Beijing is stoking anti-Western sentiments, and Jamil Anderlini at the Financial Times is concerned:
In liberal democracies with traditions of free speech, vociferous denunciations of these attitudes can act as a counterweight. But in authoritarian countries where alternative narratives are forbidden, official attempts to demonise foreigners and “others” can be especially dangerous. In the past week, the Chinese government has launched several viral online videos that blame “western hostile forces” for a host of ills and supposed conspiracies within China.
The videos are crude but exceptionally powerful in their simplicity and emotional appeal. One video promoted by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and Communist Youth League, two of the most powerful state bodies, begins with heartbreaking scenes of orphans and victims of the wars in Iraq and Syria, and then jumps to an assertion that the west, led by the US, is trying to subject China to the same fate.
“Under the banner of ‘democracy, freedom and rule of law’ western forces are constantly trying to create societal contradictions in order to overthrow the [Chinese] government,” the subtitles read over pictures of democracy protesters in Hong Kong and President Barack Obama meeting the Dalai Lama.
According to the video, western plots and the “dark shadow of the Stars and Stripes” are also to blame for everything from attacks on Chinese peacekeepers in Africa, to farmers’ riots in China’s hinterland, to the Tibetan independence movement. The effect is heightened by ominous music and juxtaposition of chaos elsewhere with heroic images of Chinese soldiers and weaponry.
It’s worrying stuff, and continues a trend we’ve had our eye on for some time. The piece has many more examples too, and you should read the whole thing to get a feel for just how heated the rhetoric has become.
Anderlini fears that China’s rising jingoism signals an end to the openness that enabled China to grow, and it certainly looks that way. But it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that even though a hostile and xenophobic attitude isn’t good for investment and the economy, it’s also a consequence of slowing growth. As China’s economy enters rougher waters, Xi Jinping and his allies are looking for a new grip on power. Since at least the 1980s, sustained economic growth has formed the basis for Communist leadership. But as growth slows, the old springs of popularity are drying up. No longer can the Party promise higher wages and more jobs, better living accommodations and faster trains. So China’s leaders are looking to tap into other sources: nationalism, rather vague paeans to Marxism, and certain “traditional” variants of Confucianism.
In order to stem the nationalist tide (and avoid the temptation to ride it), China would have to fix its economy. The problem is that no one seems to know how to do that.
It’s no wonder the Party is playing up anti-Americanism and national identity as it seeks to strengthen the basis for Communist rule in a period of economic turmoil.