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Perpetuating Humiliation - The Reemergence of Chinese Nationalism After 1989

The political and moral collapse of Communist regimes throughout the world in 1989 marked the beginning of a new era in global geopolitics. At that time, it seemed as if the capitalist-democratic Western system had triumphed and all countries in the world were destined sooner or later to accept the allegedly irrefutable verdict of history. Very few people would have bet on the survival of the CCP in China, or on the success of Deng Xiaoping's reform programme. The PRC appeared like a dying relic of a past age.

The true meaning of the year 1989 remained inscrutable to those who didn't want to see. Western bias was too strong. In 1989 a new China was born; a China that combined East Asian-style developmentalist economic policies, autocratic statehood, and nationalist ideology. 

The CCP regime survived the collapse of the Soviet bloc because the path it chose was different from that of its Communist 'brothers'. The PRC had already in the late 1970s embarked on a period of reforms, of internal renewal, and of gradual but thorough change. Economically, the PRC shifted from a planned economy to a mixed economy that combines market forces and state intervention; politically, it shifted from a totalitarian dictatorship based on personality cult to an authoritarian semi-liberal regime; ideologically, it shifted from Communism to nationalism. 

Post-Tiananmen China and the Resurgence of Nationalism

'Patriotism' has always played a major role within the Communist Party of China. In 1938, Mao Zedong had explained that patriotism was an important element in the fight against Japan:

Can a Communist, who is an internationalist, at the same time be a patriot? We hold that he not only can be but must be. The specific content of patriotism is determined by historical conditions. There is the "patriotism" of the Japanese aggressors and of Hitler, and there is our patriotism. [T]he wars launched by the Japanese aggressors and Hitler are harming their own people as well as the people of the world. China's case is different, because she is the victim of aggression. Chinese Communists must therefore combine patriotism with internationalism. We are at once internationalists and patriots, and our slogan is, "Fight to defend the motherland against the aggressors" (note).

Nevertheless, nationalism and patriotism were not the main forces behind Mao Zedong's political agenda. Under his leadership, the Chinese people were ideologically aligned with the Communist worldview. As a matter of fact, Mao Zedong recommended the study of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin to Communist party cadres (ibid.). On the other hand, Chinese pre-Communist history and society were regarded as 'feudal', 'reactionary', or 'bourgeois'. Old Chinese customs and ways of life had to be eliminated, Chinese classical literature and philosophy as well as religious beliefs were rejected. Therefore, Mao's PRC strove to mobilise and educate the people through Communism and revolutionary class struggle rather than through nationalism. 

When Deng Xiaoping came to power after Mao Zedong's death, he - more or less consciously - set about the task of de facto dismantling the existing Communist system in China. He introduced market reforms and loosened totalitarian control of the people. By doing so, he admitted the failure of the Maoist system and created an ideological vacuum. 

Deng Xiaoping never really gave a coherent definition of 'socialism'. After 1989 he was even criticised for having placed too much emphasis on material wealth and for having underestimated the importance of ideology. Deng's statement that it is difficult to distinguish socialism from capitalism was regarded as a betrayal of Marxist doctrine (Chinese Nationalism in the Global Era, Christopher R. Hughes 2006, p. 56). Deng said that Singapore (a capitalist country) was a model for China to follow in the pursuit of the right path to economic development. Deng therefore de facto repudiated the theories of Karl Marx and replaced them with the pragmatism of Lee Kuan Yew (see ibid., p. 65).

Deng was a deeply nationalist politician. As early as in the 1980s he had made clear that the major tasks that lay before him were strengthening the nation and reforming the economy. In January 1980 Deng Xiaoping outlined in a speech before the Central Committee the three main goals of his policy: 'oppose hegemonism and strive to preserve world peace', strive ' for the return of Taiwan to the motherland for China's unification', and 'step up economic construction' (ibid., p. 14). Modernising the Chinese economy was a task of nation-building, a way to make China strong as a regional power.

However, Deng didn't develop nationalism into a coherent government-led movement. It was only after the Tiananmen Incident in 1989 that the CCP rediscovered nationalism as a means to strengthen its own rule and unite the people who had lost faith in Communism and therefore did not identify with the government any longer (Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary China, Yingjie Guo 2004 , pp. 24-25).

