Nationalism in China - Implications for Chinese International Relations

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

29 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Definition, origin, and history of Chinese nationalism

3. Nationalism in Chinese Foreign Affairs
3.1.The Indian border war of 1962
3.2.The Spratly Islands dispute
3.3.The Diaoyu Islands
3.4.The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade 1999
3.5.The 2001 US spy plane incident
3.6.The anti-Japanese demonstrations in 2005

4. The Construction of nationalism
4.1.State-led nationalism - “Party propaganda”
4.2.Social construction of nationalism - “saving face”

5. Forms of Chinese nationalism
5.1.Ethnic, traditional and nativist nationalism
5.2.Antitraditional and liberal nationalism
5.3.Pragmatic and realistic nationalism

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

8. Affirmation

1. Introduction

Nationalism proved to be stronger than socialism when it came to bonding working classes together, and stronger than capitalism that bound bankers together.

Joseph S. Nye (1993: 61)

Overlooking the last decades, nationalism in China has shown great flexibility as a connection of contradiction, interaction, and integration between the Communist Party, state and society, between the ruling ideology and intellectual discourse, and in some way, among various intellectual discourses. Although all of these nationalist theoretical discourses share similar conceptions, they differ in parts dramatically in other respects. These different forms of nationalism had great effect on the ways Chinese leaders and people behaved in domestic affairs, but also in encounters with other countries, and on the stage of international relations.

Is this term paper I will therefore discuss several aspects and forms of nationalism in general and Chinese nationalism in particular. Thereby, focus is laid on the implications of nationalism for Chinese international relations. However, Chinese nationalist thinking is not a uniform and unchanging phenomenon, as some Western analysts suggest, but a complex phenomenon with different layers which have to be analyzed in their complexity to come to a conclusion.

The following chapter gives a short overview of the definition and the origin of nationalism. Since Chinese nationalism cannot be accurately understood without its development in the context of Chinese history, this is also part of chapter two.

Regarding Chinese nationalism in international affairs a rough distinction can be made between issues perceived as affecting manly China’s territorial integrity on one side, and issues seen as insults particular to Chinese national dignity on the other side. Some examples of such issues are given in chapter three. First, the focus is laid upon issues of the former category, namely the Chinese-Indian border war of 1962, and the disputes about the Spratly and the Diaoyu Islands. Actual, the Taiwan con- flict also falls mainly in this category, but due to a lack of space it is cannot be exam- ined here. Following, examples for the latter category are the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the 2001 US spy plane incident and the anti-Japanese protests in 2005.

Chapter four examines how nationalism in general and Chinese nationalism in particular is constructed. Two points of view are contrasted: On the one side the mainstream Western view of Chinese nationalism as state constructed “party propa- ganda”, invented to give the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) a new basis of legitimacy and fully controlled and led by the Chinese authorities. On the other side the concept of “face nationalism”, developed by Peter Hays Gries. This gives an insight to the sociopsychological fundamentals of nationalism, arguing for a particular individual perspective of Chinese nationalism.

The discussion China’s role in the world has produced several different perspec- tives of nationalism, each rooted in a different assessment of the sources of Chinese distress. These different forms are introduced in chapter five and illustrated with di- verse examples of China’s foreign relations with reference to those presented in chapter two.

After a short summary of the term paper, chapter six arrives at the conclusion that nationalism is a double-edged sword. It could be both a means to the legitimation of the Chinese leaders’ power and a means for the Chinese people to judge the perform- ance of the Communist state on the stage of domestic policy and, in particular, of international relations.

