Talking about Nationalism, Occidentals obviously use a term that is strictly connected with their culture, just because the concept of ‘Nation’ was elaborated (invented is too rude, but maybe also appropriate) in this part of the world. There should be memory of how European nations have taken form, anyway we should go back to the end of the XVIII century and the beginning of the XIX century and look at the spread of those thoughts that were going to be used to justify invasions of territories and also wars (1). The idea of State-Nation, that Europe has connected with ancient Greece, was in the end, and perhaps continues to be in a more subtle way, a field of legitimacy in order to justify in primis the need of showing power to the enemies, but also a sticky land in which the entire population is submerged.
In China we find instead a pure contradiction in terms, mainly because the concept of ‘nation’ was introduced in China via Japan at the end of the XIX century under the pressure of some reformist thinkers: as we already said, the term was imported, and now we strike against the evidence of a misleading translation. Nationalism as 民族主义 mínzúzhǔyì (nation based on ethnies) or 爱国主义 àiguózhǔyì (patriotism), ‘national’ as 国民的 guómínde (statal), 全国性的quánguóxìngde (of all the territory), 国有的 guóyǒude (nationalized), 国籍的 guójíde (to indicate the membership to a territory). With such a rich vocabulary it is of course very easy to fall into a misunderstanding; nevertheless on the basis of all these terms and concepts we could try to define what represents Nationalism in China nowadays and how it is explained in everyday life.
Like in all the noteworthy civilizations, present China looks at its past history as a source of memory and legitimacy, in particular we see a new vigorous impulse by the central party in promoting the “building of an harmonious society” 和谐社会 that should embrace the entire world, “all under the sky” 天下tiánxià. This sort of messianic profecy reveals in facts a much more pragmatic message, that could be somehow linked with the corresponding Occidental “Imperialism”: if China calls for a more harmonic world and proposes itself as a guide in the transition to a better world, on the other hand its policy reveals its hegemonic intentions, in particular territorialy speaking in South-East Asia, and in the subtler way of the market dominance in the rest of the world. The Tianxia has been existed in the Chinese collective imaginery from centuries, and now returns in auge as embodiment of what is called ‘China Dream’ 中国梦zhōngguómèng, as Xi Jingping explicated in his first speech on November 2012 (2). It is in this scope that we can insert the ‘policy of reunification’ made by China mainland to Taiwan: on the basis of Qing maps, which represent the island under the dynastic domain, PRC claims for a reunion of territories, passing over any national willingness to independence. We see then a certain chaos between land and nation; nevertheless we are in the ‘era of the nations’, that we created, and connections should be done inside this regime.
Legitimacy is also another key point in Chinese history: how could we forget the enduring presence in the centuries of the 天命tiánmìng concept, the Mandate of Heaven, through which the Emperor obtained the legitimacy to rule? Searching for a new balance in the actual political frame, that is so far away from the ideological struggles of the past, it seems clear that the Party is working on the construction of the Chinese identity to find among the population enough support for its existance. Identity includes also the necessity to define national interests, and therefore foreign policy is strictly involved in this process. Within this context what generates interest now is the new vocabulary emerging from party members speeches; dusting off terms like复兴 fùxīng, revive or renaissance, is a political fact and it marks an undoubted line, letting other political thoughts away from orthodox narrative (we refer for instance to the striking example of Bo Xilai project to rehabilitate Maoism in the political scene) (3).
It is meaningfull the use of special characters that the Party does nowadays, because many of them derive directly from the Qing dinasty, a period in the Chinese history that has been always depicted with decadent and vicious tones. It is clear that the central government is trying to reevaluate the last two centuries, enforcing the idea that China has been a victim and has suffered because of the presence of foreign forces. This kind of political view, the victimism, was forcely rejected by Mao Zedong while promoting PRC as a big power in the South of the world. We see the appearance on the streets of slogans such as 勿忘国耻 wù wàng guóchǐ (do not forget national humiliation), regarding to the dispute emerged between China and Japan on Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Even if it was not the government leading the protest, it has however done nothing to ban these or other racial demonstrations. Control and silence make the Party sure of its choices, keeping on dancing in the nebulous land of material interests and spiritual uncertainty, in which Chinese population live their daily life.
