Preaching nationalism in an age of global citizens

China’s foreign policy of non-involvement seems to stem from the Confucian teaching to “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” For the Party, this means avoiding situations like what is currently happening in Syria, which if the UN had its way would see the ouster of a gov’t for slaughtering its own people (similar stances were taken by China in respect to Sudan and Libya too). China’s foreign policy recognizes the possible problems of setting a precedence of using military force against chronic human rights abusers. The key to this policy is keeping public opinion in line with the gov’t response and to accomplish that, China needs nationalism.

This also explains the Party’s framing of China as a still imperiled nation. They push the story of “foreign forces” undermining Chinese sovereignty as a way of promoting national unity. The phrase conjures up images of hungry imperialists carving up China once again, harkening back to the times before the mighty Party returned the country to glory. But as the Global Times highlighted today, the “foreign forces” are actually Chinese dissidents who have been expelled or have fled overseas due to politics within China. As these intellectuals leave, they are re-branded as traitors despite their efforts on behalf of the Chinese people.

It seems as though the Party still clings to the tactic of nationalism even though we are in the age of the global citizen.

While the noisy expat may be shouting, “The problem with Americans is that only 7% of ’em have passports. They don’t care about the rest of the world.”* The reality is that roughly 1/3 of Americans now hold passports, and a large percentage of these are in the hands of young people. My friends from high school are working around the world and comparing travel notes. While abroad they form friendships with quirky hostel owners, food cart operators and co-workers, and with the growth of cheap technology, maintaining those contacts has become easier than ever. In a world such as this, ideas of isolation and nationalism breakdown and we recognize that our far away friends are impacted by the decisions (or lack there of) made by our gov’t. Even this tiny blog has been read in 120 countries in the last month (but really one needs to look no further than the global reaction to the Kony 2012 video for evidence of these claims).

And while the majority of Chinese people will not leave the country within their lifetimes, things are changing more quickly than ever before. In 2010, there were over 1.27 million Chinese students overseas, and the number of new overseas students increased by 24%. They will bring home a view that is more nuanced than is tolerated in Chinese media and spread these ideas to family members, friends, and co-workers at a speed that is hard to imagine. Even a friend’s trip to Hong Kong can yield a bounty of illegal information. As a Chinese friend told me recently, it’s quite possible at this moment in China, that even though only a small percentage of net users may be venturing beyond the firewall, most netizens regularly talk with someone who is. Additionally, the flood of foreign teachers in the years since the economic downturn has greatly increased the number of expats forging friendships with Chinese students (in 5 years I’ve had around 600 students).

These interactions undermine the Party’s ability to promote orthodox views of foreign policy among the masses. When I arrived in China 5 years ago, it was virtually impossible to climb on to a motor taxi without being asked why Americans like war so much. The question was always followed by a lecture about why it would be much better if we left Iraq alone. Last week though, a co-worker called me to her desk to show me pictures she had found on Weibo of slaughtered civilians in Syria. We had talked about the possibility of UN intervention the week before and discussed what that gov’t was doing to its people. She was decidedly against any use of force. On viewing the photos, she no longer saw issues of sovereignty, the threat of “foreign forces” and imperialism; she simply saw mothers and children lying in pools of blood. “We should stop this,” she said.

Despite this the Party continues to preach nationalism in an age of global citizens; citizens that no longer view the problems of others as inconsequential to their own lives and find the crackdowns of foreign gov’ts increasingly difficult to accept.

*Based on an actual encounter I had last week

10 responses to “Preaching nationalism in an age of global citizens”

  1. sanculottist says:

    This is a little naive as we simply do not know what is going on inside Syria. That, moreover, is not to defend Bashar Assad who, like Omar al-Bashir, wouldl appear to be …. well, two bashers. Nevertheless, the West’s, Israel’s, and the GCC’s agenda in Syria is particularly obvious.

    This is ultimately about Iran, it is about oil, and it is about geopolitical interests. If it were to be otherwise, not only would Omar a-Bashir and Bashar Assad be facing charges in the Hague, but so too would Uganda’s, Museveni, Rwanda’s Kagame, al-Khalifi in Bahrain and a few others …… Bush, Cheney, Blair, perhaps!

