Contents and Orientations of Chinese Nationalist Discourse

Written by  Tuesday, 14 November 2017 14:26


     Chinese nationalism continues to be an important but inadequately understood phenomenon. On the one hand, it is evident that nationhood and national identity are deeply embedded in Chinese society. Polling conducted in 2005 and 2010 among the publics of thirteen Asian countries ranked PRC citizens first in positive feelings towards their nation.1 This unusually strong sense of national pride appears to be supported by a particularly nation-oriented worldview. In but one example, a 2008 survey showed that 84.3 percent of Chinese respondents agreed with the assertion, “Your country should pursue its national interest even if it could harm the interests of another.”2 This is not typical; as Linley notes, only about 40 percent of Japanese affirm such an “unconditional support” for their national interest.3

     More importantly, China’s sense of nationhood appears to be highly salient at the individual level. More than four-fifths of PRC citizens polled in 2010 and 2014 agreed, “When other people criticize China, it is as though they are criticizing me.”4 As Dickson writes, “This is a clear indicator that the self-identity of many Chinese is intimately tied to their country.”5 So it was unsurprising when, in late May, a disparaging description of China’s air quality coupled with gushing praise of American personal liberties and civic values – offered from the mouth of a Chinese student graduating in the University of Maryland class of 2017 – set off anger in China and among the community of Chinese students in the US. Chinese netizens reacted quickly and in mass, branding the speaker, Yang Shuping, a traitor no longer welcome in China; People’s Daily, a media mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, quickly followed in criticizing the new college graduate.6 When self-identity is as nationalized as is the case in China, irreverence for the nation is perceived as a direct attack on the individual self-worth of nationals.

     Yet scholars remain divided as to the role that this deeply embedded sense of nationhood plays in structuring Chinese politics and foreign relations. According to some, after an ideological agnosticism seemed to gain prevalence towards the end of the 20th century, national ideology and ‘nation-ness’ have reemerged at the center of Chinese political life. Analyzing PRC state media, Yong concludes that “Party-led nationalism,” should now be understood as a “hegemonic ideology” in the PRC.7 Hegemony here refers to a concept developed by Antonio Gramsci, whose brand of cultural Marxism examines the state-society relationship in terms of coercion and consent, the cultural production of power, and the ‘invisible’ ideological dimensions of state legitimacy. In particular, Gramsci understood hegemony as a combination of coercion provided by ‘political society,’ and consent created by ‘civil society.’  Thus to call CCP-led nationalism a “hegemonic ideology” is to claim that it “manufactures consent;” it manipulates identity at the individual and social level such that society’s interests become compatible with the goals of the party-state. Scholars who agree with this interpretation invariably point to the effects of the Patriotic Education Campaign, which, since the mid-1990s, has placed the CCP’s official ideology and state-sanctioned nationalism back at the center of education policy in the PRC.

     A number of scholars see this hegemonic ideology as potentially dangerous for regime security in the PRC and disruptive in the broader region. Shambaugh, for example, writes that nationalism drives the PRC “in a more assertive direction” vis-à-vis other states,8 and could trigger “aggressive moves against Japan and other neighbors.”9 His logic is straightforward: viewing “already hyper Chinese nationalism,” as an overpowering public sentiment to which CCP leaders are beholden, Shambaugh suggests that the Party would turn to a “diversionary war” if faced with a legitimacy crisis at home.10 Johnston notes that a similar interpretation is held within the U.S. defense establishment. “Senior U.S. military officers,” whom he interviewed in 2015 and 2016, expressed a “worry that the Chinese leadership will engage in diversionary conflict when China’s economic growth slows.11 Susan Shirk similarly sees China’s leaders as somewhat at the mercy of a nationalistic population, writing, “The worst nightmare of China’s leaders is a national protest movement of discontented groups… united against the regime by the shared fervor of nationalism.”12

