Cultivating nationalism

Bonnie Tilland

In light of the recent spy plane incident and the growing tensions in U.S.-China relations, I wanted to write an article to try to make sense of the national feeling in China and relate a few of my own experiences. When I was in China it became very clear to me that it is now more important than ever for Americans to try to understand China’s position and the feelings of the Chinese people. It’s too easy for Americans to be one-sided on this issue, to blame what is perceived as an oppressive, Communist government, and too easy to allow nationalism to flare up. I believe that it is the responsibility of Americans to try to understand China’s situation, because we have the freedom of speech and the right to question authority without fear of violence.

Students in China, especially outside of the major cities, have virtually no access to information aside from the state-controlled newspaper, the People’s Daily. The Chinese government still has an amazing amount of control over its people, and this is reflected in current national feeling about America.

Although the Chinese government, headed by Premier Jiang Zemin, is aware that only a stable Chinese-American partnership can produce the long-term economic gain that China needs, he is also unwilling to be walked on by the American government and lose face in front of the Chinese nation. His fanatic nationalism and fear of being bullied by America are the direct results of recent Chinese history.

On the one hand, he is wary of slowing down the economic process or limiting trade with the West, because he remembers too clearly the Cultural Revolution, a period of looking inward, rejecting anything western, and chaos and economic backwardness. On the other hand, he is wary of speeding up the democratization process, because he remembers the student demands for democracy and the ensuing massacre of 1989, when students questioned the Communist Party’s legitimacy.

So, Jiang Zemin has taken a different tactic, consciously turning national attention away from problems and mistakes within China and drawing attention to America’s indiscretions. This cultivation of popular nationalism is an old phenomenon in China, but this particular brand of rabid nationalism among youth is more recent, emerging in the last ten years or less. If it gets out of control it could backfire on Jiang Zemin, but right now he sees no other option.

In addition to the media misinformation and censorship, another reason for Chinese nationalism is China’s long history of being subjected to the whims of Western powers. When I was in China, even when I tried to explain that the 1998 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia was a mistake (a stupid, not easily forgiven mistake, but not a malicious act), people wouldn’t believe me and stuck to their government’s version of the story. Even those people who believed that the People’s Daily was nonsense could not dismiss the incident because they see the spy plane and bombing as links in a series of moves to weaken China—not as individual, different events like Americans do. Chinese children are taught nationalist tendencies in elementary school, and once the ball is set rolling it’s hard to stop.

The only way I see to remedy this situation is in an open communication between the U.S. and China, and communication between ordinary Chinese and American citizens to gain perspective on both sides. It may take a while to create a peaceful relationship, but it must be done. Patriotism is healthy, but nationalism is dangerous and isolating. America should keep China’s interests in mind and think before speaking, so that the lives of the people in both countries can gradually improve.