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Nationalism and the rise of China

The Communist leadership could remake itself as an anti-Western nationalist party, struggling against US–led encirclement

By Neville Meaney

There is a large body of opinion that holds that the 21st Century is to be the Asian or Asia-Pacific century and that China will be the prime driving force in creating a new regional order. In the eyes of many, Napoleon’s famous prediction that when the sleeping giant China awoke it would shake the world seems to be about to come true. 

It is widely held that if China’s GDP continues to grow at the rate achieved in the last three decades it will, by 2030, if not earlier, overtake that of the United States. This has led to many commentators forecasting that China, like all rising great powers, would in due course demand its place in the sun. 

This conclusion — based on a simple linear projection of China’s economic development under a stable government and a similarly simple assumption that China could parlay its economic power into political influence — ignores internal social and political dynamics. The Chinese communist-capitalists have not yet experienced the normal busts which follow the booms of the free market system. They have not experienced a major economic recession, let alone a great depression, though some argue that the protests leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre were precipitated by an economic downturn. When such a major nationwide economic crisis does take place, it is likely that all the socio-psychological tensions inherent in modernisation will come to the fore and the Communist Party’s right to govern will be tested to the full. 

It is questionable whether the Communist Party will be able to retain its “Mandate of Heaven.” As the history of nationalism in the West and Japan shows, modernising peoples at the critical point of transformation need new myths to give meaning to their new world and to legitimise their allegiance to the state. But these myths have to be credible. Although the Marxist philosophy of the Chinese revolution still informs the rites and symbols of the state, this definition of China has to a very large extent lost its virtue. In schools and universities the required courses on Marxism are no more than empty formalities. In the country at large the practice of capitalism has made a mockery of the promise of communism. 

The Communist leaders, recognising this, have already taken steps to strengthen their claims to be nationalists. They suppress ethnic Tibetan, Uighur, and Mongolian secessionists in their western outlying provinces, defy Western critics who make heroes of Chinese intellectual dissenters, and denounce Japan’s school readers that downplay its imperial past, especially its responsibility for the Nanjing massacre. Indeed, the latest Chinese history textbooks in Shanghai make gestures towards a new nationalist sensibility. The controlling narrative is no longer set in terms of class warfare, of the Marxist dialectic of slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism but rather takes the evolution of Chinese civilisation, of the Han people’s 5000 years of continuous history, as the central unifying principle. They have to a large extent expunged the peasant revolts from the story and instead heap praise on those who have fought for Confucian unity and harmony. 

What will proceed from this discarding of the post-1950 revolutionary myth is unclear. Some Western scholars, especially Americans, are inclined to see liberal economics leading to liberal politics and the Chinese moving step by step towards something approaching a Western type of democracy. If these optimists prove to be correct then Francis Fukuyama’s claim that the fall of the Soviet Union marked the “end of history” might seem more plausible. 

But lacking any experience of multi-party democracy, peaceful transfers of power, loyal oppositions, separation of the executive and the judiciary, or a free press, this self-flattering Western vision does not seem to offer a feasible prospect. Even a movement towards a reformation which releases the hold of the Communist Party over the reins of power is more likely to create chaos and war-lordism than an effective liberal state. 

The more likely outcome is that the Communist Party will, by attempting to exploit a widely shared folk memory of a 200 year history of humiliation at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialists, remake itself as an anti-Western nationalist party, struggling against Western encirclement. But whether this transition would be achieved without stirring up internal divisions is an open question. There is considerable hostility towards the so-called “princelings,” namely the highly privileged children of the Communist Party heroes who endured the Long March and fought to create the People’s Republic. Much will depend on the People’s Liberation Army. 

If the ideological revolution, by whatever means, were carried through peacefully, then the new rulers might create an authoritarian or totalitarian nationalist regime not unlike those that spread through continental Europe in the first half of the last century. If this were to be the case then it would in all likelihood suppress even more rigorously the non-Han ethnic communities in the western provinces, annex Taiwan, push more forcefully for control over the disputed rocky outcrops and the surrounding seabed resources in the South and East China seas, and demand respect for the Chinese diaspora in South-East Asia. 

The first is fully within its power. The second, analogous to Hitler’s march into Austria, might well be accomplished without American intervention; the West has already conceded in principle that Taiwan is a province of China. The third would be riskier in that it would stir up anti-Chinese feeling along the whole western Pacific and would produce a much greater possibility of American intervention. The last, though responding to strong domestic national feelings, would, if the Chinese were to attempt to use force or threats of force, face them with logistical difficulties. It would have the effect of uniting South-East Asia against the Chinese, and cause the Americans to take counter measures. This alternative, though it might seem to have some similarities to Nazi Germany’s claims on Sudetenland, is not for a number of reasons comparable. 

Would the hubris of superpower nationalism tempt China to take great risks? Would it replicate the irrationality and fanaticism of the Japanese in the era of the Pacific War? The greatest deterrent to such aggressive actions, especially in the case of the last two possibilities, would be the recognition that any military confrontation between China and America, even if begun with conventional weapons, could contain within it the likelihood of escalation to some form of a nuclear war.

To be sure, in drawing a comparison between the European and Japanese nationalist response to the crisis of modernisation and that of China, one should take into account the changed nature of the contemporary international framework. Unlike the League of Nations, the United Nations has a near universal membership and has a very active role not only in humanitarian, social welfare, health, and cultural affairs but also in peacekeeping and peace enforcing, even if in the latter respect this has only been accepted for very small failed states. 

Today, there are also other international institutions such as the IMF and the WTO which regulate specific elements of international relations. Moreover, in every region of the world, there are other government-sponsored organisations which aim at fostering co-operation and mediating local disputes. Further, as a result of the globalisation of the world’s economies and the widespread systems of digital communication, many people are connected across national frontiers and are linked by an extensive range of professional and other Non-Government Organisations. There is also a growing awareness that nations have a common interest in co-operating to solve problems that affect the survival of the planet, such as global warming, environmental destruction, pandemics, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. 

But even after making allowance for these significant steps towards global peace and justice, it is important to recognise that the process of modernisation in East Asia, as in other parts of the developing world, is still proceeding. It seems not impossible that a rising great power such as China might still adopt an aggressive nationalism that would menace the region and even bring about military conflict.