Written by Andrew Chubb.

Few terms in public political discourse are as contested, contradictory and downright slippery as nationalism. Deployed to describe an enormous variety of social movements, ideologies, popular attitudes, mass sentiments, elite policy agendas and even consumption patterns, use of the word carries with it a risk of stringing together superficially related phenomena with very different causes under the same label. The recently released results of a survey on the South and East China Sea disputes offer further reason for caution when approaching Chinese public opinion through the lens of nationalism.

The giant conceptual umbrella

Agreed-upon definitions of nationalism have proved elusive. As Craig Calhoun wrote in his 1997 book on the topic, the rhetoric of nation is the one basic factors that unites disparate phenomena like Japanese economic protectionism, Serbian ethnic cleansing, American anthem-singing at sports events, Chinese democracy protests, and pan-Arab political movements under the same conceptual umbrella.

In the case of China, with its large and diverse population, nationalism encompasses a particularly complex and often contradictory range of phenomena, making it crucial to specify just which aspects of nationalism we are referring to. Suisheng Zhao’s classic study showed how the “state-led pragmatic nationalism” of the ruling the Communist Party, prioritizing economic development and a peaceful international environment, has existed in uneasy cohabitation with liberal and ethnic variants emphasizing, respectively, themes of popular civic participation, and ethnic Han or minority identity.

The distinction between Chinese nationalism’s more nativist and cosmopolitan tendencies may be relatively easy to discern, but there are important and much less intuitive variations within the ostensibly anti-foreign attitudes and actions most commonly associated with the term.

Militarism and the Global Times: more marginal than mainstream

In a recent report, Exploring China’s Maritime Consciousness: Public Opinion on the South and East China Sea Disputes, I detailed the results of face-to-face surveys with 1413 urban respondents in five Chinese cities carried out in April 2013. Around 60% of the respondents reported paying close attention to the PRC’s maritime issues, and a majority expressed absolute certainty regarding the correctness of China’s disputed claims. These results would no doubt please the CCP’s propaganda strategists, who have long sought to increase “maritime consciousness” (海洋意识) among the general public in order to bolster the country’s maritime claims.

The widespread concern with distant islands, and strong conviction that they belong to China are clearly manifestations of nationalism – if by this we mean the rhetoric of the nation’s existence, an ideology that seeks to advance the nation’s interests, or a mass “in-group” sentiment to the exclusion of outsiders. But this certainty regarding China’s correctness cannot be equated with “nationalistic” policy preferences. When respondents were presented with a menu of ten policy approaches, military action was the second-least popular policy approach – well behind “compromise through negotiation” (55-57%), “UN arbitration” (58-61%) and “international publicity” (84-85%). In fact, only two policies received less than 50% approval: the famously unpopular official “shelve disputes and pursue joint development” formulation (30-31%), and “send in the troops, don’t hesitate to fight” (42-46%). The survey question specified no conditions under which each policy would be pursued, so the result suggests only a minority of respondents believe the military option should even be on the table. So while China’s urbanites appear to follow the issue closely, and express belief in their country’s claims to the islands, they are cautious about the prospect of starting a fight over them.

This picture of Chinese public opinion contrasts starkly with the warmongering vitriol that often dominates China’s online discourse on foreign affairs, and the assumptions of overseas based academics and commentators who worry that the Chinese public’s “rising nationalism” is exerting an irrational force on PRC foreign policy. It is different, too, from the picture painted by “hawkish” PLA media pundits and state-run media like the Global Times (环球时报), which often claim to speak for Chinese public opinion.

Indeed, while the Global Times uses sensationalist and self-righteous editorial lines on foreign policy issues to help stimulate sales, it would be a mistake to assume this approach is attractive to the general public at large. When the survey’s respondents were asked to give an example of a newspaper from which they obtained information on the South China Sea and Diaoyu Islands issues, only 11 of the 1413 respondents (0.8%) named the Global Times. Rather, most named their local metropolitan daily. Although it may seem surprising at first glance, this result is perfectly consistent with the Global Times’ reported circulation of around 2 million copies and 10 million readers – figures that have not risen in recent years. This further underscores the paper’s outsized influence on Western perceptions of Chinese public opinion: its fulminating editorials may be a selling point, but only to a limited (and apparently stagnating) target market. If by “nationalism” we mean the conviction that China is in the right in its disputes with its neighbours, then it is mainstream. But if we mean militaristic policy preferences and consumption of pompous jingoism, it is decidedly marginal.

