Nationalism takes many forms and can mean different things. To be sure, there are benign varieties. But the nationalism on display in Beijing for China’s National Day celebrations is an aggressive assertion of ethnic and cultural superiority—the product of a mission to dominate and exploit lesser nations of the world by a regime in the grip of a personality cult and backed by military and economic might.
While the people of Hong Kong protest against the prospect of being included in this project at the cost of losing their cherished civil freedoms, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has deftly deflected the protestors’ moral challenge to serve its nationalist purposes. The Communist Party exerts overwhelming control over media content inside China, and it is now using that control as a cudgel in an information war over the protests convulsing Hong Kong. Ever since the protests began, the CCP has been stoking mainland popular opinion against the Hong Kongers in order to serve its nationalist goals and thus strengthen its political grip.
The CCP’s efforts to control the Hong Kong narrative have focused on three distinct propaganda tactics: calling the Hong Kong protests “violent riots;” claiming that their goal is independence from the People’s Republic; and asserting that the protests have been orchestrated by the United States and other hostile foreign forces, with the assistance of agitators, including one of the authors of this article (Jianli Yang) and his organization.
These efforts have met with a degree of success in influencing the perceptions of the mainland population, as well as overseas students from the mainland. They have created an alternate, false version of what, seen from Hong Kong, is clearly a popular movement aimed at preserving democracy and the rule of law. In China’s version, a small, violent gang of protesters, unsupported by residents and provoked by foreign agents, is running rampant, calling for Hong Kong’s independence and tearing China apart. Beijing will no doubt spin the recent news and video of Hong Kong police shooting an 18-year-old protestor to fit this narrative.
When the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre ripped the revolutionary façade off of the CCP, the Party was forced to rely exclusively on two sources of legitimacy to maintain power and momentum: high-speed economic development and nationalism. After Xi came to power, China’s economic growth ran up against structural bottlenecks, evidenced by the near collapse of its stock market in 2015. As the country’s declining growth gradually became apparent, Xi Jinping floundered on economic issues, even as he excelled when it came to internal political power struggles. He sought an ideological revival to maintain his power and engineered a political retreat toward Maoism. This has resulted in political repression with echoes of the Cultural Revolution and, in economic terms, a statist program that has come at the expense of private markets. China’s trade war with the United States has left the country’s economic outlook even bleaker.
More than ever, Xi must rely on nationalism to ensure political stability and the legitimacy of the regime. He sees conflicts that incite patriotic fervor as a necessary tool to maintain the common perception that the regime is making the dream of a strong, rejuvenated, and wealthy nation come true. These conflicts are both external and internal; China not only rattles its saber against the United States but also persecutes and demonizes minorities within the People’s Republic—Uighurs and Tibetans, among others. While the demands for freedom and democracy from Hong Kong have threatened to damage the image of a powerful China and Communist Party at a critical moment, they have also presented Xi with an opportunity: stoking anger at the people of Hong Kong, so as to strengthen nationalist sentiment and Communist Party rule.
Two Forms of Chinese Nationalism
The nationalism evident in the October 1 celebrations embodies the transformation of China’s self-understanding and posture toward the world. There are now two distinct forms of modern Chinese nationalism: victimhood and revanchism.
Exploitation by colonial powers in the 19th century, the ruthless conquest of large parts of the country by the Japanese in the 20th, and the Chinese Civil War, an intermittent conflict lasting 22 years and claiming more than three million casualties, left massive scars on the Chinese psyche and a profound sense of victimhood. The Chinese nation had been repeatedly injured and humiliated by others. China was the “sick man of Asia”—a country without national agency, whose fate and destiny appeared beyond control of its own people. Mao also burdened China with atrocities that dwarfed any inflicted by foreign powers, but Chinese nationalism drew from the sense that these were still somehow driven by past injuries, that these atrocities were historically necessary to right the wrongs of capitalist contamination from abroad. What bound the Chinese together and furnished their national identity was their common suffering at the hands of others.
Chinese nationalism has undergone a critical transformation in the past 30 years as China has risen to become the world’s second-largest economy. With this remarkable transformation, the Chinese sense of victimhood has morphed into one of a prideful, arrogant revanchism, built on top of the old feelings of injury and powerlessness. Historically, aggressive nationalism has grown beneath the scars of physical and spiritual wounds; Isaiah Berlin observed that “a wounded Volksgeist is like a bent twig, forced down so severely that when released, it lashes back with fury.”
Under the CCP, and following Deng Xiaoping’s reforms beginning in 1978, China experienced a rapid increase in domestic prosperity, enlarged capacities for international influence, and a resulting renewed sense of national pride. These feelings merged with and energized a desire to punish enemies, both within the country and abroad, for past injuries. China became an international bully, with its diplomats in Brussels, Geneva, and elsewhere often menacing their counterparts with threats or clumsy bribes, even thuggishly disrupting briefings and harassing dissidents abroad, often with impunity.
The Character of China’s Revanchist Nationalism
Clashes around the world between pro-government and pro-Hong Kong demonstrators have opened a window onto the character of the new Chinese nationalism. In Australia, for example, there have been videos of protests at the University of South Australia in Adelaide showing pro-government students chanting “Cao ni ma bi,” or “F*** your mother’s c***” to Hong Kong protesters. In Melbourne, pro-government activists have threatened those supporting Hong Kong with violence, forcing police to form a line separating the groups.