     Thus these scholars share a presumption that latently powerful Chinese nationalism is intimately connected with potential violence: whether manifesting as an eruption of public discontent towards the party-state, or in a war pursued by the party-state in order to mitigate that risk. These concerns cannot be lightly dismissed. According to anonymous sources who attended the November 2016 meeting between Xi Jinping and Hong Hsiu-chu, then-KMT Chairwoman, Xi offered a frank summary of the relationship between nationalism and regime security in a cross-strait relations context: “From the position of Chinese people’s nationalism, 1.3 billion people on the mainland would not agree to Taiwan’s formal independence… The Communist Party would be overthrown by the people if the pro-independence issue was not dealt with.”13 In this context, although any war initiated by the PRC in accordance with the 2005 Anti-Secession law14 would be presented as a defense of “China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the party-state would in fact conduct such a war for the deeper purpose of protecting its regime security from the threat of domestic insurrection of the kind described by Shirk.

     Yet other observers are convinced that Chinese nationalism, however central to education and official media, is an aging, banal, and increasingly inconsequential phenomenon. Kuo argues that “the appeal of nationalism in China appears to be dwindling.”15 A recent study by Johnston uses surveys conducted in Beijing to demonstrate declining “levels of nationalism since around 2009.” Johnston additionally finds that, “contrary to the conventional wisdom…it is China’s older generations that are more nationalistic than its youth.” Thus, “rising Chinese nationalism,” though a highly visible meme in Western media, “may not be a critically important variable constraining Chinese foreign policy.”16 Li similarly argues that the common description of a surge in Chinese nationalism exaggerates the nationalist fervor of Chinese youth. On the contrary he sees believes that China’s young people are relatively disengaged from nationalism.17

     In the context of so many differing interpretations, even the conventional “double-edged sword” metaphor – describing Chinese nationalism as a phenomenon that “mobilizes people behind the state, but… also gives them a ground on which to judge the state’s performance”18 – becomes suspect. As Carlson observes, “neither those who have argued that nationalism is pushing China towards confrontational positions in the international arena, nor those who have disputed that position have supported their respective arguments in a compelling fashion.” Perhaps, he reasons, “we still have little agreement over what Chinese nationalism is,” and “a contested object” cannot readily explain or predict other phenomena.19

     Agreeing with Carlson’s prognosis, my master’s thesis aims to add a modicum of clarity to the debate over Chinese nationalism by interpreting its rhetoric through a specific theoretical lens. My approach begins by heeding Brubaker’s admonition to “decouple categories of analysis from categories of practice”20 – in other words, to make a clear distinction between the concepts of nation and nationalismin the theoretical literature, and the observable phenomenon of nationalism as a form of politics. Looking first at the theory side, the thesis organizes some of the major texts in the nationalism studies literature into four approaches: sociological, culturalist, political-historical, and ethno-symbolist, represented respectively by the classic works of Gellner and Deutsch, Anderson, Breuilly, and Smith. I find that the underlying assumptions of each approach have been previously applied to the study of Chinese nationalism – and with some success – but that none of the four theoretical approaches to nationalism offers a convincingly definitive perspective to guide further research.

     The thesis thus turns to examine the ideas that substantiate the nation as an imagined political community, which is to say, the contents of the putative nation. I examine the controversial but enduringly fascinating distinction between civic-territorial and ethno-cultural nationhood in theory, and then seek to understand whether that distinction holds up in the history of Chinese nationalist rhetoric. I argue that nationalist rhetoric from the late Qing period to the present day shows that both of these two very different ways of imagining the nation have been influential in Chinese politics, but that the rhetoric itself mixes and matches civic/political, territorial, ethnic, and cultural descriptions of the Chinese nation more freely than the theoretical dichotomy would suggest.

     Indeed, both classical Chinese discourse on orthodoxy and Chinese-ness and more contemporary nationalist discourse seem to group cultural identity with civic identity at least as often as with ethnic identity. As Southern Ming scholar Fang Xiaoru wrote, “that which makes China noble is the hierarchy of ruler and ministers [a civic/political attribute], the teaching of rites and justice [a civic and cultural attribute], distinguishing [China] from the barbarians. Without [the system of] ruler and ministers, one is barbarian, and if barbarian, hardly more than beast.” (夫中國之為貴者,以有君臣之等,禮義之教,異乎夷狄也.無君臣則入於夷狄,入夷狄則與禽獸幾矣).