    • Tom says:

      You may have missed my main point, being that it seems that China’s citizens are becoming less interested in claims that these are devious plots by the west, and care much more about the human cost of ignoring such struggles.

      I do agree, Syria is about oil, and largely for those opposed to intervention. Just as China was opposed to operations in Libya where they had invested over $35 billion in infrastructure designed to access the oil Qaddafi controlled.

  2. Alec O says:

    I don’t know if referencing another blog in a comment is bad form or not, but Offbeat China ( writes about Chinese exchange students in foreign countries and the possibility that their experiences actually make them more hostile to the west and more nationalistic. In my experience and knowledge of Chinese exchange students, I would say that there definitely are a fair amount of who get more nationalistic the longer they’re in England. Having said that, I would agree with you that there is an overall trend away from nationalism.

    • Tom says:

      There is definitely some of that. But I would say that for every 1 that becomes more nationalistic there are 5 that become facebook addicts. Also that their experience might turn them away from ideas of the “west” there is also a large amount of travel through SE Asia, Japan, and S. Korea that is starting to change the dialog about past conflicts with those countries.

  3. sanculottist says:

    no, i got your point completely and i actually enjoy reading your blog. nevertheless, it would iquite simply not have been in china’s geopolitcal interests to not have vetoed the un resolution.

    furthermore, while i am certainly not pro-assad, al-bashir, ghaddafi and, yes, not pro-prc. the hypocrisy of the west is quite astounding, which is why, the questions you have been asked in china are not baseless.

    finally, your hypothesis that chinese citizens are actually becoming “less interested in claims that these are devious plots by the west, and care much more about the human cost of ignoring such struggles”, is based on a “co-worker”, or, in other words, on no evidence whatsoever. although, i would agree that, having worked with chinese students for some ten years and having lived in china for three years, the party can no longer quite control the narrative in the way that it once did.
    our “friend” bo xilai would appear to demonstrate at least that.

    indeed, apropos xenophobia, and statements such as “all chinese feel the same about taiwan” (how i hate that “all” word); a number of my friends in china see taiwan as a hope. however, the real point is, and it actually contradicts the real point of your post, the chinese government is less concerned with “setting a precedence of using military force against chronic human rights abusers” and more concerned with the geopolitical implications of what is going on in syria at the moment.

  4. 34f67dg72 says:

    “roughly 1/3 of American’s now hold passports” Americans

  5. sinostand says:

    Excellent piece. I was fairly surprised when the Chinese government enthusiastically supported Obama’s “100,000 Strong Initiative” to send 100,000 American students to study in China. I can’t think of a much better way to erode the nationalist pillar of the CCP’s legitimacy.

  6. dudepp says:

    Don’t all countries have the “foreign force” phase? It’s more of a natural reaction of the populace imo rather than CCP specific, obviously ppl who aren’t used to being/feeling foreign feel the push because it’s the first time they have experienced it (westerners). You could say China has only been fully open to foreigners in the last 10 years, it took Americans 200 years to be sort of open to the idea of “foreigners”.

    I’m not sure what being a facebook addict is about, if anything your argument would be more evidence of chinese citizens wanting more freedom, it wouldn’t really make people change views of “foreign force”, in fact it could sometimes enforce nationalism.

  7. Frank Hitman says:

    Like the “Beijing Spirit” posters:

    爱国 创新 包容 厚德
    Patriotism innovation inclusiveness virtue

    They are addressing one of China’s biggest problems namely a lack of creativity and innovation due to a rusty education system that makes people into copy machines with a somewhat extended internal memory. China will face a long and arduous task to battle this problem because it’s so deeply ingrained and rooted in their education system. This won’t be like leveling some kind of ancient building and bulldozering a new highway on top of it. Yet in their steps to address this problems they include the word “nationalism” in the slogan. This is more or less the antidote for the 3 other slogans. The fact that they include this word shows everyone what a long way they have to go. To address problems presented by a globalized world and Chinese youth challenged by their globalized counterparts, the Party makes an enormous mistake to fall back on their monolithic views. But as a product of the dynasties in the centuries before them, they are just stuck in their ancient ways of trying to stay in power no matter what. This kind of observations makes it clear that change is inevitable and I am very curious in what form it will present itself.

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