The introduction to Phoenix TV host and international affairs commentator Qiu Zhenhai’s book, excerpted in Southern Weekend a couple of weeks back, reprises an important issue for everyone studying nationalism in China: to what extent should we really understand the phenomena that get labelled “Chinese nationalism” in those terms?
Qiu describes riding with a taxi driver who told him he’s longing for a war over the South China Sea or Diaoyu Islands.
“What is good about war? It could leave us broken and destitute.” I decided to have some fun with the driver.
“War is good, it reshuffles the cards. Otherwise, people like me will be driving taxis until we’re 80.” His frankness was startling, and I suddenly felt a pang of seriousness.
I decided to keep goading him. “War is really not fun. With no war, you might still be able to drive a taxi; as soon as war came, you wouldn’t only not be able to drive a taxi, you might have to go to the front line and lose your life.”
“If I lose my life, I lose my life. I’m not like those people who own property or companies. I’m even less like the corrupt officials who have riches they can steal. I am a proletarian, with nothing to care about. These days I don’t see any hope, it’s better to just take a gamble.” He was getting more and more forthright.
His answers made me feel heavy and serious. I didn’t feel the need to provoke him any more.
But what really left me lost for words was his next sentence: “I tell you, these days in China, people who think this way like me, there are a lot of us among the lower levels of society.”
At this point the issue was clear: I don’t denounce this taxi driver’s patriotic emotions, but was his enthusiasm for war really out of love for his country? Rather than expressing a patriotic emotion, I would say he was actually more venting his anxiety over his personal fate, and perhaps even about the state of China’s politics.
How many of the expressions of Chinese desire for war over remote uninhabited islands have less to do with avenging “national humiliation” or reclaiming “ancestral territory” than with a desire for something, anything, to shake Chinese society up?
The violence of the 2012 riots over the Diaoyu nationalisation provided many other indications of domestic socio-economic causes behind what appeared on the surface as “nationalist” fervour. In one case, a migrant worker named Li Zhiwei, who had never taken part in a demonstration before and who had forgotten the words to the national anthem, ended up leading the protest chants and then smashed a police riot van. In-depth interviews with Li Zhiwei after his release from detention revealed a heartbreaking backstory of self-abasement and social exclusion. His wasn’t an isolated case. As Zhu Huaxin of the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Office wrote in Caixin in late 2012:
As the suspects [of smashing during the anti-Japan protests] have appeared in court, it has become clear that the perpetrators were largely second generation rural migrants or second generation urban poor. These are groups that lie on the poverty line and struggle for recognition in society.
…This second generation of rural migrants longs to truly assimilate into urban life, but they are being shut out, leaving them to feel trapped between the city and the countryside. Their increasing struggle to get by in the cities only serves to intensify the sense that they have been deprived of their rights. Their rootless social status has made them more susceptible to a desire to overthrow the existing social order. Crucially they know how to use the Internet to release the frustration of their daily lives and to voice their demands.
Indeed, if the extremities of China’s periodic outpourings of anti-foreign anger — often the most prominent aspects in foreign perceptions — are largely the venting of the desperation from China’s underclass, then it wouldn’t be surprising if the violent nationalist rhetoric so prominent in online forums is also an outlet for this too. As a PLA officer told Susan Shirk several years ago:
“the internet is an outlet for people to express themselves. If you didn’t have it, you would have extreme action instead. It’s a way to relieve tension, but it also can arouse the feelings of a large group of people and put pressure on the government to do something.” (Shirk 2007, Fragile Superpower, p.103)
So, what bearing would these demographic indicators have for the Chinese state’s attitude towards the threat of such “nationalist” disharmony, either in the streets or online? Would the CCP have reason to take into account the views of such groups as they develop their foreign policy?
