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MERICS China Dispute with Susan Shirk, Orville Shell and David Bandurski

February 22, 2017, Berlin

Criticism of Western systems is a significant phenomenon in China: Party-state media and leading party members point to crises of the liberal democratic and economic orders in the U.S. and Europe and denounce the deficiencies of “Western” political 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 Wednesday's China Dispute that was attended by around 100 guests.

Until the 20th century, the concept of competitive nationalism was unknown to 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.

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Chinese governments have repeatedly exploited the suspicion of anything foreign 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 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 back in 1971. However, Ms. Shirk does not believe that a rise in anti-Western nationalism was to be expected in the next three to five years. The Chinese government was aware, she said, that nationalist protest is 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 colored 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 the Chinese internet 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. Also, domestic discontent caused by a sharp economic downturn might turn into a threat to the government.

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”.

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But even though China coined certain values in a way that is unacceptable to Western counterparts - 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 was the order of the day. But that is not easy when Washington’s China policy is uncertain and when its equally unclear whether the U.S. and Europe will continue to be the kindred spirits they used to be.

At the end of a lively panel, an experienced China traveler in the audience closed the evening on a conciliatory note: "I cannot see rising anti-Western sentiment, even in the most remote regions I experienced great love for Western things," the gentleman stressed. Another participant agreed: "I see admiration for the West rather than hostile nationalism."