Party and the patriot

China’s communists have used nationalism to keep a democratic transition at bay

Written by Minxin Pei | Published: July 21, 2012 12:04:40 am

There is a lively debate in political science on whether nationalism is bad for democracy. While an overwhelming majority suggests that nationalism,by virtue of its illiberal nature (since it elevates collective identity over individual liberty and choice),could threaten democracy,some scholars insist that under certain circumstances,nationalism might facilitate the spread of democracy. For instance,to the extent that a strong national identity is a prerequisite for building a democratic nation-state,nationalism could be a positive force. In addition,nationalism could rally different groups in the overthrow of a dictatorship.

It is unlikely that this theoretical question will ever be settled at a general or abstract level anytime soon. But what is clear,at least to people with enough common sense,is that the relationship between nationalism and democracy is most likely determined by a specific national context.

With such observations in mind,we may now explore a real but important question: is Chinese nationalism bad for democracy?

In the last two decades,China’s rise has been accompanied by a disquieting phenomenon — rising nationalism. Survey data,press reports and scholarly research all indicate a heightened level of nationalist sentiments. To be sure,these sentiments are diverse. Genuine pride in China’s rapid modernisation constitutes one strand. Resentment of the West for criticising China’s human rights record forms another. In particular,anger at the United States for its perceived “containment” strategy against China is a key ingredient of contemporary Chinese nationalism. A sense of national victimhood,drawn from China’s humiliation at the hands of Western powers from 1840 to 1949 (often referred to as the “century of humiliation”),similarly informs many Chinese nationalists today.

Resurgent nationalism presents the ruling Chinese Communist Party with both opportunities and risks. The party came to power by exploiting Chinese nationalism and presented itself as the defender of China’s national honour. The founding myth of the People’s Republic is essentially a tale of how the Communist Party fought heroically for China’s national survival and ended the country’s “century of humiliation”. Although historical research has uncovered vital inaccuracies and falsehood in the party’s claims (for instance,the much-reviled old nationalist regime,not the communists,actually did most of the fighting against the Japanese),the party has been extraordinarily successful in maintaining this mythology,in part thanks to its ruthless but effective censorship.

As in the past,the party today finds Chinese nationalism a convenient and valuable political resource. Cultivating such sentiments would allow the party to portray the democratic West as an evil force bent on continuing to “keep China down” through its human rights criticisms,support for Chinese dissidents,and military ties with countries that are China’s historical foes (such as Japan and India). By wrapping itself in the Chinese flag,the party could find a new source of political legitimacy and gain support from the same Chinese population to whom it denies essential civil liberties and political rights. So in the post-Tiananmen era,the party has devoted enormous resources to nationalist propaganda,education programmes,and symbols. The most spectacular example is,without doubt,the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

But fanning nationalism is not without risks. One obvious problem today is that the Communist Party needs economic prosperity more than nationalism to stay in power. And economic prosperity is not possible without trading with the West,China’s largest export market and main source of capital and technology. Clearly,the party could not afford to antagonise the West so much that their vital economic relationship is jeopardised. Another substantial risk is that fuelling nationalism can backfire politically. Just as the communists used nationalism against the nationalists in the 1930s and 1940s,nationalism may be exploited by the dissidents and other elements in Chinese society as a rallying cry against the party’s rule. Indeed,in many diplomatic crises,Chinese nationalists would typically vent their anger on the West first and then quickly turn their ire towards the government (it is reported that the Chinese foreign ministry has received many unsolicited packages of calcium pills — with the implicit message that it should toughen its diplomatic bones).

The benefits and costs of manipulating nationalist sentiments have forced the party to settle on a high-risk strategy. In ordinary times,it would keep its propaganda machine running at full speed to foster nationalism,but during crises,it would use its censorship system to restrain nationalist outbursts to avoid escalating the crises.

Needless to say,this strategy has incurred significant costs. Although China may have preserved its economic ties and basic diplomatic relations with the West and its neighbours,outbursts of Chinese nationalism,seen as manipulated and encouraged by the government,have left bitter feelings and sowed strategic distrust.

For the party,such costs are worth bearing. Since the party’s most vital interest is self-perpetuation,tapping into Chinese nationalism should be part of its survival strategy if doing so could forestall democratisation in China. Although it may be too early to say that such a strategy is sustainable,there is some evidence that the party’s thinking may be right.

One of the most fascinating developments in China today is the rebirth of a public discourse on democracy. There are many notable features of this incipient public debate. For example,this debate may mark the beginning of a long-delayed democratic transition process in China. In addition,the debate is often framed in terms of the failure of the current Chinese political system and the need for an alternative.

There are three types of participants in this debate: liberals,defenders of the regime and nationalists. The views of the first two groups are evident. The most interesting and disturbing perspectives on democracy are those of Chinese nationalists. At the risk of oversimplification of their views,we may summarise their perspective or narrative on democracy as the following: “Because the West does not want to see a powerful and prosperous China,it is encouraging a regime change in China so that China could be plunged into national turmoil. China must never fall into this trap,however flawed the status quo is.”

Unfortunately,such a perspective hardly differs from the Communist Party’s position on democracy. So one may have to grudgingly concede that the party’s appeal to nationalism has been a success and that Chinese nationalism will be an obstacle to democratic transition in China in the future.

The writer is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in the US,

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