• 042-35941921, UAN: 03-111-999-101
  • info@kipscss.net

Trouble on China’s Periphery: The Stability-Instability Paradox

  • David Skidmore
  • Sep, 2020
  • 79
  • East Asia Politics

Today’s Chinese nationalism is built on CCP loyalty and Han culture and identity - and thus leaves out a large number of China’s people

The transformation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from revolutionary party under Mao Zedong into a Chinese nationalist party beginning in the early ‘90s has proven a double-edged sword for the CCP and for China. While cementing popular support for the CCP among ordinary Chinese, growing nationalism has also generated resistance along China’s periphery. This stability-instability paradox has driven Beijing to adopt a set of costly and dangerous policies that have sullied China’s international reputation abroad and pushed the dream of a unified China further out of reach.

Chinese Nationalism

The concept of nationalism was introduced to China by the West. Traditionally, China recognized no sovereign equals - the Chinese divided the world into civilized peoples, who observed Chinese culture and tradition under the leadership of the Emperor, and barbarians who could achieve civilization only through assimilation.

By the late 19th century, the press of Western imperialism forced Chinese intellectuals and political reformers to embrace nationalism as an element of modernization. As John Fitzgerald notes, however, nationalism in China arose not in the form of a people seeking a state, but in the shape of state-builders defining the Chinese nation in ways that facilitated their own aspirations to rule. This pattern of the state defining the nation rather than vice versa was itself rooted in traditional Confucian thought, which, as an ideology of the state, vested sovereignty with rulers rather than the people.

As a result, the scope and meaning of nationalism in China has varied. Influenced by Western intellectual currents, Sun Yat-sen conceived of the Chinese nation in terms of race or blood lineage. Reformers associated with the May Fourth movement of 1919 embraced civic nationalism with an emphasis on the rights and duties of citizens under a republican state. Under Mao, the nation was defined in terms of class, with China leading a global proletarian revolution.

Nationalism and CCP Legitimation Strategy

Following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, CCP leader Deng Xiaoping abandoned Maoist dogma in order to save both the nation and the party. Yet the softening of totalitarian controls, combined with market reforms and the opening to the outside world, created an intellectual vacuum, and ideas about liberal democracy gained popularity among young Chinese and intellectuals. This threat to CCP rule was met with violent repression of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere.

In the aftermath, Deng faced the puzzle of how to restore stability without capitulating to pressures from hard-liners to abandon economic reform and resurrect Maoism. For Deng and his successor Jiang Zemin, the answer was a reformulated nationalism, or, in the language of the time, patriotism.

The patriotic campaigns of the ‘90s stretched across education, culture, media, academia, and public displays, such as memorials, museums, and holidays. Aspects of pre-revolutionary Chinese society - rejected during the Cultural Revolution - were resurrected and reinterpreted to meet the political needs of the CCP. Embracing a politics of grievance and historical victimhood, party propaganda stoked anti-Western and anti-Japanese sentiment by underlining China’s century of national humiliation, brought to an end only by the victory of the CCP in 1949.

More recently, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has promoted a forward-looking nationalism that challenges citizens to “achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Throughout, Chinese patriotism was equated with loyalty to the CCP as the necessary instrument for overcoming past humiliations and achieving future national greatness. Each year on April 15, for instance, Chinese schools observe “National Security Education Day,” during which students are offered lessons on “political security,” which “concerns the safety of the Community Party and the nation.”

Along with rising living standards, the CCP’s emphasis on patriotism successfully garnered popular legitimacy for the party-state among mainstream Chinese. Opinion surveys, for example, consistently show high levels of public trust in Chinese political institutions and optimism about the future.

The Problems of the Periphery

Yet this formula for regime legitimacy could not be successfully applied to China’s periphery. Tibet and Xinjiang present the problem of geographically clustered non-Han minorities that could plausibly tell their own narratives of colonial victimization at the hands of the CCP itself. Taiwan remained beyond Bei...

Share on facebook or twitter

Email to a friend