Is it a sign of political weakness? Or rather an instrument to divert the attention from internal problems or eventually sources of discontent to outer conflicts? Afterall political weapons should not surprise anymore, particularly since the Chinese showed openly to study Machiavelli (4). Ambiguous attitudes let the Party lead a big country, while winning over historical pragmatism and over a legitimacy with shamanic flavour. It seems that Mao and his “learning from the facts” (从事实和现实来看cóng shìshí hé xiànshí lái kàn) has been temporarily closed in basement (5).
(1) Cf. A. Osiander (2001), “Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth”, International Organization 55 (2): 251–287 ; Gross, Leo (January 1948), “The Peace of Westphalia”,The American Journal of International Law 42 (1): 20–41; Jackson, R.H.; P. Owens (2005) “The Evolution of World Society” in: John Baylis; Steve Smith (eds.). The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Philip G. Roeder (2007), Where Nation-States Come From: Institutional Change in the Age of Nationalism, Princeton University Press. The first roots however are to be seen in the Peace of Westphalia (1648). For more details, see also U.K. Preuß (November 1995), “Problems of a Concept of European Citizenship”, European Law Journal, 1 (3): 267–281; Cutler, A. Claire (2001), “Critical Reflections on the Westphalian Assumptions of International Law and Organization: A Crisis of Legitimacy”, Review of International Studies 27 (2): 133–150; Patrick J. Buchanan (May 23, 2006),The Death of the Nation State, http://www.theamericancause.org/print/052206_print.htm.
(2) Cf. The first speech of President Xi Jinping is available here: http://theory.people.com.cn/n/2012/1213/c112851-19882008.html; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-20338586. For an interesting article about the problems related to the promulgation of the ‘ChinaDream’ slogan, see D. Bandurski, Will we all be “dreamed away”?, released 24/04/2013 in http://cmp.hku.hk/2013/04/24/32799/. For more details on the Tianxia concept, see Wang Gungwu (2013), “Tianxia: Perspectives from Outside of China (Appendix)”, Renewal: The Chinese State and the New Global History, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 131–152.
(3) Concerning the concept of ‘Renaissance’, see http://chinaheritagenewsletter.anu.edu.au/articles.php?searchterm=029_elliott.inc&issue=029. About Bo Xilai policy and the existance of a ‘Chongqing Model’ 重庆模式, see Rongxing Guo (2013), Regional China: A Business and Economic Handbook, Palgrave Macmillan, pages 31 et seq.; W.A. Callahan, China Visions: 20 Visions of the Future (2013), Oxford University Press, pages 61—90; W. Lam (29/04/2011), “Chinese Leaders Revive Marxist Orthodoxy”, China Brief 9 (2), http://www.jamestown.org/uploads/media/cb_010_36.pdf; Sun Wenhao (9 February 2012), “The Chongqing Model revisited”, Utopia, http://brief.policycn.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/TEXT-Chongqing-model-revisited.pdf. See also the response of the 2012 secretary of the Chongqing Municipal Committee of the CPC, Zhang Dejiang, on ‘Chongqing Model’ in 财经网Financial Network (08/11/2012), 张德江：我认为根本就不存在重庆模式 Zhang Dejiang: I simply think a Chongqing Model does not exist at all (in Chinese), http://business.sohu.com/20121108/n357067416.shtml.
(4) Cf. N. Machiavelli, The Prince and Other Writings, Spark Educational Publishing, NY 2003. See also http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2010/09/09/china-would-machiavelli-be-proud/.
(5) See also Yang Song, Marxism from the Facts to the Value (in Chinese), released 05/02/2013, retrieved on 26/07/2013 in http://www.cssn.cn/32/3202/320200/201302/t20130205_276251.shtml.