China and nationalism

I’m not a big fan of Guardian columnist Martin Jacques, who specialises in churning out hyperbolic pro-China pieces week after week, so I scanned the first paragraph of his review of four recent books on China with trepidation. It was a surprisingly good review, though – Jacques, a supremely unoriginal thinker, seems to do better when summarising others’ thoughts.

The books all seem pretty interesting, Christopher R Hughes’ Chinese Nationalism in the Global Era the most so – if I have some spare readies I might pick it up. Jaques comments:

Hughes points out the continuing central importance of Deng Xiaoping’s thinking in these debates. He traces the growing importance of nationalism and argues that this has become a central plank of the regime’s legitimacy. He may be right about this, but the phenomenon of Chinese nationalism cannot be encompassed simply by reference to these party debates. It is also a function of wider social and cultural trends that have little to do with the party, for instance the predictable pride in the country that such a remarkable transformation is engendering. But more generally, and perhaps importantly, the nature of Chinese nationalism itself for a country that only became a fully-fledged nation-state just over a century ago and yet has a more profound sense of its identity than probably any other raises the question of what actually constitutes that “nationalism”, or whether nationalism is the appropriate word for what might also be described as Sinocentrism.

Looking at the last sentence, Jacques doesn’t bother to consider whether the paradox of “a country that only became a fully-fledged nation-state just over a century ago and yet has a more profound sense of its identity than probably any other” may have something to do with the difference between nationalism and sinocentrism.

Sinocentrism is a belief in China as the centre of the world – its vry name, “the Middle Kingdom”, highlights its self-regard in this respect. With the intervention by colonial powers in the 19th Century, and the Japanese wars and invasion, this outlook was given a rude awakening, and lacking the mechanisms to re-evaluate China’s place in the world, humiliation bred resentment.

Nationalism is a vengeful doctrine, patriotism’s misbegotten offspring. It fosters resentment, belief that your country has been wronged, and hatred of a suitable enemy. For present-day China, this enemy is its neighbour and one-time occupier, Japan. Stoking hostility towards Japan unites China and helps keep the CCP in power. The question for the future of East Asian relations is whether the regime will be able to control the increasingly extreme anti-Japanese sentiment. With more and more violent reactions to textbooks, Yasukuni and other issues, Japan will see little point in trying to compromise. And increased hostility in Northeast Asia is a foregone conclusion. Jacques would do well to consider this when he writes more uncritical praise of China and its leaders.


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