     The final aspect of my methodology draws on inspiration from Brubaker and Taiwanese scholar Wang Horng-luen, who emphasize the distinction between nationalisms that are polity-based, i.e., attempting to nationalize the population of a currently existing state, and those that are polity-seeking, i.e., aiming to bring statehood to a putative nation.21 As Brubaker notes, nationalism invariably posits the existence of a “deficient condition” somewhere within the state or society. In fact, he defines nationalism as “a form of remedial political action” that “addresses an allegedly deficient… condition and proposes to remedy it.22 Polity-based nationalism aims to create a unified nation within the state, while polity-seeking nationalism aims to accomplish reform, separatism, annexation, or revolution at the state level.Thus the question of whether the PRC will be a “status quo” or “revisionist” power vis-à-vis the interstate order can be addressed in terms of nationalism. Polity-based (nationalizing) nationalism is status quo-reinforcing at the (inter)state level, but revisionist at the social level; polity-seeking nationalism is revisionist at the (inter)state level, but status quo-reinforcing at the social level.

     The contrast between these two very different kinds of nationalism can be illustrated in the transition from Maoist revolutionary politics to the “post-revolutionary” period under Deng. In 1965, Mao declared his intent to create a new cultural nation within the borders of the PRC: “The thought, culture, and customs which brought China to where we found her must disappear, and the thought, custom, and culture of proletarian China, which does not yet exist, must appear.”23 Mao embraced a polity-based, nationalizing nationalism; this is not uncommon for rulers of a large and diverse population. But within that nationalism was one of the more disastrous aspects of Mao’s ideology: the idea that violence and destruction on a massive scale could be harnessed for good. “Our nation is like an atom,” Mao declared. “When this atom’s nucleus is smashed the thermal energy released will have really tremendous power. We shall be able to do things which we could not do before.”24 Mao evidently believed that the destructive power of “continuous revolution” could create a new and mighty proletarian nation in China. His incredibly destructive ideology focused primarily on creating a new Chinese nation rather than on providing an adequate state for the nation as it existed.

     Under Deng, however, official nationalism very clearly embraced the polity-seeking mission of unifying Greater China into a single state. As the PRC dropped the moniker of “revolutionary state” (革命型國家) and began instead to call itself a “post-revolutionary state” (後革命型國家), the relationship between the Party and the nation was similarly transformed. Hughes identifies in this rhetorical/ideological transition a movement from the “orthodox CCP” multi-minzu patriotism to “an underlying ‘volkish’ [in this case, ethno-cultural and Han-centric] conception of the nation.”25 With the nation defined increasingly on ethno-cultural grounds, the “deficient condition” in need of remedying could be none other than the political disunity of Greater China. Thus the CCP’s rhetoric towards the “unredeemed” territories of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao became, for the first time, explicitly nationalist. Representative of this new discourse, the “Message to Compatriots on Taiwan” offered by the 1979 National People’s Congress famously stated:


Every Chinese, in Taiwan or on the mainland, has a compelling responsibility for the survival, growth and prosperity of the Chinese nation (minzu)… If we do not quickly set about ending this disunity so that our motherland is reunified at an early date, how can we answer our ancestors and explain to our descendants?... Who among the descendants of the Yellow Emperor wishes to go down in history as a traitor?26


     In this context, the CCP’s “United Front” became associated with national unification (祖國統一)27, and thus an aspect of a polity-seeking nationalism that presumes the existence of a trans-state, ethno-cultural Chinese nation and seeks to revise the interstate status quo accordingly.

