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As the U.S. and Europe struggle with political and economic crises, Chinese party-state media highlight the deficiencies of “Western” systems. The leadership in Beijing offers the “China Path” as an alternative. Under what conditions could we see a rise in anti-Western nationalism in China? What does this mean for the stability of the government? These questions were up for debate at a MERICS China Dispute on 22 February that was attended by around 100 guests.

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Until the 20th century, the concept of competitive nationalism was unknown in China. It was Sun Yat-sen who, after founding the republic, established nationalism as a concept to pull the nation together. "Before, China didn't have a sense of nationhood, yet nowadays it is perhaps one of the most artful practicioners of nationalism," said Orville Shell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society in New York, on the panel moderated by MERICS researcher Kristin Shi-Kupfer.

Chinese governments have repeatedly exploited nationalist sentiment in the population. In 2012, there were widespread anti-Japanese protests in the wake of flaring territorial tensions over the Diaoyu islands, known as Senkaku in Japan. Last year, protests against the South China Sea ruling by an international tribunal broke out in several Chinese cities, with people targeting outlets of U.S. fast food chain KFC.

Nationalism could turn against the CCP

"Nationalism is a very handy ideology for the Communist Party to bolster populist support," said Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California in San Diego, who first traveled to the People's Republic in 1971. However, Ms. Shirk does not believe that a rise in anti-Western nationalism is likely in the next three to five years. The Chinese government was aware, she said, that nationalist protests are a dangerous force that may turn against the state itself.

Perceived external threats are among the most important motives for Beijing to play the nationalist tune and make life difficult for foreign non-governmental organizations in China. For instance, some in the top leadership see the U.S. as the engineer of the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and the so-called Arab Spring – the fear of something similar happening in China might be an important driver for trying to curb Western influence. But internal reasons were just as important, said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. The government used protests as a safety valve to divert attention from domestic problems.

The researcher, whose team monitors Chinese websites and social media channels to get a more detailed picture of debates in China beyond party rhetoric, has not yet observed a significant rise in anti-Western nationalism. Although a nationalist surge caused by an external event like escalating tensions in the South China Sea might well put China's government under pressure, the panelists identified divisions within the top leadership as a much bigger risk to political stability. Also, domestic discontent caused by a sharp economic downturn might turn into a threat to the government.

China is in systemic competition with the West

In addition to highlighting the “failures” of “the West,” China is also actively promoting its own “China model” or “China path.” Mr. Shell spoke of a „deep competition over systems of values and political governance between China and the West.”

But even though China's interpretation of certain values is incompatible with Western definitions - "freedom" for instance is understood as freedom of the nation state rather than the individual – all panelists still saw space for cooperation. "China's ambition to be great again does not mean they want to dominate the world," Ms. Shirk said. Even now, with the U.S. likely to lose influence on the global stage under President Trump, China has not openly articulated alternatives but instead has embraced the existing global system.

All panelists agreed that finding the right approach for dealing with China was a high-wire act. Continue to talk to China, but defend your interests, that used to be the order of the day. But that is not easy when Washington’s China policy is uncertain and when it is equally unclear whether the U.S. and Europe will speak with one voice.