“Nobody understands Marxism. It is ridiculous … So it is right to turn to nationalism. It is the means by which the party can maintain its system and ideology.” The ex-cadre, speaking during the 2005 anti-Japanese protests in China, said ‘ideology’. But what he really meant was the absence of one. Dreams of an egalitarian workers’ and peasants’ paradise are gone. The Chinese Communist Party’s only ideal today is its own perpetual monopoly of power and the right of its officials and their families to acquire an unfairly large share of the nation’s wealth.
Domestically, nationalism is a strategy of desperation. It is easy to whip up public opinion against evil foreigners, but it can just as easily get out of hand. China has a long tradition of popular uprisings against governments for allegedly failing to protect the nation from overseas threats. The iconic picture of yesterday’s anti-Japanese protests is a guy in Shenzhen whacking an overturned Japanese-brand police car. The vehicle is a symbol of the hated barbarians who are illegally occupying the motherland’s sacred Diaoyu Islands, but it also represents the authority of the Chinese state.
How does Beijing ensure that the people’s venom remains healthily focused on the foreigners and supports rather than erodes trust in the leadership? It can’t. As so often, they’re winging it. So far, the government has done a pretty good job of stoking enough nationalism to keep people on side without getting itself into a situation where it has to take serious economic or military action against wayward and disrespectful neighbours. But recent official comments, especially on the South China Sea have ratcheted things up. For example, at some point Beijing will have to explain to its population why it is still tolerating the presence of Vietnamese, Filipino and such weak nonentity countries’ armed forces in little detachments on atolls throughout the Spratly Islands.
The good news is that parallels with the rise of Japanese militarism and the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere are weak. The pre-war Japanese leadership and wider population saw the country as divinely unique, with a god for an emperor, and the race as superior, while the culture emphasized group consciousness over individualism to an extreme degree. Modern China just doesn’t do that fanatical faith, the ideological racism or the ant-like discipline and self-sacrifice. Its ethos is more about chasing foreign passports, money, money, money and the occasional bit of contemporary art.
What China definitely has in common with pre-war Japan is a shortage of natural resources in which nature made Southeast Asia abundant. Another potential similarity is the leading role of the military – but we still don’t know how much or whether the civilians in Beijing are losing influence to the PLA amid the ongoing transition of power.
So the outlook remains something more along the lines of Latin-style corporatist-type vaguely quasi-fascist nationalism: cynical, corrupt, materialistic and ultimately pragmatic enough to avoid suicidal or counterproductive overseas excursions. Unless, perhaps, the country’s people force the leadership into it.
The most likely cause of that would be serious economic trouble. Maybe a bursting of China’s economic bubble, or just a big enough slowdown to hurt, would divert attention away from disputes over tiny islands onto more local matters. But maybe it would prompt an angry population to look for someone to blame, leaving the CCP with a choice between relinquishing the mandate of heaven or picking a fight with foreigners. Or maybe the build-yet-more-railways-with-borrowed-money approach will work, the economy keep growing, and we will all live happily ever after.