Nationalism and the single country

“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.

Click to hear The National’s ‘Afraid of Everyone’!

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7 Responses to Nationalism and the single country

  1. Bela J Redneck says:

    Congratulations to the USA State Department and the good ol’ CIA fer keepin’ the pot burnin’ and them there Chinese surrounded the way they oughta be! Goddamn!

    North, South, East and West, der’s folks pointing guns at the critters, squabblin’ over where to lay the fence and who’s gonna get the drillin’ rights. Suits us fine.

    Where do they send ’em for trainin’ at the Chinese Foreign Ministry anyways – Montgomery, Alabama?

    Now here’s just the right toon…blast it out you limeys! I used to be able to twang out Brown Sugar as clear as the Liberty Bell, if I aidn’t had too much Thunderbird!

    If you start me up
    If you start me up I’ll never stop
    If you start me up
    If you start me up I’ll never stop

    I’ve been running hot
    You got me ticking gonna blow my top
    If you start me up
    If you start me up I’ll never stop
    Never stop, never stop, never stop

  2. Maugrim says:

    Modern China, like post war Japan (and even going back to the time of Admiral Perry) is also not averse to a bit of copying, especially where technology is involved. A few things on the HK front are raising my eyebrows, firstly, the suggestion that the Government may send representatives to meet the protest boat upon its return. This is after the cost incurred of also having sent Government officials to Okinawa to help deal with HK Gilligan and crew. One wonders what precedent the HK Government is setting. It’s obvious that some protests are ‘more equal than others’, something that will be difficult to explain next time there is fake indignation at one of Long Hair’s stunts. This will be interesting.

  3. PropertyDeveloper says:

    How to start a fight must surely be in both Kungfu manuals and The Art of War. Basically you provoke the adversary into throwing the first stone — and then claim the high moral ground.

    What could be added to Hemlock’s analysis, then, is the identity of the country China decides to enrage the most, the position of the territory disputed with that country, and hence the chances of winning the fight. My hunch is that choosing to bully the biggest boy in the playground may just be a diversionary tactic.

    It’s more likely that China will pick on a country with a large Chinese ethnic minority, who can not only radio ‘home’ when the time comes but, after being suitably primed to play the role of innocent victims, provide an appropriate casus belli.

  4. Stephen says:

    Even more interesting seems to be who is funding these little jaunts to the islands (whatever there name) ? Step forward CPPCC member Liu Mengxiong.

    If this nationalism transpires in a pro-establishment landslide in the Legislative Council elections then the incompetance of the Pro-Dems (who a number of the sailors belong too) is complete. You utter f*ckwits.

    As to the wider picture Big Bad Uncle Sam will stop the CCP from doing anything to silly or their military will be made to look it and that maybe is the tipping point into the begining of the end of the CCP. They know that so expect this to blow over fairly quickly.

  5. Old Timer says:

    To avoid confusion or favouritism we should just call them by their English name: The Pinnacle Islands.

  6. Maugrim says:

    Stepen, except, what’s the bet the Government and indeed some civil servants see this as manna from heaven, whereby 15 years of National Education have produced just the opposite, when bam, this has hove into view? My prediction is the Government will over egg things, creating mess and confusion both when ‘less correct’ protests occur and when the issue becomes yesterdays news to the public. people will have moved on but The Government will want to ‘maintain the rage’ to their own detriment longer term.

  7. Walter De Havilland says:

    We have been here before … the great unwashed on the mainland will be allowed to vent their anger, smash up a few cars and premises, then the word will come down for social harmony to be restored. Anyway, it’s a useful distraction from stories about senior cadres wife’s getting life for murder.

    I must say I love the picture of TSANG Kin-shing, aka the Bull, storming ashore on the island with the PRC flag aloft. He can usually be found outside the liaison office in Western burning the same flag.

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