After Tiannanmen, many CCP leaders came to see the lack of patriotism and the spreading of Western ideas as the main cause of the popular uprising that threatened to overthrow the regime. Song Ping (born in 1917), an official in the Chinese Communist Party and a former member of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, argued that 'bourgeois liberalization' contravened the Marxist political line, and that Tiananmen was 'the bitter fruit of violating this line'. He also believed that 'bourgeois liberalization' encouraged a 'cultural nihilism' or 'national nihilism' that "saw nothing of value and nothing worth loving in anything Chinese" (ibid., p. 27).
Paradoxically, the Chinese leaders seem to have been faithful to Confucius' maxims on governing. "Make food supplies sufficient, provide an adequate army, and give the people reason to have faith", had Confucius once said. When one of his disciples asked him which one of these three things was the most important, Confucius replied that it was faith. "Since ancient times, death has always occurred," explained he, "but people without faith cannot stand" ( Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2nd Ed, p. 21). 

Communist party cadres, too, believed that the main evil in China was the lack of faith. The most prominent advocate of this interpretation was Jiang Zemin. When he became General Secretary on June 1989, he stated that it would be wrong to think that the rise in standard of living alone would suffice to maintain political stability. He argued that consumerism, selfishness, the pursuit of material wealth and the worship of foreign things led the people to neglect the interests of the nation (Hughes 2006, p. 57).

Jiang believed that media and education should play a major role in instilling patriotism in the people. He told "newsworkers that they had a responsibility to stimulate a spirit of nationalist pride, self-confidence and activism, and to educate society in patriotism, socialism, collectivism, self-reliance, hard struggle, and nation-building." (ibid.).

In a report from April 1990, the Education Commission emphasized the anti-Western elements of these patriotic campaigns, stating that education had to be defended against foreign and domestic opponents of socialism (ibid.).

Jiang Zemin used symbolic moments such as the 150th anniversary of the Opium War or the Nanjing Massacre to stir up patriotic and anti-foreign sentiment, declaring that socialism and patriotism are by nature the same (benshi shang shi tongyi de) (ibid., p. 58).

Patriotic education was accompanied by a new wave of repression and limitations on individual expression. Most especially the students, who had been at the forefront of social activism, were controlled more tightly through a new code of conduct that came into effect on 17 November 1989. The first article of the code stated that students must 'safeguard the interests of the motherland' and must not take part in 'any activities that harm the dignity and honour of the motherland' (Guo 2004, p. 26).

The term 'rejuvenation of the nation', or 'Chinese rejuvenation' (zhenxing zhonghua), is not an invention of Xi Jinping. It was reintroduced in the Chinese political discourse by Li Ruihuan, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, in the late 1980s. The term had been coined by Sun Yat-sen, the 'Father' of modern Chinese nationalism, and was borrowed by subsequent Chinese leaders (see Hughes 2004, p. 59; A Nation-State by Construction: Dynamics of Modern Chinese Nationalism, Suisheng Zhao 2004, p. 12). For example, in one of his essays KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek explained: 

The aim of the New Life Movement is ... the social regeneration of China ... These four virtues [propriety, loyalty, integrity, honour] were highly respected by the Chinese people in the past, and they are vitally necessary now, if the rejuvenation of the nation is to be effected (The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China, Jannah Pakula 2009, p. 232).

Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Xi Jinping have also used this term to stress the importance of 'nation-building'.

National Humiliation As The Source of Chinese Nationalism

Nationalism and its sources vary in different countries. However, in many cases one can easily find that humiliation and suffering are used as driving forces to stir up nationalist sentiments. For example, in Germany the humiliation of defeat and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles were repeated like a mantra to mobilise the masses. 

As Jing Tsu has noted, in China the period of national humiliation has become a major source of nationalism, and the collective memory of that humiliation is vital to maintain the legitimacy of the current regime. Paradoxically, the CCP elites don't want the Chinese people to forget the past national disgrace. "By keeping alive China's humiliation as a nation, one can properly keep intact one's passion for its survival. The urgency of national salvation is forever preserved as the most promising possibility for the nation" (Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895-1937, Jing Tsu 2005, p. 11). It is interesting that while the CCP has done its utmost to erase the memory of the Tiananmen Incident and to downplay as much as possible the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution, it has encouraged the memorialisation of the sufferings inflicted upon China by foreign powers. This strategy is instrumental to the legitimisation of the CCP. The preservation of the memory of past national humiliation is what Jing Tsu calls the "rhetoric of failure":

Out of a real political failure marked by imperial decline, military defeats, foreign occupations, and infelicitous reforms, a different order of failure emerged in the late nineteenth century. The rhetoric of failure incorporated defeat into a narrative of resilience. Inaugurated by the tumultuous history of late imperial and Republican China, failure elaborates on historicity through a rhetorical mode of overcoming and regeneration (ibid., pp. 7-8).

Already in the 19th century, and most especially after the Second Opium War, the Sino-Japanese War, and the Boxer Rebellion, Chinese elites struggled to create a nationalist programme that would strengthen China. This debate led to a "nationalist quest for China's regeneration to blot out humiliation at the hands of imperialists. [T]hrough an exclusive and continuous nationalist discourse, China's collective recollection of 'one hundred years of suffering and humiliations' in a Social Darwinian world has become ingrained in the national psyche" (Zhao 2004, p. 12). 

The power of the nationalist rhetoric lies in the fact that the destiny of the nation and the destiny of the individual are seen as interdependent. The connection between nationalism and the individual is the sense of shame that one feels for the weakness of its own nation and the identification with that sense of shame. As a result, the feelings of anger and shame create the urgency to act and mobilise collective forces in order to eradicate the roots of national weakness. By making the nation great, one makes oneself great. But if the nation is weak, the individual, too, feels hurt in his own self-esteem.

Anti-foreignism and the Perpetuation of National Humiliation

Anti-foreign sentiments have been at the core of modern Chinese nationalism from the very beginning. Sun Yat-sen, for example, expressed fears that the Chinese nation could be destroyed if it didn't resist foreign aggression by strengthening herself. All modern Chinese leaders have inherited this form of defensive, anti-foreign sentiment.

After 1989 education campaigns targeted at students have sought to rekindle nationalist feelings in order to "rejuvenate China's national spirit, to strengthen the unity of the Chinese people of different ethnic groups, to reconstruct a sense of national esteem and dignity, and to build the broadest possible coalition under the leadership of the CCP" (Zhao 2004, p. 9).

In the late phase of the Cold War China had not been perceived as a major threat by the US, both because of its backwardness and also because it didn't seem entirely hostile to the West. In the 1970s the US and the PRC normalised relations to form an anti-Soviet axis, and in this triangular constellation of the Cold War era the two giants were not opposed, but sought to work together. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union the geopolitical situation changed radically. China was the last surviving Communist superpower, and in the wake of Western triumphalism China came to be perceived as an anachronistic, but dangerous and inhumane regime that tried to perpetuate a system that history had unambiguously condemned (ibid., p. 10).

In 1989 and in the following years the PRC struggled for its very survival. While the domestic situation was explosive and Deng Xiaoping saw his leadership weakened, the West added to the fears of the CCP by imposing sanctions in the wake of Tiananmen. The CCP leadership reacted by accusing "a small number of Western countries" of containing China and putting pressure on her to pursue Westernisation and disintegration. Furthermore, the CCP argued that Western antagonism was motivated by its fear lest China may become a powerful nation (Zhao 2004, p. 9). 

Post-Cold War Western hubris and the actual mounting fears of an industrialising and growing China seemed to confirm this conspiracy theory. In the 1990s we observe an interesting and somewhat paradoxical phenomenon. Chinese anti-foreign propaganda and Chinese public opinion start to converge. In the 1980s, disillusion with the government had led many Chinese to idealise the West and to mistrust PRC propaganda. While prior to 1989 there was a wide gap between propaganda and public opinion, this gap increasingly closed in the 1990s. 

As more and more Chinese visited the West, and as more information from abroad became available in China, people found out that many of the things that official propaganda said about the West were true (see Thomas Buoye / Kirk Denton / Bruce Dickson / Barry Naughton / Martin K. White (edit.): China. Adapting the Past, Confronting the Future. Ann Arbor, Michigan 2002, pp. 159-160).

Books published in the 1990s seemed to confirm not only Western hubris, but also the suspicion that the West saw China as an enemy. Among the most notorious publications were Francis Fukuyama: The End of History and the Last Man, Samuel P. Huntington: The Clash of Civilisations, Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro: The Coming Conflict with China, and an article published in 1995 on Time Magazine entitled Why We Must Contain China, by Charles Krauthammer (Zhao 2004, p. 10).

The response to such books were Chinese publications such as The China That Can Say No, an anti-American book written by a group of Chinese intellectuals, which sold more than two million copies in 1996; and Behind the Demonisation of China, published in 1997. These books were not commissioned by the Chinese government. They were the spontaneous reactions of Chinese scholars, some of whom had studied or worked in the United States, and who used to admire the West, but who became disillusioned with American treatment of China and shifted to nationalistic positions (Buoye / Denton / Dickson et al. 2002, pp. 159-160).

