Anti-Western Nationalism in China, 1989-99

By Xu, Guangqiu | World Affairs, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Anti-Western Nationalism in China, 1989-99


Xu, Guangqiu, World Affairs


Anti-Western nationalism increased in China in the 1990s. From official media to the frontiers of popular culture, from Beijing to Guangzhou, there was a mixture of rising pride and lingering insecurity. Many Chinese believed that they were reclaiming their rightful place as an international powerhouse in the world, a position they had lost decades before. As part of the return to prominence, nationalists were explaining the profound sense of humiliation among Chinese who suffered at the hands of Western powers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They increasingly criticized U.S.-led Western countries. They excoriated Western governments for selling arms to Taiwan, for preventing China from entering the World Trade Organization, for promoting Tibetan independence, and for interfering with China's internal affairs in the name of human rights.

Anti-Western sentiment in China reached a high in May 1999. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in major cities to protest NATO's bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, which killed three and wounded twenty Chinese. Protesters clashed with police at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, smashing cars and windows. Some of the protesters sang the Chinese national anthem and others shouted "Protect sovereignty, protect peace" and "We don't want war." Signs hung on a bus that brought students to the embassy said "NATO Nazis." Some Chinese shouted obscenities or cast angry looks at Westerners walking along the street. In Beijing, many Americans simply stayed inside.

More than 170,000 people massed in front of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu for several days following the bombing and protesters set fire to the U.S. consul's residence in that city. Police in Guangzhou in South China warned Western residents to stay indoors. The U.S. and British governments issued travel advisories for their citizens in China, urging them to remain in their hotels or homes.

Protests in front of the U.S. and British embassies were the largest anti-West demonstrations since the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. The protests heightened the traditional feeling of humiliation of a weak China, bullied by the West over the past 150 years, but resisting in periodic outbursts of Chinese nationalism. One must ask how and why those sentiments developed when the Western states presented no threat to China in the 1990s. To answer this question, I will trace the source of Chinese nationalism, examine the formation of such sentiments, and analyze the causes for anti-Western nationalism in China from 1989 to 1999.

NATIONALISM IN HISTORICAL REVIEW

The expression of nationhood is essentially a consequence of the modern era and the rise of nation-states. Modern nationalism binds together people who possess common cultural, linguistic, racial, historical, or geographical characteristics and who give their loyalty to the same political group. Modern nationalism helped to establish independent and sovereign states, to abolish medieval feudal privileges, and to reduce papal power in Europe in the seventeenth century.(1) After the nation-state system was established in Western Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, modern nationalism began to spread to Asia as well as to the rest of the world. In the first half of the twentieth century, Asian peoples sought to build independent, sovereign states. Asian nationalism was identified with anticolonialism and anti-imperialism movements and became a powerful force for Asian modernization and development.

A revival of nationalism in many parts of the world has characterized the post-cold war era. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, nationalism, mixed with anti-Russianism, replaced Marxism and Leninism as the foundation for government role in the former Eastern bloc nations. East Europeans have been struggling to create independent and sovereign states free from Soviet influence. In Russia, nationalism was on the rise when NATO's expansion into Central Europe posed a threat to Russian security.

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