As violent protests rolled across China earlier this week over a Japanese provocation at the disputed Senkaku islands, a casual observer might be tempted to conclude that the nationalism inside a rising China is some kind of implacable, rabid force which could tear the region apart. And while nationalism certainly exists—and shouldn’t be trifled with—a recent article in The Atlantic (h/t Tyler Cowen) paints a far more nuanced picture of what is really going on.In the aftermath of the protests, a question was posted on Weibo, China’s most popular social network:
“If your child were born on the Diaoyu Islands, what nationality would you pick for him/her: Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong or the mainland?” (The islands, also known as the Senkakus in Japan, are claimed by China, Taiwan, and Japan.) It went viral on Sunday, retweeted over 20,000 times in nine hours before censors took it down around midnight. The surprising results would seem to contradict the popular anti-Japanese protests, undercut the government’s efforts to stoke patriotism, and may well baffle outside observers: Chinese respondents overwhelmingly picked places other than mainland China. Around 40 percent answered Taiwan, followed by Hong Kong with about 25 percent, followed by Japan. Mainland China was the least popular option. A formal poll, set up on Weibo after the original post was pulled, returned similar results, with Japan at 20 percent and the mainland at 15.Why would the same citizens seen campaigning in the streets for China’s right to the islands seemingly contradict their own nationalist sentiment by voting to raise their hypothetical child “anywhere but [on] the mainland”?
The Atlantic continues:
The same Chinese nationalism that drives citizens to stand up for their native land when outside forces challenge it could also sharpen their pain when they observe the depressingly wide gap between China as it is and China as they wish it could be. Some of the Weibo poll respondents suggested that, although they might have grudgingly picked Taiwan or Hong Kong or even Japan for their child’s hypothetical nationality, it wounded them not to choose mainland China as they wished they could. Therein lies the common ground between the nationalism of the Diaoyu marches and what you might call the national humility on display in the Weibo poll.
The article is worth reading in full to get a sense for some of the poll respondents’ comments. And it’s worth noting here that America’s pivot to Asia is not simply a question of military containment of China. The goal is to attract the great societies of Asia into a stable, liberal world order. Articles like this one indicate that there is ample opportunity for us to engage with China’s proud people, who both love their country but also want a better future for their children than their country is currently able to provide.We need to keep our eye on the ball. America’s goal isn’t to impose an Asian order on China against the will of China’s people. America’s goal in Asia is to promote the emergence of an Asian security and trade system that allows all the peoples of the region, mainland China residents very much included, to build the kind of future they want.The secret weapon behind America’s Asia policy is simple: the Asia we want aligns very closely with the Asia that most Asians also want and so to some extent, America’s Asia policy involves pushing a snowball downhill. Freedom, prosperity, security. We want those things for Asians because their success and prosperity creates the best possible conditions for us to enjoy these blessings for ourselves.Implementing this policy is going to be a difficult task that requires hard work, some risk and expense, and very thoughtful and careful policy. It requires us to deepen our knowledge of and connections with all of Asia. But no policy offers more promise in Asia and there is no viable long term alternative.