Chinese Nationalism

Just finished reading an interesting book, below is my review.



Suisheng Zhao, A Nation-State By Construction: Dynamics of Modern Chinese Nationalism (California: Stanford University Press, 2004).

Suisheng Zhao addresses one important question regarding the current resurgence of nationalism in China: will nationalism make China to behave agressively? Reflecting on the existing literature on nationalism that are mostly derived from the experience of European states, Suisheng Zhao notes that nationalism has been perceived as an irrational manifestation of primordial sentiment which in turn serves as a source of international conflict. He questions such common observation that tends to view that nationalism and international aggression are directly linked to one another (p.6).

Apparently, the question that Suisheng Zhao seeks to answer comes from a larger concern about the mercurial rise of China in the past two decades. In this regard, there are two contending perspectives in dealing with the question (Philips Vermonte, 2001). The first comes from those who view China as a potential threat, not only in the political or security arena, but also in the economic realm. While this view may stem from a lack of understanding as to the precise nature of China’s intention, it nonetheless influences the nature of international politics, particularly in the Asian region. The second view is that since it is inevitable that China will acquire a decisive role in the region, it is more beneficial to treat China as a partner.

Contemporary Chinese leaders seem to be aware of these two contending views toward the impressive advancement of China’s economic and political influence. Suisheng Zhao contends that one needs to trace the origins and sources of Chinese nationalism in order to understand its potential ramifications for China’s foreign policy behavior (pp.6-7).

Suisheng Zhao’s central argument is that the rise of nationalist sentiment in China has always been masterminded by Chinese intellectuals and/or political entrepreneurs. Since Britain defeated China in the Opium War (1840-1842), Chinese elites from different groups had been competing to galvanize the Chinese people to ward off foreign occupation (firstly the occupation by the British, then by the Japanese after the humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, and the Manchus who were considered ‘foreign’ by the predominantly Han Chinese). These elites were determined to restore China’s grandeur by disseminating doctrines about the distinctiveness of China to the masses. As a result, ‘Chinese nationalism as an ideology spread across the widening cultural and social divide between traditionalist and those involved in one way or another in the modernizing sectors of society. (p.18)

Although these elites, which included the traditionalists, liberals and later the communists, held different world views on how to rebuild China’s identity after a long humiliation, they shared a similar conviction that China deserved a great power status (p.12). The communists under Mao Zedong won the struggle for power and subsequently were able to reconsolidate the Chinese identity. By nature, the kind of nationalism that emerged in China during the leadership of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was ‘state nationalism’, which sought to make the state ‘pivotal and sovereign center of self-conscious collective action…in response to external threats to its sovereignty and internal challenges to its authority’. (p.26) To be precise, the CCP during Mao specified Chinese nationalism as ‘socialist patriotism’. (p.28)

Zhao asserts that the recent resurgence of Chinese nationalism comes as a result of a careful consideration on the part of Chinese political leaders (i.e. the leaders of the CCP). He argues convincingly that Chinese leaders in the post-Mao era pursue calculative strategies based on pragmatism that is designed to form a strong foundation for modern China. A famous quote from Deng Xiaoping seems to be the basis of Suisheng Zhao’s argument about the emergence of what he calls ‘pragmatic nationalism’: “ a cat, whether black or white, is good as long as it can catch mice”. (quoted in p.214).

Zhao argues that the bold pragmatist stance taken by Deng Xiaoping was actually a calculated strategy to bolster the legitimacy of the CCP. Deng Xiaoping and other reform-minded leaders of CCP learned that communist ideology, especially Mao’s utopian ideology, could not garner mass support to sustain the CCP’s hold on power. The reformists understood very well that the communist regime ‘was increasingly judged in terms of its ability to deliver economic growth and higher standard of living’ (p.212).

To secure his determination to reform China’s economy, Deng Xiaoping needed a normative authority to replace the already discredited communism. It was in this context that nationalism was then rediscovered. Furthermore, the pragmatism of the Chinese leaders coincided with the increasingly pragmatist Chinese people (p.214). It provided the opportunity for the regime to link the new pragmatic orientation with nationalism through patriotic education. The communist regime then uses patriotic education as an effective tool to spread the massage: defending the national interest of China through economic development is a patriotic move. Therefore, it has to be supported by the people. It is in this backdrop that Deng’s ‘cat theory’ finds its justification that ‘China should not be afraid of using capitalism as long as it was conducive to economic development’ (p.215).

In my opinion, the contributions of Zhao’s book are two folds. First, to International Relations (IR) literature, the book adds a fresh insight to the existing discussion regarding how the world should respond to the rise of China. As noted earlier, there are many who believe that China has a desire to be a regional, if not global, power house. It is believed that a ‘nationalistic and economically powerful China’ will be aggressive. Such a believe may stem from the fact that it is unclear how China will project its power. For example, one China observer argues that there is an emergence of the Chinese post-Cold War concept of ‘seas as national territory’ (Samuel Kim, 1997). In addition, after the death of Mao Zedong, the Chinese leaders further developed the doctrine of a “People’s War” into a “People’s War in Modern Conditions” (Rizal Sukma, 1995). The new doctrine presents a new understanding on the part of the Chinese military leaders that technology is an integral part of modern warfare. Therefore, China has to modernize its military, especially maritime capability. Bear in mind that China engages in the disputes over several islands in the South China sea that involve several Southeast Asian countries. Understandably, China’s military modernization becomes the foundation of ‘the China threat’ argument.

