The Contours of Xi’s Chinese Nationalism

07 Dec, 2018    ·   5531

Palden Sonam explores the motivations behind the emerging narrative of nationalism in China and explores its manifestations in policy choices

Palden Sonam
Palden Sonam
Researcher, China Research Programme (CRP)

After China’s President Xi Jinping announced the ‘China Dream of Great National Rejuvenation’, the Communist Party of China (CPC) identified three important stages of development under three different leaderships: the Chinese people “stood up” under Mao Zedong; “became rich” under Deng Xiaoping; and are “becoming powerful” under Xi. Since Mao’s and Deng’s eras are long gone, naturally, Xi is the focus of this propaganda.

With his rise as the CPC’s core leader, Xi has embraced an authoritarian form of nationalism based on his strongman leadership in the quest to transform China into a ‘Great Power’, and has positioned nationalism as a route to realising the ‘China Dream’. The objectives of this Dream are expected to be achieved by 2049, coinciding with the 100th founding anniversary of the People’s Republic. To that end, the narrative of Chinese nationalism is anchored in two pillars: cultivating public support for the CPC leadership to achieve the China Dream; and delivering on some of the promises made in the China Dream with the underlying objective of increasing regime legitimacy and longevity.

The ‘strong leader’ and ‘powerful nation’ narrative appeals to China’s domestic population, which has for long been indoctrinated with memories of a ‘Century of Humiliation’. This historical sense of victimhood and imposed inferiority makes Chinese citizens susceptible to falling for a belligerent form of nationalism that promises national power and pride. It is in this context that Xi’s ‘China Dream’ must be understood, in order to comprehend the long-term objectives of such nationalism, foremost of which is securing and sustaining the CPC’s authority. Additionally, the different strategies Xi deploys to boost a Party-authored version of nationalism too must be viewed in conjunction with his ‘China Dream’.

Equating the Party and the ‘Nation’
Under Xi, China has witnessed a resurgence of ideological nationalism where the party is projected not only as the guardian of Chinese nationalism but also as the guarantor of China’s future. Xi demands public confidence in the party’s path and theory and his ‘Xi Jinping Thought’. In 2013, the Party further tightened its grip on Universities and prohibited discussions on matters such as free press and civil rights, branding them as ‘Western values’. In 2014, Xi called on Chinese artists to serve the masses and to aim for ideological success.

At the core of this ideological nationalism is the Party’s centrality in the Chinese state and society; and at core of the Party is Xi himself, as the new helmsman. In August 2018, the CPC launched a campaign to promote a “patriotic striving spirit" among the country's young and middle-aged intellectuals, to rally support for the party. By fusing the party and the ‘nation’ as one, Xi is attempting to cultivate a worldview that to love the CPC is to love the ‘nation’, and to serve the Party is to serve the people. Any criticism against the CPC is therefore considered anti-national and illegal—as is visible in the increasing repression of Chinese dissidents often on charges of subverting state power. This ideological nationalism also demands more ideological conformity and appreciation of his Thought from all sections of the society.

‘Great Technological Leap Forward’
Through what is being referred to as ‘techno-nationalism’, Xi is attempting to induce patriotic pride through China’s technological success as well as ambition. The underlying strategic logic is that whoever dominates the future of technologies such as artificial intelligence will also dominate other critical sectors such as security and economy. Beijing’s eagerness and thrust to win the technological race is evident in the Made in China 2025 (MIC2025) strategic plan, and is reinforced by the 2018 propaganda film, Amazing China, which extols China’s technological achievements during Xi’s first term.

However, it is the former that sparked the clash of techno-nationalists in China and the US which culminated in a trade war. The objective of the MIC2025 is to transform China from a giant to a power in technological manufacturing and innovation by 2025, and a leading power in high-technology and innovation by 2049. This ‘great technological leap forward’ has been launched with a combination of vast resources and a nationalistic rhetoric of making China a tech superpower. Consequently, the US’ persistent pressure to modify MIC2025 will likely be seen as another form of national humiliation.

External Geopolitics and Internal Regime Support
Xi uses geopolitical issues to generate nationalistic attitudes as another means to garner support for the regime. Under his leadership, China has, in both posturing and actions, intensified its claims over disputed territories extending from the East China Sea to the Himalayan borders.

He vowed to never cede “an inch of Chinese territory” and complete the ‘national reunification’ involving Taiwan. Geopolitical tensions have been ratcheted up with China’s neighbours due to Beijing’s increasing activities to assert control over disputed areas, such as through the establishment of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea; the development of artificial islands in the South China Sea; the construction of a strategic road along the borders with India and Bhutan; and belligerent military drills targeting Taiwan. Simultaneously, Beijing has also accelerated its military modernisation with the objective of developing world class military prowess. More recently, Xi called on China’s Southern Theatre Command (which monitors the South China Sea and Taiwan) to get ready for war.

Looking Ahead
While the ‘Century of Humiliation’ discourse continues to be a powerful component of the CPC-tailored Chinese nationalism, Xi’s “great goal of national rejuvenation” is an important addition that may change the future narrative of Chinese nationalism from one driven by collective historical memory of humiliation to one driven by a collective aspiration to be the next superpower. Moreover, given China’s growing influence in the world, the CPC might view Xi’s triumphalism as a more effective strategy to shore-up regime-oriented nationalism.