2. Definition, origin, and history of Chinese nationalism

In the study of nations and nationalism four prevailing core debates can be found. First is the question of how to define the terms “nation” and “nationalism.” Second, scholars argue about when nations first appeared. The third major debate centers on how nations and nationalism developed. Finally, many of the classic texts on nation- alism have focused on European nationalism at the expense of non-western experi- ences. This has led to a debate about whether nationalism developed on its own in places like China, or whether it merely spread to non-western countries from Europe (see Zuelow 2002). Since this paper cannot unroll the whole discussion, the pre- sented topics are limited to relevant information for the understanding of Chinese nationalism.1

The undoubtedly most problematic and controversial issue in the analysis of na- tionalism is the definition of “nation”. Smith defines the ideal type of “nation” as “a named human community occupying a homeland, and having common myths and a shared history, a common public culture, a single economy and common rights and duties for all members.” (Smith 2001: 13)

The term “nationalism” also has been defined in many ways, but most of these definitions overlap and show common themes. Unsurprisingly, the main theme of nationalism is an overriding concern with the nation and the promotion of its well- being. According to Anthony Smith, the generic goals under whose headings nation- alism seeks to promote the nation’s well-being are “national autonomy”, “national unity” and “national identity”. Hence, nationalism can be defined as “an ideology movement for attaining and maintaining autonomy, unity and identity for a popula- tion which some of its members deem to constitute an actual or potential ‘nation’.” (Smith 2001: 9)

Regarding the Chinese case, one can only understand the meaning of nationalism when it is seen as a modern phenomenon, which is however deeply rooted in the long Chinese history. China is an empire stretching back two millennia, but before the nineteenth century, China was not a nation-state and nationalism did not exist in tra- ditional China. Instead, culturalism was the predominant ideology in traditional Chi- nese thought. Thus, Chinese culture and not the state was the focus of people’s loy- alty (see Zhao 2000: 3-4).

The rising of Chinese nationalism started in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the Chinese army was defeated by British troops in the “Opium War” (1840- 42) to preserve the British dominated opium trade. During the following “Century of Humiliation” several foreign powers installed spheres of influence on Chinese terri- tory (see e.g. Zhao 2000: 4; 2005b: 132f; Schubert 2001: 134ff; Gries 2005: 45ff). Since this time, the nationalist quest to redress the humiliation China suffered at the hands of imperialistic foreign powers has been a recurring theme in Chinese politics. In 1900, anti-Westernism fueled the Boxer Rebellion and the slaughter of foreign missionaries and their converts. The Versailles settlement of 1919-20 transferred the German possessions in Shandong to Japan and gave rise to the slogan of anti- imperialism in the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (see Zhao 1998: 290).

In the twentieth century, all Chinese leaders from Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao have tried to restore China's rightful place as a great power. Having accepted the norm of modern nation- state system, these leaders no longer thought of China as the center of the world and Chinese culture as a universal set of values. However, they were convinced that

China ought to stand equal with other great powers and that there must be something profoundly wrong with a world that denied it this status. As John W. Garver suggests, “this determination to restore China's national grandeur is the crux of Chinese nationalism” (1993: 20, cited in Zhao 2005b: 4) and has driven China's vision of its role in the world and has thus become the “lingua franca” of successful politics in twentieth century China. “While other movements and ideologies waxed and waned, nationalism permeated them all. Those who wanted to rule China had to propound and implement a program of national salvation.” (Zhao 2005b: 4)

Like all forms of identity, nationalism has its origin in the interactions with other groups, particular with other nationalities. Thus, Chinese nationalism must be under- stood as constantly evolving as Chinese interact with other nations. In particular, because of the special status of the United States and Japan for China, Sino- American and Sino-Japanese relations are central to the evolution of Chinese nation- alism today (see Gries 2005a: 135).2 But nationalism played also a vital role in sev- eral conflicts not involving a direct confrontation between China and a Western power or Japan. This suggests that Chinese nationalism emanates from many differ- ent sources and is a potent force even in the absence of any collision with the West. Given also the historical context of modern Chinese nationalism originated in the “Century of Humiliation”, it is not surprising that “the development of Chinese na- tionalism ... has given sovereignty and territorial integrity intense symbolic value.” (Downs and Saunders, 1999: 114)

3. Nationalism in Chinese Foreign Affairs

3.1. The Indian border war of 1962

The Indian border war in 1962 is one of the Chinese conflicts that did not directly involve a Western power or Japan, but it nevertheless sparked an upsurge of Chinese nationalism. The causes of the war are complex and cannot be unrolled here.3 Instead the underlying notions of sovereignty and legitimacy as constitutive elements of Chinese nationalism should be emphasized.

When the dispute with India over the shared border unfolded in the late 1950s and early 1960s, two factors besides China’s sensitivity to territorial loss appear to have led to a hardening of its position. One was the Tibet question, and the other was In- dia’s refusal to negotiate on the so called “McMahon Line”. Since the 1950s, Tibet is regarded as an integral part of Chinese territory. The Sino-Indian relations were greatly disturbed by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s assertion that China had “suzerainty rather than sovereignty” over the territory (Lei 2005: 503). Toward the end of the 1950s, the Chinese came to interpret Nehru’s intentions increasingly through the lens of imperialism. From the viewpoint of the Chinese leader Zhou Enlai, India’s challenge to China’s sovereignty over Tibet had backed them into a corner, which could only be escaped through a strike commensurate to the gravity of the situation (see ibid.).

Another Indian stance that evoked nationalistic rage in China was its hard-line at- titude toward the McMahon Line. Drawn by the British in 1914, the line was in- tended to mark the eastern border between China and India. However, its interna- tional legal status was controversial. The PRC disputed its legitimacy because no Chinese central government had ever acceded to it, what made it in their eyes another symbol of imperialistic humiliation. To support the government’s positions there was also limited but targeted mobilization of the Chinese domestic public opinion. And even the Nationalist government in Taiwan set aside its anti-Communist ideology for some time to support mainland China on the border question (see ibid: 504).

The war ended in an asymmetrical victory for China, the Chinese government did achieve its purposes. However, it did great damage to the country’s international standing and sent some bilateral relations into a deep freeze for the next few decades (see Maxwell 1970).

3.2. The Spratly Islands dispute

The Spratly Islands of the South China Sea are a potential tinder box in the region. Approximately 44 of the 51 small islands and reefs are claimed or occupied by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. Thus, it is another conflict that does not directly involve Western powers or Japan, but where neverthe- less Chinese nationalism plays a vital role. The conflict is the result of overlapping sovereignty claims to various of the islands, assumed to possess substantial natural resources - chiefly oil, natural gas, and seafood, also several important shipping routes cross the area (see Krasnov 1997).

In the 1970s and 1980s, China’s main conflict was with Vietnam, it escalated to an open military clash in March 1988. Since then, China’s strategy was double sided: direct engagement of the sovereignty claims of other disputants besides Vietnam (mainly the Philippines) on the one hand, on the other emphasis of joint development opportunities with other littoral countries. But China continues to affirm its public position that the Spratly Islands have always been, and are still, China’s rightful terri- tory (guyou lingtu) (Lei 2005: 506). In articulating its sovereignty claims, China uses arguments relying both on history (e.g., the Nansha Islands historically have be- longed to China) and on international law (e.g., the Chinese claim is widely accepted by other nations and is in accordance with the UN-Convention on the Law of the Sea). Throughout this process of claim and counterclaim, territorial integrity always was of paramount importance for China (see ibid; Krasnov 1997).

Nowadays, Chinese leaders are conscious of the importance of oceanic resources, but the popular nationalist imagination continues to subordinate the islands’ material utility to a kind of territorial fascination. Furthermore, like during the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962, Taiwan has largely supported the PRC’s claims regarding the af- filiation of the Spratly Islands. This united front repeatedly presented by the adver- saries suggests that in the Chinese case questions of national identity sometimes could transcend political differences once they are linked to territorial integrity (see Krasnov 1997; Lei 2005: 506f).

