‘Nationalism’ has many faces in China

By Yang Jianli, Special to The Washington Post

Frequently over the past few months, I have been asked about the wisdom of using the Olympics as an opportunity to push China to improve its human rights record. Underlying these questions is a sense that international pressure may have played into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party by triggering nationalist emotions and rallying indignant Chinese people behind the regime. This concern is understandable. It is critical, however, that people distinguish among the four types of nationalism in China today to determine how best to pressure the regime to make improvements. First there is pragmatic nationalism. In everything but name, communism is dead in China. The Communist Party’s pragmatic nationalism is one of the two lifelines to which it clings; the other is rapid economic growth. China’s leaders understand that continued prosperity is the key to their continued rule.

They have engaged in a delicate balancing act of fanning nationalist emotion to promote loyalty among the populace while at the same time tightly controlling this emotion to limit its potential damage to China’s standing in the global economy. This pragmatic nationalism is a doctrine driven by national interest, not ideology. The same is true of “vassal nationalism.” The majority of vassal nationalists are China’s elites, and they move in lock step with pragmatic nationalism as dictated by the government.

They become angry and indignant at the right time and place, when and where the party thinks they should. But this fury can pass like the weather; vassal nationalists seem to overcome their emotions the moment the party hints that they ought to.

For example, many Chinese who don’t normally feel uneasy about the country’s state-controlled media, or the regime’s tireless policing of the Internet, vehemently protested some “unsatisfactory” reports on Tibet by Western media outlets in recent weeks. This inconsistency is the hallmark of vassal nationalism.