CHINA is in a frightening mood. The sight of thousands of Chinese people waving xenophobic fists suggests that a country on its way to becoming a superpower may turn out to be a more dangerous force than optimists had hoped. But it isn’t just foreigners who should be worried by these scenes: the Chinese government, which has encouraged this outburst of nationalism, should also be afraid.
For three decades, having shed communism in all but the name of its ruling party, China’s government has justified its monopolistic hold on power through economic advance. Many Chinese enjoy a prosperity undreamt of by their forefathers. For them, though, it is no longer enough to be reminded of the grim austerity of their parents’ childhoods. They need new aspirations.
The government’s solution is to promise them that China will be restored to its rightful place at the centre of world affairs. Hence the pride at winning the Olympics, and the fury at the embarrassing protests during the torch relay. But the appeal to nationalism is a double-edged sword: while it provides a useful outlet for domestic discontents (see article), it could easily turn on the government itself.