On the contrary, Suisheng Zhao’s book offers a new point of view that tends to differ from ‘the China threat’ argument. He argues that in the post-Mao era, Chinese communist leaders have become pragmatic and have always tried to avoid a confrontational policy. It can be seen from the fact that China’s foreign behavior has been guided by the so-called Deng’s 24-character principles: ‘observe developments soberly, maintain our position, meet challenges calmly, hide our capacities, and bide our time, remain free of ambition, never claim leadership’ (p.267). In regard to China’s relations with the United States (U.S), there is a sixteen-character official guide: “enhance confidence, reduce troubles, expand cooperation, and avoid confrontation” (p.267).

Current Chinese leaders have skillfully managed the nationalist sentiment. While to some degree tolerating the popular expression of nationalist sentiment, such as the one that erupted following the U.S bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade (p.266-267), the communist regime more frequently than not seeks peaceful settlement if it encounters a conflict situation with other countries. It shows a conscious effort to maintain good relationship with the international community, especially Western capitalist countries. Such an effort can also be seen in China’s Good Neighbor Policy.

Despite the resurgence of nationalist sentiment, which to a large extent is their own creation, the Chinese leaders have been acting in a rational way. The regime is determined to further China’s economic interest and is willing to control the popular expression of the nationalist sentiment.

Interestingly, the economic reform in China somehow requires a certain degree of openness of which public opinion is an important part. Deng Xiaoping himself soon understood the importance of public opinion to support his pragmatic approach. Deng launched his famous tour to the Southern China region in 1992, a region which had benefited from his economic reform policy, to generate support from mass-media. Unprecedented supportive reports about his tour firstly appeared in the regional media, and finally in many influential Beijing-based media that were actually still under the control of his conservative opponents (pp. 216-218)

Apparently, Deng successfully won the public opinion and discredited his rivals at the conservative camp who were fighting against his reform policy. In this regard, Suisheng Zao’s book opens up an opportunity to testing the liberal thinking (i.e. democratic peace theory) that emphasizes the role of public opinion and economic interdependence as the two restraining forces that can prevent countries from inter-state war.

The second contribution of this book is that it adds to Comparative Politics (CP) literature, particularly in regard to the role of nationalism in modernization. Suisheng Zhao has rightly noted that the image of nationalism as merely a manifestation of emotional and primordial sentiments is ‘Eurocentric and focused on the special experience of Germany and Italy”. (p.6). His study on China has shown that nationalism has been used to justify market-oriented economic reform, a reform which is extremely difficult to be carried out in a communist China. But, it somehow leads to a more open and cooperative behavior of the communist regime.

On another note, Shuiseng Zhao also recognizes that religion (i.e. Confucianism) is an essential factor that has been utilized by the communist regime in the post-Mao era to promote Chinese nationalism and patriotism. Although it was initiated by the regime, the importance of the revival of Confucianism in itself cannot be undermined. The reason is that in the past the communist regime had been relying on Marxist revolutionary ideology to guard the country against Western imperialism. Now, Confucian values provide a new context for Chinese nationalism. This book might inspire other scholars to re-examine the role of religion in the emergence of nationalism in non-Western world.

Major works on nationalism tend to disregard the role of religion. For example, in the influential book entitled Imagined Communities written by Benedict Anderson, the explanation on the role of religion in the emergence of nationalism in Southeast Asia was conspicuously absent. This is perhaps caused by Anderson’s conviction that the importance of the sacred community of religion was declining in the modern world.

Suisheng Zhao deserves much credit for his ability to gather extensive original Chinese written works in this book. It has made the book rich in historical data and first-hand accounts on many aspects of the dynamic of Chinese nationalism.

However, it is pretty strange that in the last pages Suisheng Zhao seems not to be sure about his own argument that ‘pragmatic nationalism’ will result in the peaceful rise of China. He brings up the concept of ‘defensive nationalism’ put forward by Andrew Nathan and Robert Nathan that ‘does not exclude a threat of prejudice and hostility toward other nations’ (p.260). It brings the book back to the square one: Is China a threat or a peaceful partner?



Philips Vermonte, “China-ASEAN Strategic Relations: A View From Jakarta” in James Chin and Nicholas Thomas (Eds.), China and ASEAN: Changing Political and Strategic Ties (Hong Kong: Centre of Asian Studies of the University of Hong Kong, 2001), pp.89-112.

Samuel Kim, “China as a great power”, Current History (vol.96/61, 1997), p.248.

Rizal Sukma, China’s Defense Policy and Security in the Asia Pacific”, The Indonesian Quarterly (CSIS Jakarta, vol.XXIII/1, 1995).

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991).


Satu Tanggapan to “Chinese Nationalism”

  1. University Update Says:

    A Book Review on China

Tinggalkan Balasan

Isikan data di bawah atau klik salah satu ikon untuk log in:


You are commenting using your account. Logout /  Ubah )

Foto Google+

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Logout /  Ubah )

Gambar Twitter

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Logout /  Ubah )

Foto Facebook

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Logout /  Ubah )


Connecting to %s

%d blogger menyukai ini: