Dangers of Anti-Foreign Nationalism in China

Dangers of Anti-Foreign Nationalism in China

Popular anti-foreign sentiments have been an important part of modern China’s historical interactions with the outside world, from the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century to nationwide street protests against Japan in 2012. In recent years, nationalism has been cited as a key factor in the PRC’s more assertive foreign policy behavior. Some commentators have argued that popular nationalism is increasingly intense, and that officials may be increasingly responsive to public pressure. It is true that such sentiments play an increasingly important role, but the reasons have little do with either increasing levels of nationalism amongst the populace or official responsiveness to public opinion. Instead, this influence stems from the contradictions of party propaganda, a narrowing in the sources of Party legitimacy, and the content (or more accurately, vacuity) of modern Chinese nationalism itself. Together, these factors make anti-foreign nationalism in China even more worrisome than previously thought.

The Perils of Propaganda

The Chinese Communist Party has long nurtured two contradictory beliefs among the people: the Party is guiding China to prosperity, stability, and strength, and yet China has been and continues to be victimized by aggressive foreigners, who are basically to blame for many of China’s difficulties. In the past, resolving this contradiction often meant seeking the type of “spiritual victories” famously satirized by Lu Xun in his fictional character Ah Q, who convinces himself of his innate superiority while being humiliated repeatedly by others. Today, though, the Party’s own successes have made the contradiction in messaging increasingly untenable. With each new announcement of increasing Chinese prowess – sea trials of its first aircraft carrier, its growth to become the second-largest aggregate economy on earth, China’s rise as the third space-faring nation, and so on – Chinese citizens wonder why the government cannot use this newfound strength to finally achieve the diplomatic ends so long promised. For instance, if an unrepentant, militaristic Japan is completely at fault for creating the disputes in the East China Sea, why then wouldn’t the PRC be justified in using its impressive new military capabilities to finally resolve the situation? The public’s beliefs have not necessarily changed, but they now expect the government to live up to the expectations it has created. This dynamic threatens to erode popular support for Chinese state policies in foreign affairs, already considered by many to be unduly “soft.” And yet, neither hand can let go: in state propaganda, the Party can only lead the nation to greatness, and foreigners must continue to threaten China. This is so precisely because of the legitimacy crisis the Party faces.

Legitimate Problems

Lacking elections or other mechanisms to indicate mass support, the CCP bases its right to rule on three main pillars: “performance legitimacy” derived from economic growth, socialist ideology that makes the Party the guiding force for national development, and nationalist, anti-foreign bona fides stretching back to the war against Japan. However, the first two pillars are under increasing strain. Despite an impressive record of economic success, the CCP feels little more secure in its rule today than it did ten or twenty years ago. While millions may be grateful to be living more prosperous lives than was possible in the Maoist era, millions more now feel anger at economic disparities, massive official corruption, and everyday injustices like the household registration system that inhibit personal success in the modern economy. Moreover, hundreds of millions now belong to the post-1980 and post-1990 (balinghou and jiulinghou) generations who have no memory of previous struggles, further undermining the expected performance legitimacy gains due to economic growth. Simultaneously, socialist ideology has all but collapsed among the public with the abandonment of the planned economy, reform and dismantling of many state-owned enterprises, and shifts in Party dogma to allow a role for entrepreneurs and businessmen. Here, too, the rising youth have little attachment to Party-led socialist ideals given their upbringing in a period of capitalist hyper-materialism. President Xi Jinping has made efforts to address these problems with the ongoing and highly-visible anti-corruption campaign, promotion of the “China Dream” and “socialist core values” concepts, and a major bureaucratic restructuring to more effectively control the online environment now inhabited by so many youth. Yet, the anti-corruption campaign may only be serving to further publicize astonishing corruption at all levels of the Party, and no number of stilted street-side posters proclaiming “socialist core values” will revive the ideological foundations of the past. This leaves the CCP increasingly dependent on and sensitive to nationalism, the only strand of public support which has not faced serious challenge in recent years.

A Narrow Nationalism

A reliance on nationalism per se is not inherently dangerous: nationalism can take many forms, ranging from a benign patriotic pride to virulent xenophobia. Unfortunately for both China and the world, the content of modern Chinese nationalism is now focused on anti-foreign narratives that create useful enemies in service of Party legitimacy. The problem for the CCP is that few alternatives for nationalist content exist. China’s rich legacy of ethical and political philosophy was repudiated and suppressed by the Party itself during the Cultural Revolution, and more recent government efforts to revive interest in figures like Confucius merely appear ham-fisted and insincere. Communist leaders dare not allow popular legitimacy to reside in state institutions or cultural values independent of the Party. Relations between the Han-dominated state and minority citizens continue to deteriorate. In short, Chinese nationalism is devoid of any purely “pro-China” narrative. Instead, conflicts and resentments involving others, primarily Japan and the United States, allow the CCP to shift public focus away from domestic challenges and questions about Party legitimacy. Thus, hundreds of anti-Japanese television programs and movies have been produced over the past few years and play constantly on state channels, and any hopes of fundamentally changing the pattern of interactions between China and Japan have been sacrificed for domestic political concerns. But this is less a coherent strategy than an eventuality: given its own prior propaganda messaging, lack of ready substitutes, and numerous social challenges, the job of unifying the public behind the CCP can only fall to external threats.


The combination of rising expectations in accord with the CCP’s own propaganda, a lack of alternative routes to legitimacy, and the narrowly anti-foreign focus of Chinese nationalism means that we should expect officials to behave as though they care more strongly about nationalist sentiments, regardless of their personal beliefs or the “true” state of public opinion. Worryingly, these factors also mean that such sentiments cannot be easily dampened via state manipulation in the same way that they have been encouraged: they are simply too important to the Party’s continued control. In the past, analysts proposed that a sufficiently large nationalist shock, such as an outright loss of Taiwan, could threaten the Communist regime itself. As economic growth slows and the Party relies more heavily on the anti-foreign narratives it has fostered, situations in which the leadership feels compelled to present a tough stance may become more numerous. This is a dynamic to which other powers can only adapt, so long as the key factors driving China’s anti-foreign nationalism remain unchanged.

Jackson Woods is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at GWU. His dissertation research examines online public opinion in China, especially around foreign policy events, and government management of the Internet and social media. This article is based in part on field interviews conducted in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong during June and July 2015 with the generous support of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies.