David Cowhig: Undercurrents: Criticisms and Reflections on Narrow-minded Nationalism

Thanks to David Cowhig for sending the following to CDN. It is a valuable introduction to a very important topic. Here is David’s email:

Just today I read a chapter from the August 2004 book Undercurrents: Criticisms and Reflections on Narrow-minded [Qianliu: Dui xia’ai minzuzhuyi de pipan yu fansi]. This book, edited by Le Shan [characters: Happy Mountain] was published by the Huadong Shifandaxue Publishing House. ISBN 7-5617-3909-5/D 100] More information about the book is available here.

The chapter by Ren Bingqiang, entitled “The Waves of Nationalism Since the 1990s: Criticizing the Nationalist Views of Wang Xiaodong” , is available on the web here. Ren Bingqiang is a doctoral student at Beijing University.

Here is my summary:

Ren sees in the early nineties various anti-western ideas in circulation but not until 1994 did they catch on with Chinese intellectuals with some voices rising against “westernization”. The third wave is represented by the book “The China that Can Say No” and “Behind the Demonization of China”. In 1999 with the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, came books like “China’s Path Under the Shadow of Globalization”. Internet BBS became a focus of extremely nationalist discussions, which included cultural conservatives, and even calls by communists to solve social inequality by returning to Maoist socialism.

Chinese reactions to frustrations in US – China relations, combined with pride in China’s accomplishments, produced a trend towards emotional nationalist outbursts among the people. China people felt the US didn’t respect them. The nationalist writer Wang Xiaodong said “Whether or not the bombing was an accident, the incident show that the US does not take its relations with China seriously.” The atmosphere during the early 1990s was very cynical about politics. There was a moral vacuum. The Chinese government strove to rebuild its legitimacy with the Chinese people. The Chinese government found that it could use and control nationalism, but especially after the embassy bombing used it but then was careful to calm things down. During the persecutions of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia as well, the Chinese government held down nationalist feelings.

Ren Bingqiang particularly focuses on the ideas of Wang Xiaodong whose ideas became widespread from the early 1990s. Ren criticizes in Wang’s thinking expansionist theories — that the Chinese people need living space (lebensraum) in a world of limited resources, arguing that in today’s world trade not expansion is the way to get resources; the related idea that might makes right in foreign relations in a dog-eat-dog world (in the Chinese phrase the weak are meat and the strong eat them) (and comments on the part of Chinese extreme nationalists a great admiration of US power even as they criticize the US); a great emphasis on state power, paying little attention to human rights and more to the duties of individuals to the state; and a martial attitude towards international relations that misses how the international system is gradually increasing constraints on the excessive exercise of power by states.

Ren contrasts western nationalism with narrow Chinese nationalism. The differences are the product of history. Western nationalism grew up during liberal revolutions in the creation of national states while Chinese nationalism arose as a reaction to foreign invasion. The weakness of narrow Chinese nationalism is that it doesn’t have any constructive policy suggestions and is highly emotional. Thus it hasn’t been influential on Chinese internal policy. It insists strongly on drawing distinctions between “them” and “us”, increasing state power and boosting China’s strength in the international arena. China narrow nationalism focuses on the collective and doesn’t see individual rights or recognize legitimate differences in individual interests.

Narrow nationalism has serious dangers for China, especially if the emotional symbols that nationalist intellectuals tend to use should be incorporated into China’s foreign policy. Under pressure, narrow nationalism can erupt in a burst of repressed feelings, even among China’s leaders. In the international arena, China needs to handle well its relations with the United States. There is a great deal of moving back and forth in these very dynamic relations between the US and China. In this highly dynamic relationship, because of differences in political culture, misunderstandings can arise very easily and severely sap the trust that exists between the two countries. If a nationalist eruption should lead China to take a very strong position, the US may respond by acting to constrain China. The final result might harm both countries, with China getting the worst of it.

Moreover, if narrow nationalist thinking should become widespread at the policy level, the countries on China’s periphery will feel threatened. This could lead to an arms race. Even today, with the exception of the Middle East, the countries on China’s periphery are the world’s largest market for armaments. Extreme Chinese nationalism could thus produce a China surrounded by enemies. However, China’s extreme nationalists would not see this as their fault but rather the proof that their warnings were correct!

Nationalism in China has melded with resistance to western invaders, with cultural conservatism against westernization, nationalist theories such as the Three People’s Principles of Dr. Sun Yatsen, as well as with Chinese nationalist communist revolutionary movement (even though Communism is nominally internationalist.) .

China’s nationalism might go along three paths.

First, along the path of Wang Xiaodong, with the emphasis on strength and with ideas in the background such as living space and social Darwinism. While these narrow nationalists want to China to develop along democratic lines, they also want a strong state and have militarist tendencies and so are caught in a serious contradiction.

Second, a different path would be to merge with cultural conservatives and turn inwards, focusing on development relying on China’s own resources.

Third, a reconciliation between nationalism and liberalism. Nationalism tends to stress the state, the Chinese nation, and criticize western culture and institutions. From criticizing western culture and institutions, it is only a short hop to criticizing western politics, economics and culture and attack liberalism itself. Liberals in turn criticize nationalists for being close-minded and conservative. Although Chinese nationalists criticize liberalism, there may be common ground in support for liberal . Intellectuals like Qin Hui try to reconcile liberalism with nationalism, but there need to be many more Chinese intellectuals working on this problem. The reconciliation of the individual and the state, individual human rights and state interests, human rights and sovereignty, universalism and particularism is the heart of the debate between Chinese nationalists and liberals.

In the globalizing world of today, China doesn’t have the right to say yes or no. It can only decide how it will adjust and participate. Chinese nationalism has not yet become a rational, constructive ideological force that can bind the nation together as it modernizes. It contains expansionist and militaristic ideas that could threaten China’s future. Chinese nationalism must rid itself of living space expansionist thinking and of social Darwinism. The nationalists should accept that China should peacefully take part in international relations according to the rules of the international system in pursuit of China’s interests. The international system is still not fair enough but by participation we can make it better and the world is developing strongly in that direction. Chinese nationalists should commit to the realization of economic and political development in China and to the protection of the rights of Chinese citizens. Only in this way will China achieve a modern nationalism of a nation state. Finally, Chinese nationalists should absorb constructive ideas from liberalism in search of a way to reconciling the two views.

Chinese nationalism will affect China for years to come. If it develops in a positive way it can make contributions to China’s future. The experience of the 1990s, however, give reason to worry. Nationalism simply as a feeling does not provide anything for guiding the emotions of the nation or for formulating policy. The effect of nationalism on China’s future, considering the very complex interaction among all the different elements that will shape it, is quite uncertain.

End summary


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