3.3. The Diaoyu Islands

The Diaoyu (Chinese), or Senkaku (Japanese), Islands are a group of eight uninhab- ited islands located in the East Asia Sea between Taiwan and Okinawa, and they are reason for an ongoing conflict between Japan, China and Taiwan. None of the three governments want the issue to become a source of difficulties in their bilateral rela- tionships, however, the three governments are driven by a number of domestic and international political factors. While the issue of ownership of natural resources is the main point in this dispute, nationalistic claims in all three countries make this dispute much more complicated. Conflict between the three countries over the dispute is unlikely, but so is any form of resolution, or joint exploitation of the area's natural resources (see Huang 1997).

The first major nationalistic protests over the islands occurred in 1971, after an in- cident in September 1970, when the Japanese navy evicted Taiwanese reporters rais- ing their country’s flag on one of the islands. Large anti-Japanese protests were or- ganized in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and among Chinese in the United States. The latest major flare-up in the dispute developed in 1996, when a group of Japanese national- ists erected a lighthouse on one of the islands and the Japanese government reas- serted its territorial claims. The anti-Japanese demonstrations in Hong Kong and Taiwan gained their summit when David Chan, a Hong Kong nationalist, drowned during an attempt to land on one of the islands. While in Hong Kong and Taiwan protesters expressed their anger mainly on the streets, in mainland China the Com- munist regime suppressed anti-Japanese demonstrations. Thus, protests about the islands were articulated in print and in the internet. A reading of these mainland Chi- nese writings reveals the existence of a dynamic discourse that challenged the CCP’s control over nationalism (see Gries 2005a: 122).

3.4. The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade 1999

On 8 May 1999, round about midnight, an US-American B-2 bomber dropped five two-thousand-pound guided missiles over Belgrade. All bombs hit their intended target. However, this was not a Serbian arms depot as supposed, but the Chinese em- bassy. Three Chinese journalists were killed, twenty-three other people were injured. US-president Bill Clinton instantly proclaimed the bombing a “tragic mistake” made because of outdated maps, and extended his “regrets and profound condolences” to the Chinese people. In Beijing however, Chinese officials rejected the American faulty map scenario as “sophistry,” and declared apologies to be insufficient and in- sincere.4 The official Chinese media did not publicize the US- and NATO-apologies until 11 May. Instead, they proclaimed the bombing a “barbaric” and intentional “criminal act.” (see Gries 2005a: 17) For instance, a People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) article from 12 May 1999 (cited in Gries 2001: 32) entitled “This is Not 1899 China” declared:

The wheel of history will not go backward. This is 1999, not 1899. This is not … the age when people can barge about the world in gunboats … This is not the age when the Western powers plundered the Imperial Palace at will, de- stroyed the Old Summer Palace, and seized Hong Kong and Macao … China is a China that has stood up; it is a China that defeated the Japanese fascists; it is a China that had a trial of strength and won victory over the United States in the Korean battleground.


1 For detailed overviews of the development and definition of nationalism see Hutchinson and Smith (2000), Smith (2001), Zuelow (2002), or Miscevic (2005).

2 For the special characteristics of Sino-American and Sino-Japanese relationships see Gries (2005a, Chapter 2: 30-45; 2005b).

3 For detailed information see Maxwell (1970).

4 For a sociopsychological explanation of the complex Chinese “Apology Diplomacy” see Gries (2005a, Chapter 6: 86-115 and 2005b: 253ff).

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Nationalism in China - Implications for Chinese International Relations
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Institut für Politikwissenschaft)
China in World Politics
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Overlooking the last decades, nationalism in China has shown great flexibility as a connection of contradiction, interaction, and integration between the Communist Party, state and society, between the ruling ideology and intellectual discourse, and in some way, among various intellectual discourses.Is this term paper I will therefore discuss several aspects and forms of nationalism in general and Chinese nationalism in particular.
Nationalism, China, Implications, Chinese, International, Relations, China, World, Politics
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Paul Eschenhagen (Author), 2006, Nationalism in China - Implications for Chinese International Relations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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