One of the earliest instances of the rise in Chinese nationalism was seen more than hundred years ago in 1919 during the May Fourth Movement. It was an anti-imperialist, cultural, and political movement that criticised China’s weakness against Japan and its meek response to the Treaty of Versailles that gave Japan control on Chinese territory surrendered by Germany. Nationalism has been the de facto religion in China for decades now. This has been true right from the time of Mao Zedong, when showing allegiance to the government was a way of life, to its repackaged version under Xi Jinping.
The May Fourth Movement was the turning point that saw the Qing Dynasty become a part of history, and it shaped China’s future as a superpower. The Imperial rule thus came to an end and People wrested power from a failing and outdated imperial government. What followed was decades of reforms and structural changes that transformed the country into the second largest economy in the world.
China has consistently used its nationalism to fuel public opinion, economic growth and consolidate its status as a global power. Chinese nationalism is almost always targeted at the Japanese as the invaders and then at the various territories that are trying to break away from the mainland. Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan etc. are the best examples for this. Its nationalism is inward and outward focussed at the same time. Internally, nationalism works to create nationalistic fervour and mould public opinion. Whereas in its outward form it criticises other countries or people, who do not necessarily agree with China’s line of thought. Recently when the US announced its plans to move towards becoming self sufficient in semiconductor production, China immediately labelled it as ‘semiconductor nationalism’.
China has employed nationalism well to achieve its goals on various fronts. But ironically China has a problem with any kind of nationalism that takes hold in any other country. Boycott China, Boycott Made In China Products, Vocal For Local etc. are social media trends that have dominated much of the conversation in India lately. China sees ‘Indian’ nationalism as something that is an impediment when it comes to bilateral trade and friendly relationships between the two countries. The country goes on to complain that strangely, India is more focussed on boycotting Chinese products, when it should actually be focussed on controlling COVID-19.
China has even categorised the type of nationalists in India. It calls the first category ‘diehards’ or people who are angry at the loss of their loved ones in the 1962 war. The second are ultranationalists, the third are anti-China politicians, and the fourth are the intellectuals and the Indian middle class. For reasons best known to them, the Chinese find fault in all the four categories. The fourth one is the broadest of them all, which places intellectuals and the Indian middle class in the same bracket and alleges that this category is the most exposed to western values.
The irony here is completely lost on China as it uses its nationalist machinery to drum up local passions against Taiwan and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. On one hand the State itself is the fountainhead of nationalism in China. And on the other it doesn’t leave any stone unturned to criticise any kind of nationalism outside its borders. Unification of China with Taiwan is one of the biggest goals of the Chinese Communist Party and yet it sees fault in the way regular Indians react when PLA forces try to take Indian territory by force. It readily points fingers at Indians calling for the boycott of Chinese goods; when locally the Hanfu Movement is gaining ground in China. Recent surveys also show that young Chinese prefer Chinese goods over foreign ones as a result of rising nationalism.
To coexist with the rest of the world, and to assert itself as a responsible global citizen, China needs a long moment of introspection. It needs to recognise that the world is not monochromatic and people outside its borders also have opinions. It also needs to tone down its tasteless, pseudo-intellectual, and entirely self serving rhetoric against democratic countries that have their independent worldview.