Historicism = nationalism?

Zheng Wang is one of several authors who have detailed the rise of the CCP state’s “patriotic education” campaign in the years following the Tiananmen crisis, in which the Party nearly lost power. Zheng shows how in the 1990s the Party consciously traded in its original revolutionary vanguard identity for a self-proclaimed role as China’s greatest patriotic force, restoring the nation to its bygone greatness. This has meant waves of educational campaigns targeting the whole society with reminders of China’s history of humiliation and victimization at the hands of foreigners through the “Century of Shame” (百年国耻) during which the weakness of the Chinese state is seen to have resulted in invasions by Western and Japanese imperialists.

The results of the above-mentioned survey confirm that the Party’s efforts to encourage the Mainland public to view current events through this historical lens have been largely successful.More than 87% of respondents agreed with the proposition that “Japan’s presence in the Diaoyu Islands is a continuation of the ‘Century of Shame’.“ This is understandable, given Japan’s history of imperialist aggression against China. However, 83% said they also viewed the status quo in the South China Sea in the same light – a startling result given China’s rivals there, principally Vietnam and the Philippines, were also victims of colonialism. Around 60% even said they considered the disputes to be matters of personal dignity.

Crucially, however, this seemingly exaggerated historicism and concern with national and personal dignity does not appear to translate into demands for hardline policy measures. The sense of ongoing historical humiliation and personal dignity being at stake was not strongly related to advocacy of the use of military force in the disputes, and had little effect on respondents’ willingness to countenance compromise.

Not surprisingly, given the party-state’s emphasis on “patriotic education” for young people, respondents belonging to the “post-1990” generation were much more likely to see the maritime disputes as matters of national dignity and humiliation. Yet they were also less likely to approve of (and more likely to oppose) the use of military force in dealing with the issue. This calls into question the commonly expressed concern that, under the influence of “patriotic education”, China’s young people are a dangerously nationalistic generation. We might say Chinese youth are more nationalistic if by that we mean they’re more inclined to connect the contemporary world to historical narratives of victimization. But they’re not more nationalistic in the sense of wanting to go to war. Once again, opposing conclusions are on offer, depending on how we define nationalism.

How nationalist is nationalism anyway?

This short piece has raised some issues related nationalist public opinion in China – that is, attitudes towards issues of national identity. It has left aside similar difficulties that exist in relation to nationalist mobilization, or actions taken on issues of national identity. In China, the most eye-catching varieties of “nationalist” mobilization, such as street protests, have clearly involved a range of causes besides the surface-level anti-foreign attitudes. Li Zhiwei, for example, was a downtrodden migrant worker who did not even know the national anthem until one day in September 2012 when a toxic combination of state propaganda and pent-up social alienation turned him into one of Shenzhen’s most-wanted rioters. At the more orderly protests in Beijing the same month, a carnivalesque atmosphere prevailed, with more attendees soaking up the rare spectacle of street protests in the capital than screaming abuse at the Japanese embassy. The looting seen in recent anti-foreign riots in both China and Vietnam suggests, criminal opportunism explains some of the most extreme “nationalist” actions. Finally, as scholars including James Reilly and Jessica Chen Weiss have argued (both here on this blog and in substantial research works), in a country under Leninist one-party rule, state tolerance is a crucial precondition for nationalist protest. Thus, not only does the idea of nationalist public opinion encompass an unwieldy collection of varied attitudes, it is only one of the causes of “nationalist” mobilization, and it may not even be the most important. This N-word, in short, needs to be approached with care.

Andrew Chubb is  a PhD student at the University of Western Australia. Image credit: CC by parhessiastes/Flickr.