On July 29, pro-Hong Kong demonstrator Serena Lee was pushed to the ground in an on-campus brawl with pro-Beijing students at the University of Auckland. A video showing her fall made media headlines. At the beginning of the video, two mainland Chinese students threatened her on camera, saying: “You cannot win either a physical or a verbal fight, why do you bother to protest?” On August 16, when a demonstrator called out “Hong Kong stay strong,” her slogan was greeted by a large group of mainland Chinese students shouting obscenities in perfect synchronization.
On August 18, a large, diverse group of pro-Hong Kong protesters demonstrated in Boston. The group included local Chinese, Uighurs, Tibetans, Taiwanese, and even mainland Chinese. Local organizer Frances Hui recounted facing threats from mainland Chinese for identifying herself as a Hong Konger, rather than Chinese. One pro-Beijing angrily informed her: “Whoever opposes my greatest China, no matter how far away they are, must be executed.” After the rally, Hui’s car tire was punctured, and the address of the church she attends was posted on WeChat. Another WeChat post showed people praying for pro-Hong Kong activists to be struck dead by lightning on the day of the demonstration, a classic way to curse people in Chinese tradition.
Social media posts on government-approved websites are becoming more aggressive, as well, especially on the subject of the Hong Kong protests. People posting on Weibo, a Chinese social media service similar to Twitter, increasingly call on Beijing to use force. “Beating them to a pulp is not enough,” one person recently said about the protesters, echoing a common sentiment on Weibo. “They must be beaten to death. Just send a few tanks over to clean them up.”
Beijing’s propaganda campaign against Hong Kong intensified after July 21, when protesters surrounded the Chinese government’s main office in Hong Kong and threw black ink on a government emblem; the campaign kicked up another notch on August 3 when a Chinese flag was thrown into Victoria Harbor. The online reaction in mainland China—stirred up by the state media—reached fever pitch. “The five-star flag has 1.4 billion guardians,” China’s state-controlled CCTV posted to its official Weibo account. “Repost! ‘I am a guardian of the flag!’” More than ten million people, including Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong martial arts film star, reposted the message. On Twitter, which is blocked in mainland China, the official account of the People’s Daily later reposted CCTV’s original post, spreading it to international audiences.
Some pro-government demonstrations abroad have mixed ostentatious displays of wealth with threats and profanities. While their comrades in Australia and New Zealand used curses and punches against Hong Kong youth, in August mainland Chinese students in Canada formed convoys of luxury automobiles, displaying Chinese flags and honking their horns in parades in Vancouver and Toronto to confront groups supporting Hong Kong. According to some accounts of pro-Hong Kong marchers, riders in four Lamborghinis held Chinese flags out of windows, yelling, “You poor c**ts, protest? Having no money, how dare you protest?”
The behavior of pro-government protesters in Hong Kong and around the world has sparked calls for greater scrutiny of Chinese influence at universities, including through the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, a Beijing-funded organization that purports to help students adjust to life abroad and has about 150 branches on campuses worldwide. Media in Canada and the United States have published reports that mainland students belonging to the association have coordinated with Chinese consular officials to counter “anti-China” activity abroad. In Australia, after the campus chaos at the University of Queensland, the Chinese consulate in Brisbane issued a statement praising the “spontaneous patriotic behavior of Chinese students.” The message drew a warning from Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who said that foreign diplomats in Australia should not interfere with the right to free speech, even on contentious issues.
Beijing has been successful in exploiting public anger and anxiety in ways that bolster its authority. For years now, the state has been redirecting youth anger in ways that serve the interests of the party. In autumn 2014, Xi Jinping awarded national recognition to a 33-year-old blogger, Zhou Xiaoping, for his “positive energy.” Writing under the moniker “Comrade Zhou Xiaoping,” with half a million followers on Weibo, Zhou has sought to stoke national pride by comparing a rising China to a declining West. Zhang Xiaowu, a 30-year-old novelist who self-identifies as an angry youth who asserts that “China is rising now,” has written that the country needs people like Zhou “to express national self-confidence.”
According to Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, today’s parade in Beijing was bigger than those that commemorated the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the People’s Republic of China, as well as the military parade in 2015 that commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Allied defeat of imperial Japan in 1945. The festivities involved 15,000 soldiers and sailors, 160 fighter jets, bombers, and other aircraft, and 580 tanks and other weapons systems, some of which have never before been seen in public, including the Dongfeng-41, a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile that can allegedly strike multiple targets in the United States in half an hour. The authorities have taken great pains to choreograph the pomp and pageantry so as to demonstrate, first and foremost, that Xi Jinping is the undisputed leader in China, in firm control of the military, in contrast to recent speculation that his position has been weakened by the Hong Kong protests, the U.S.-China trade war, and an economy that is slowing under the weight of centralized control and global forces.
But another important purpose of the parade is to showcase the overwhelmingly positive attitude that ordinary Chinese people have for it. For them the parade symbolizes China’s transition from weakness and victimization into one of the major powers of the world—a state capable of forcing its will on the very foreign powers that pushed it around in the past. The days of “national humiliation” are long gone, and China is finally gaining back the glory it enjoyed hundreds of years ago. Notwithstanding the official posturing that China will lead a new era of international peace and cooperation, the Chinese leadership envisages a world order based on submission to China’s power. And the message of today’s celebrations is that the power that is most readily understood by others is not China’s soft, cultural power, but rather its hard power. The military power on display in Beijing should serve as a stark warning about the dangers of China’s revanchist nationalism, both for the international community and for China’s own people.