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. Russian nationalists called for a Pan-Slavic nationalist movement to restore the Russian empire to its greatness under Peter the Great.
In Asia, in the 1990s, Asian nationalists opposed Western human rights standards as universal standards while favoring "Asian values," Singapore-style authoritarianism, and "new" Confucianism. Asian nationalists were irritated when Westerners increasingly criticized their human rights violations and were determined to say no to the West's demands for change. A proclamation of the new Asian nationalism was Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's book, Asia Can Say No, advocating that Asia persist in taking its own road and resolutely say no to unreasonable demands from the West.(2)
In China, nationalism emerged well before Westerners came to East Asia.(3) Traditional Chinese nationalism, not regarded as part of the modern nationalist system, advocated Han chauvinism, the belief that Han culture was superior to other cultures in East Asia. The Chinese emperor was a divine appointee with a universal mandate from heaven. The Chinese viewed other countries as tributary states of their empire. Traditional Chinese nationalism was rooted in an arrogant belief in the superiority of Chinese civilization and justified China's cultural and demographic hegemony in Asia.
The Chinese did not accept modern nationalism until the nineteenth century when Sun Yetsen advocated national independence without imperial domination and the principle of national equality within China--the "Equality of Five Peoples." Modern Chinese nationalism was identified with anti-imperialist movements such as the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the May Fourth Movement of 1919, and the anti-Japanese straggles of the 1930s and 1940s. After taking over China in 1949, the Chinese Communists adopted Marxist-Leninism, which advocated communist revolution and the downfall of capitalism all over the world. The Chinese government promoted campaigns against "U.S. imperialism" and "Soviet hegemonism" but nationalism as an ideology never gained strength in China before the 1990s.
THE RISE OF ANTI-WESTERN NATIONALISM IN CHINA IN THE 1990s
The post-cold war international situation, especially the rise of intense ethnic and nationalist conflicts around the world, helped to increase Chinese awareness of the importance of nationalism. The new Chinese nationalism, which stressed China's role as a victim of modern history, was based on frustration over China's inability to overcome political and economic barriers set up by Western countries. Those in the West were equally determined to guard their own national interests. In an effort to define an identity separate from the rest of the world, Chinese nationalists demanded a change in the international order, which was dominated by the West after the end of the cold war.
In the 1980s, anti-traditional topics were very popular in China. When Su Xiaokang's six-part television documentary series Heshang [Yellow River Elegy] was first shown in June 1988 on the Central Television Station in Beijing, the response was intense. It became tremendously popular. Heshang, a critical examination of Chinese history from its origin to the 1980s, condemned the traditional Chinese values, culture, and political system that contributed to stagnation of Chinese society in comparison with European countries, implying also that the Chinese Communists contributed to China's backwardness in the twentieth century.(4) In contrast, in the 1990s, few anti-traditional articles and books appeared in China. Rather, "traditional studies fever" emerged when many novels, musical and art works, TV series, movies, and operas took historical themes as their subject matter. Cultural conservativism rose when chauvinistic nationalism gained credibility in …
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Publication information: Article title: Anti-Western Nationalism in China, 1989-99. Contributors: Xu, Guangqiu - Author. Magazine title: World Affairs. Volume: 163. Issue: 4 Publication date: Spring 2001. Page number: 151. © 1999 Heldref Publications. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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