     After highlighting a few of the considerable changes in the contents and orientations of Chinese nationalist rhetoric over time, my thesis turns to examine to what extent Chinese nationalism has evolved under Xi Jinping. As China’s top leader since late 2012 and a figure now widely considered the most powerful since Mao, Xi has overseen a dramatic recentralization of political power and a further blurring of the line between the Communist Party and the Chinese state. By virtue of his position as “core leader,” Xi enjoys a unique ability to establish the boundaries of acceptable discourse.

     Under Xi, I find a continued blending of civic, territorial, ethnic, and cultural contents of identity as well as polity-based and polity-seeking orientations within official nationalist discourse. The polity-based, nationalizing aspect is clearly dominant, as Xi and his spokespeople frequently present nationalism as a way to increase China’s domestic cohesion (凝聚力) and national power. A core aspect of Xi’s nationalism concerns the reemphasis of (often neo-Maoist) ideology into the core of Chinese national identity. Yet China’s “Core Leader” also continues to speak of a primordial, trans-state, ethno-cultural nation, a fact that should give pause to pundits who are overly confident that China is a “status quo power.” Furthermore, nationalist discourse is intensified within Xi’s articulation of national rejuvenation and the “China Dream,” in which the Chinese nation is increasingly presented as a moral as well as cultural and political concept.

     Thus contrary to Pye’s 1996 description of Chinese nationalism’s contents as “exceedingly thin,” I find the discourse of official Chinese nationalism quite “thick” with civic, territorial, ethnic, and cultural contents, polity-based and polity-seeking orientations, and victim and victor identities. This discourse is being propelled to new heights under Xi’s articulation of national rejuvenation. It will continue to be imperative that analysts endeavor to fully understand this discourse before making claims as to Chinese nationalism’s likely effects.


1Matthew Linley, “Nationalist attitudes among mass publics in East Asia,” in Asian Nationalisms Reconsidered, ed. Jeff Kingston (London: Routledge, 2016), 118.

2Ibid., 126.

3Ibid., 126.

4Bruce J. Dickson, The Dictator’s Dilemma: The Chinese Communist Party’s Strategy for Survival” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 235.

5Ibid., 235.

6Jiang Jie, “Chinese student at University of Maryland slammed for biased commencement speech,” People’s Daily, May 22, 2017,

7Yong Cao, “From Communism to Nationalism: China’s Press in the Transition of Dominant Ideology,” Global Media Journal,

8David Shambaugh, China’s Future (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), 170.

9Ibid., 52

10Ibid., 171

11Alastair Iain Johnston, “Is Chinese Nationalism Rising? Evidence from Beijing,” International Security 41, no. 3 (Winter 2016/2017): 8.

12Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (Oxford University Press, 2007), 7.

13Zhang Pinghui, “Xi Jinping warns Communist Party would be ‘overthrown’ if Taiwan’s independence push left unchecked,” South China Morning Post, November 4, 2016,

14Article 8 of the law states, “In the event that the ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ nonpeaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China’s Search for Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 219.

15Kaiser Kuo, “Do we really need to worry so much about Chinese nationalism?” SupChina, February 2017,

16Johnston, “Is Chinese Nationalism Rising,” 9.

17Liqing Li, “China’s Rising Nationalism and Its Forefront: Politically Apathetic Youth,” China Report51, no. 4, (October 2015): 311-326.

18Suisheng Zhao, “Xi Jinping’s Maoist Revival,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 3 (July 2016): 83.

19Allen Carlson, “A flawed perspective: the limitations inherent within the study of Chinese nationalism,” Nations and Nationalism 15, no. 1 (January 2009): 26.

20Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the national question in the New Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 22.

21汪宏倫,〈理解當代中國民族主義:制度、情感結構與認識框架〉,《文化研究》第19期, 189-250.

22Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed, 79.

23Quoted in Henry Kissinger, On China (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 93.

24Quoted in Ibid., 94.

25Christopher R. Hughes, Chinese Nationalism in the Global Era (New York: Routledge, 2006), 18.

26National People’s Congress (1979), “Message to Compatriots on Taiwan,” quoted in Hughes, Chinese Nationalism, 18.

27汪宏倫,〈理解當代中國民族主義〉, 217.


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