “patriots” and “traitors” over the Internet, and between the “angry youth” and “elitists,” contrasts between many Internet users embedding a red heart icon in their messenger program MSN and some others proclaiming “sad China” in their online signatures, and between Carrefour boycotts and some others who exclaim “the state is rich but the populace poor, do not boycott French and American products, boycott stupid products (idiots).”

Whether or not you are a patriot, and how to love your country: What used to not be questions are now questions. If we look back over three decades of social progress, we can find that the forming of these questions demonstrates the advancement of Chinese society. At least the “splitting” [of opinions] shows that increasing numbers of people are starting to move out of the old value system of “state supremacy.”

Patriotism has to follow logic. Patriotism’s true meaning is not only to ask everybody to love his country, but more importantly to ask the country to love everybody. If we do not see this layer of meaning and do not constrain the hidden aggression in patriotism and nations, things could well go to benevolence’s other extreme.

In recent Carrefour boycotts, not only were many “traitors” disclosed over the Internet, there were also a lot of attacks offline against those who opposed the boycotts. Unfortunately, some “patriot youths” like ganging up on those who have a different view and beat these “dissidents” up. If you don’t follow their “patriotic” logic, they not only will accuse you being not “patriotic” but also label you as a “traitor” and other such terms. It’s not bad to be “patriotic,” but this kind of aggression, Internet mobbing storefront vandalism, even forcing others to join your “patriotism” are nothing but bad. It’s not only moral extortionism, but also a denial of the existence of others’ rational thinking.

Most of China’s Internet users are youths, with over 60% between the ages of 18-35. If this kind of “patriotism” represents the mainstream of Chinese youth mentality, then it’s worrisome.

However, the same essay could have different reactions in different online forums. There’s a theory of the “spiral of silence,” meaning that when people express their opinions, they will actively participate if they see agreeable and popular views, and these opinions will quickly aggregate and disseminate; but when you find some opinions are agreeable by only a few people, even though you truly believe them you will also keep silent. One side’s silence will augment the other side’s force and trigger a polarizing development, the loud becoming louder and the silent remaining more silent.

But it’s not a totally bad thing to have “angry youth” in China. A society needs some angry sparkles when faced with unfairness and misfortunes. If someone has lost all his anger deep in his heart, then he would take indifference as rational thinking.

What’s truly horrifying is when a country is swayed by “angry youth.” If the anger is not coming out of your heart spontaneously, but a result of being hoaxed or instigated by hatred, then a disaster is not far away. In other words, it’s reasonable to have certain percentage of angry youths in the country, but if the management of the country is handed over to them, and the whole nation is forced to become “angry youths” like them, including mild old men and women and innocent children, then the consequences will be total chaos and disasters.

Since the 1990s, China’s nationalism has become a topic of constant interest from scholars at home and abroad. Some foreign researchers are always loaded with worries when studying China, either worrying about China for itself or concerned about China. Some worry that China’s economy might someday collapse, and lead to a humanitarian disaster after an “implosion.” Some worry about China’s rise, and a resulting “red disaster” as a result of an “explosion.” Some years ago, some even worried whether China will repeat the history of Germany, as both countries had historical humiliations and rising nationalism.

As the current situation holds, it’s not possible for China to repeat Germany’s path. First, the German state’s swallowing up of society grew out of a fanatic renaissance and revenge, and its rise was achieved during the heralding of the German society going from open to closed. On the contrary, in today’s China whether among officials or at the grassroots level, despite the variety of ideas or disagreements, they all share the commonality of a diverse world. And most young Chinese grow up in an open environment.

China has had traditions of “worldli-ism” (天下主义) since ancient times: Phrases such as “universal heaven (普天),” “four seas (四海),” “in the universe (宇内),” etc. do not have a nation-state concept in them. There’s no philosophical or ideological support source for extreme nationalism. And China has no religion that is exclusive, and Chinese culture is very tolerant.

Some point out that accusing China in the name of Olympics as was done in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and attacking the values of a major country that is rising but has yet to introduce democracy show that Western politicians and Western media have not made a lot of progress in their political wisdom in nearly a century. The Nazis in Germany were a product of World War I victor nations, whose fear of a rising Germany led to an over-punishment of Germany, thus sowing the seeds of hatred and revenge and feeding the German nation’s nationalism, which were the best yeast to ferment Hitlerism. And all this, of course, is something nobody, from the Chinese government to all others, wants to see happening.

So, if the West continues to hypothesize China as their “enemy,” and stoke up the “China threat” theory, it will surely fan up the emergence of China’s extreme nationalism, and provide support for those who oppose opening up and want to backpedal history. The problem is, if other countries boycott you and you also lock up yourself and boycott foreign products, it’s like doing deductions on both ends, which will be no good to yourself either. That’s a lose-lose situation.

Read also: Dr Thomas Bartlett’s comments on this essay.