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