Various explanations have been put forward for the surge in anti-Western nationalism since 1989. One is straightforwardly cyclical: as economic confidence grew, the reasoning goes, early post-Mao China’s love affair with the West was bound to founder at some point. Another is hormonal: the “angry youth” (fenqing) who dominate contemporary Chinese nationalism, some argue, need something to get mad at – they’ll grow out of it. Twenty years ago, today’s fenqing would have been protesting against rats in their dorms and lack of democracy; go back another twenty years, and they would have been Red Guards.
But the most convincing gloss on today’s patriotic distemper presents it as a substantially state-engineered phenomenon, rooted in one of the Communist Party’s most successful post-Mao political crusades: Patriotic Education. Searching for a new state religion around which the country could rally after the bloodshed of 1989, the Party skilfully reinvented itself through the 1990s as defender of the national interest against Western attempts to contain a rising China. To dislodge the worship of the West that had helped foment much of the unrest leading up to 1989, successive Patriotic Education campaigns waged in textbooks, newspapers, films and monuments drew concerted attention to China’s “century of humiliation” (c. 1840-1949) inflicted by foreign imperialism, always beginning with the Opium Wars, always passing slickly over the CCP’s own acts of violence (most notably the manmade famine of the early 1960s; the Cultural Revolution; the 1989 crackdown).