Nationalism thus became the ideology that helped the CCP maintain its legitimacy and find an emotional connection with the people. How did the CCP achieve this? Simply by portraying the Communist state "as the embodiment of the nation's will, seeking for its goals the kind of loyalty and support granted the nation itself" (ibid., p. 161).

Love China, Love The Communist Motherland

The CCP aims at monopolising the national discourse. It propagates the idea that China and Communist China are the same thing, and that loving China means loving the PRC. Whoever doesn't love the PRC is therefore a traitor. Through this simplistic rhetorical trick the CCP has put the whole Chinese population before a choice: you either support the CCP and the nation; or you are an enemy of the CCP and the nation, a traitor.

This identification of China with the PRC is demonstrated by the following 'Message to Compatriots in Taiwan', which was issued by the National People's Congress on January 1, 1979:

Every Chinese, in Taiwan or on the mainland, has a compelling responsibility for the survival, growth and prosperity of the Chinese nation (minzu) [...] If we do not quickly set about ending this disunity so that our motherland is reunified at an early date, how can we answer our ancestors and explain to our descendants? This sentiment is shared by all. Who among the descendants of the Yellow Emperor wishes to go down in history as a traitor? (Hughes 2006, p. 18).

The nationalist rhetoric even employs the image of the mythical 'Yellow Emperor', a theme that had emerged in the nationalist discourse of the late Qing and of the Republican era. The individual has no choice. The CCP has decided what China is and who a true patriot is. The CCP creates and imposes identity. 

Addressing the people of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, Deng Xiaoping made it clear that to him and the PRC leadership there is only one China, and that the motherland and the PRC are the same thing:

Is loving the motherland something abstract? If you don't love new China led by the Communist Party, what motherland do you love? We do not ask all our patriotic compatriots in Xianggang (Hong Kong) and Aomen (Macao) and in Taiwan and abroad to support socialism, but at the least, they should not oppose socialist New China. Otherwise, how can they be called patriotic? (ibid., pp. 18-19).

According to Guo Yingjie, however, this rhetoric masks the CCP's self-interest: 

Serious as the CCP may be in its pursuit of national unity, national identity and national autonomy, its first and foremost consideration is its own position as the ruling party rather than the nation [...] By [...] defining the content of 'patriotism' and determining the connection between act and patriotic behaviour, the Party-state seeks to create a collective identity which serves as the means by which individual members relate to each other in a way that suits the Party. Such a collective identity places the individual under the obligation of collective purpose as expressed by the Party (Guo 2004, pp. 29-30).

It becomes evident that the CCP's use of nationalistic themes is partly motivated by the desire to gain support from the people and replace Communist doctrine through something that can create an emotional connection between the party and the people. To this effect, the very 'feudal' Chinese tradition that Mao had tried to destroy has been rediscovered and reintegrated into China's national discourse and education. Confucianism was revived, and monuments such as the Great Wall were employed as symbols of a proud China and her ancient civilisation (Zhao 2004, p. 9). 

But because the theoretical foundations of such a transformation are extremely weak, the party has deliberately kept the debate about nationalism as vague and blurred as possible. Concepts such as patriotism, nationalism, socialism and Communism are seldom seriously discussed, because such a discussion would obviously reveal the fragility and the contradictions of the CCP's ideology.

These contradictions are revealed by a statement made by Jiang Zemin at the end of 1993, in which he described Deng Xiaoping's theory of 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' as the 'continuation and development of Mao Zedong Thought, Marxism for the present age, the great banner for our socialist venture and the mighty spiritual pillar of the revival of the Chinese nation (minzu)' (Hughes 2006, pp. 68-69).

Chinese nationalism is therefore an important component in today's CCP ideology, and it is perhaps the only truly coherent ideological element left to a party that is Communist only in name. There is no doubt that this form of nationalism is partly directed against other nations, at least in dialectical terms, and that it possesses aggressive features. In this respect, nationalism serves the CCP well. It is a force that unites, creates clear objectives, and mobilises the forces to achieve them. The West, however, should not react to Chinese nationalism with fear. It should not contain China. It should rather strengthen itself through economic development and formulate its own objectives, which must and cannot be the simplistic and supercilious dreams of world hegemony.


  1. Hi I received more than 20 years education in China. I think I'm qualified to say: they didn't and don't propagate that loving China means lovine the PRC. They are just trying to recruit more friends who either love China or love the PRC.


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