Nationalism in China is not being revived; in reality, it never died. It is the fruit of thousands of years of history, an infinite series of accumulated texts creating a stratum of pride difficult to uproot. The country is ethnically united at its interior, however culturally different from the rest of the world. Superiority is not its distinctive trait as much as diversity. Many civilizations labeled bordering populations “barbarians,” but only China built a Great Wall to defend itself. The objective was not military security, but cultural integrity: primarily the distinction with nomads at their confines, then with the rest of the world.
Today, the historical nationalism has wed the communism in power. After Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms in 1978, the goal of the liberation was evident. Under the PCC’s guidance—this was the choice—China would have to grow to avoid the fragility of the Cold War’s tensions. Defeating weakness meant distancing the danger of the “Century of Humiliation,” the deepest wound in China’s millennial history, a laceration still bleeding in the heads and hearts of the population. From the Opium Wars (1840) to the end of WWII, the country was occupied by foreign militias and oppressed for the first time. It was forced to renounce its sovereignty and capitulate in front of stronger armies.
In the years of Maoism, responsibility was principally attributed to the imperial court: corrupt, decadent, and reactionary, it had not been capable of guaranteeing the country’s unity. Japan and the western powers’ responsibility were maintained, but tempered by accusations against internal political errors in China. Today, blame falls again on external enemies, amassed together and considered collectively China’s enemy. This passage is central: the fight is no longer ideological, and the contrast is no longer between communism and capitalism. China is no longer an alternative development model, as the Soviet Union could have been. Instead, the country is busy strengthening its structure and protecting its boundaries—political, economic, and cultural. It doesn’t have a model to imitate, and more importantly, it doesn’t want one. It doesn’t want to be at the forefront of other countries, expect for its own convenience. If this position is legitimate—as long as recognized international laws that China itself has signed are not violated—it conflicts with reality. China is a country governed by a single communist party, and it has launched openly capitalist policies (at least in their most essential tenets). It’s a protagonist in globalization, and yet it has maintained its most markedly nationalistic features. It’s the most populous country on Earth, but the term “soft power” is still relatively unknown.
Nationalism is the cement that holds these contradictions together and postpones their explosion. On one hand, the government encourages it, and on the other it reaps support for its role. A country that demands respect confirms that its directing class is legitimate and received the “mandate of heaven.” Progress in the economy, standard of living and nationalism are the foundations of the consensus, complicit with censorship and control. In general terms, it seems clear that the economy has exhausted its role and that supremacy will return to the political sphere. The latter had delegated a task the economy already absolved (Deng Xiao Ping’s politics of “opening and reform”). Now the country is more stable and beyond the constrictions of underdevelopment. It can go back to making its voice heard, and avenging territories left to oblivion, and proclaiming assertive foreign politics.
It seems an exercise of power, but in reality it can hide an underlying weakness, an ancestral fear. It may signify that the government needs to distract attention from its internal problems—which are numerous—with a nationalistic leaning. The administration is well aware that it doesn’t need to work hard to stoke the flame of nationalism in its citizens. The sentiment was only hidden in recent years, not erased. In reality tensions in the Pacific were not resolved with a collective deliberation, like what largely occurred in Europe. Certainly, years of globalization did not soothe resentments; on the contrary, they gave them a reason to return to the limelight with more force. This uncertainty gives reason for concern: giving breath to nationalism to hide other urgencies. If these issues became unsustainable, tensions with other countries could become aggravating, not attenuating.