Chinese Nationalism and Populism, Political Movements and Conflicts
Since 2016, populism becomes the most important topic in political science and the biggest threat to liberal democracy. Started from the Brexit in the summer, the populist movement seized surprising victory in the United States as Donald Trump became the new U.S. President. This year, the battle against populism also extended to the election in Netherlands and France. Populist movement in Western Europe and the United States swept the established political norms, cried against globalization, and mangled with racism and other forms of discrimination. Furthermore, the worldwide tide of populism also stimulated the Taiwanese independence movement led by the Democratic Progress Party and supported by President Tsai, the rise ultra-rightist movement in Japan and the Neo-Nazi in Europe, and the victory of Duterte in Philippine. However, populism is not only a problem in the democratic system; the authoritarian states also faces the rising tide of populism. In fact, the populist and national movements in authoritarian states are always a tool to consolidate the authoritarian rule. The best example is China. The Chinese government uses nationalism and populism to avoid domestic turmoil and enhance the one-party system of China.
Chinese nationalism has been one of the most interesting topics in the contemporary Chinese politics and society. In the past several years, the Chinese people are always protesting other countries. In 2012, Chinese protested against Japan over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands) disputes. The South China Sea disputes took over the cause of anti-foreign demonstration from 2013 to earlier 2016. The rally reached peaks in 2014 after the anti-Chinese demonstration in Vietnam and 2016 after the South China Sea Arbitration. After mid-2016, as THAAD problem emerged, the new round of anti-Korean demonstration took place. During these protests, the mobs often engaged in violence. In the 2012 anti-Japanese riot, the mobs destroyed Japanese cars and looted stores owned by Japanese companies. In one extreme case, a mob severely injured a Toyota owner. Besides these anti-foreign country protests, there are also anti-foreign culture protests; the most famous among this kind is the anti-foreign holiday protests every year during Thanksgiving, Eastern, Christmas, and other western holidays. Unlike the other grass-root political movements and protests, which the Chinese government actively suppresses, these anti-foreign demonstrations were tolerated, even supported, by the Party, the Youth League, and the government. For example, the local Party and Youth League branches are often the incendiary of the anti-western holiday protests. The Chinese Communist Party has a long history of maneuvering foreign conflicts to fuel internal political movement, and the current Chinese leadership particular needs to use nationalism for its agenda.
The Chinese Communist is a master of using international conflicts to stimulate and fuel internal political movement. This practice can date back to 1950s. After the Korean War had broken out, the young People’s Republic faced not only external threat from the United States but also internal threats from “the people’s enemy.” The “people’s enemy” included bandits, anti-revolutionaries, cult members, “agents of Western Imperialist” and the underground members of KMT. Alongside with the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries movement, the Communist Party also launched the nationwide land-reform and targeted the land-owner class. Mao saw the Korean War as an opportunity not only to repel external threat and ameliorate the relationship with the Soviet Union but also a chance to consolidate the Communist rule and push for domestic political movements. The Korean War rallied supports of Chinese people behind the Communist Party and the newly born People’s Government. When China entered the Korean War in 1950, the Communist Party launched the nationwide “Against the America and Support the North Korea, Protect the Home and the Nation” movement. The movement used nationalism to boosted the Party’s support and utilized the support for the Campaign to the Suppress Counterrevolutionaries movement and the Land Reformation.
After the Korean War, using external conflict to generate support for internal political movement became a routine for the Party leadership. The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis and the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict were two examples. In the early summer of 1958, Mao decided to launch the Great Leap Forward movement. To meet the newly set steel production goal, which doubled last year’s production, Mao mobilized all Chinese people for steel production. In August 1958, the Communist Party shelled the Jinmen Islands. The bombardment generated massive supports for the Communist party leadership. Mao used the Taiwan Strait Crisis to mobilize the masses for the Great Leap Forward Movement. The Communist Leadership played the same tactic again in 1969. In March, China launched a sudden attack on the Soviet Union border patrol force at Zhenbao Island, a remote island in the Amur River. After this incident, 400 million went to the street and protested the “Soviet Aggression.” The reason behind Mao’s hazardous decision is complicated. Mao chose to launch the attack before the 9th Party Congress, which he decided to end the Cultural Revolution with a declaration of victory. A threat from foreign enemy helped to bring the chaotic China into peace and order. These examples show that the CCP is a master of using, even creating, foreign enemies and aggression to boost support for the domestic political movement. As I will show in the second half of this analysis, President Xi sparks nationalism in public for the similar purpose, to redirect internal pressure and enhance his leadership.
China is facing economic difficulties in past several years. China still maintains a 6.5% annual GDP growth rate; however, the growing housing bubble contributes for more than 3%. Besides housing, the price of food, clothes and other essential products also rises. In contract with the growing CPI, the real wages for Chinese workers are declining. The RMB has been devaluing, and the buying power of Chinese families is decreasing in the past several years. The weak economy reflects on the poor financial performance. Because of the lack of buying power, businesses are experiencing hardships. The stock market, after the triple drops in 2015, is still far from recovery. RMB was devalued significantly in the past two years to boost the competitiveness to Chinese manufacture products in the world market. However, the devaluation causes severe inflation problem. The high living cost, especially housing price, is murdering innovation and creative destruction. The pillar of the Chinese economy, manufacture, experiences bleakness because of the rising labor cost and the gradual cease of the late-mover advantage. Without significant changes, the Chinese economy will experience a downturn in a longer period.
While the economic goes down, the politics turns left. Since President Xi came to power in 2012, he has been gradually introducing back Maoism elements into China’s political life. His political agenda parallels to Brezhnev’s in the Soviet Union. He starts the anti-corruption movement to restore the public faith in the party and purge his political opponents. He re-introduces command economy into the Chinese capitalism. He brings back the “ideology war” and imposes harsh restrictions among liberal intellectuals. The Party tightens up the control of the media, and his personality cult reaches to a new peak. These political movements initiated by Xi are efforts to defeat political opponents, restore faith among the people and oppress “anti-party ideas” to continue the current one-party rule. Communist Party is a master of finding scapegoats, either inside or outside party, within China or abroad, throughout the history of the People’s Republic of China. Alongside with the domestic political movements, international challenges also help the Communist Party to redirect internal dissatisfaction into extreme nationalism. The Party masters the art of mobilization using foreign threats. International crisis helped the Party to redirect domestic dissatisfaction into extreme nationalism and consolidate support. In recent years, the island disputes with Japan and the South China Sea disputes with Southeast Asian states and the United States enable the Chinese government to mobilize extreme nationalism and redirect public attention from domestic problems to international conflicts.
Chinese nationalism is firmly affiliated with the way Chinese people view their past. Thus, the Chinese government takes advantage of the national-populism and manages to enhance the support for the communist leadership and Xi’s personality cult. Another strong man, Russian President Putin, is also a master of maneuvering game. Putin manages to boost his support through a series of wars and military actions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria. After his initial successes, the war brings economic devastation and people with unfulfilled promises. His strategy starts to backfire as Anti-Putin protests started to emerge in Russia this year. Maneuvering nationalism is like playing with flame; if you play with fire, you get burned.