In the case of people like Qiu Zhenhai’s taxi driver, the desire for war over the disputed islands may not be directly borne of what might be termed “deep” nationalism, that is, principles regarding the makeup of the nation and how that should be realised. Instead, war — any war — appears more as a course of action that could lead to a brighter future for himself. Of course, judging by the material in the “Patriotic Education” campaign it instituted after almost losing power in 1989, as well as the ongoing ideological acceptability of the glorification of anti-Japan violence, and war-talk in centrally-controlled media, the CCP would clearly prefer that such people’s imaginings of a better future involve war rather than (counter-)revolution.
Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to assume the urban underclass is very much on the CCP’s radar as a threat to “social stability”, and intuitively, being a threat to social stability should give a group a certain degree of power. During the Great Depression last century this may have helped usher in the Nazis in Germany and the militarists in Japan. But in China today much depends on the CCP state’s approach to managing that threat, in particular balancing accommodation and suppression.
On the side of accommodation, there’s little doubt the Party’s top leadership would like to alleviate the inequality and lack of social mobility that create these feelings of desperation among the working class. However, even if the implicit desire behind outpourings of “unstable” nationalist behaviour is a fairer society, something that most Chinese probably share in principle, there is at little sign of an intellectual basis upon which these disaffected groups could rally support from other sections of Mainland society. My survey research is so far suggesting the broad base of urban Chinese thought (or feeling) on maritime disputes may be more rational, less warlike and more amenable to state influence than generally assumed. And China’s intense class consciousness, reflected in the disdain with which many urban Chinese people speak of migrant workers, means the state could quite possibly crush any proletarian-nationalist “instability” with the support of the expanding middle classes.
Intellectuals and students have constituencies that changed the destiny of China several times last century through mobilisations based on nationalist principles (e.g. 1912, 1919, 1935). The rallying of the masses of workers and peasants around the CCP in the leadup to 1949 was arguably a nationalist awakening too, albeit led by a Leninist party. But could today’s dislocated urban proletariat be an agent of history? The negative response of both the Chinese government and society to the “instability” in 2012 suggests they’re more likely to be the target of suppression than appeasement when they weigh in on nationalist issues like territorial disputes.
As always, i’d appreciate any readers’ help in untangling these issues.
I’d also like to add my thanks to Xuan Cheng, John Garnaut, James Barker, Mark Stokes and Taylor Fravel for discussions and tips on this topic. They don’t necessarily agree with the content of the article.
Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 16
August 9, 2013
By: Andrew Chubb
If outspoken Chinese military officers are, as Part One suggested, neither irrelevant loudmouths, nor factional warriors, nor yet the voice of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on foreign policy, and are instead experts in the PLA-CCP propaganda system, then what might explain the bad publicity they often generate for China? This article explores how the activities of China’s military hawks may contribute to the regime’s domestic and international goals. On a general level, the very appearance of a hawkish faction—the “opera” that Luo Yuan has described—serves the domestic purposes of promoting national unity (Global Times, May 4). By amplifying threat awareness and countering perceived Western plots to permeate the psyche of the Chinese populace and army, the “hawks” direct public dissatisfaction with the policy status quo away from the system as a whole.
In specific crises, such as the standoff at Scarborough Shoal last year or in the wake of the Diaoyu Islands purchase, hard-line remarks from uniformed commentators serve to rally domestic public opinion behind the prospect of military action, instil confidence in the PLA’s willingness to fight over the issue and deter China’s adversary. By amplifying the possibility of otherwise irrational Chinese military action and inevitable escalation should Beijing’s actions be interfered with, they have contributed to a thus-far successful effort to convince the Philippines and Japan to accept the new status quo around Scarborough Shoal and the Diaoyu Islands.
In my first foray into mainland China’s propaganda system since winning a “second-class prize” in a television language competition heavily rigged in my favour, the previous post (written for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief) was picked up by mainland online media on Tuesday, and run under the headlines, ‘America claims PLA hawkish faction mostly propaganda‘ (Global Times Online & People’s Daily Online), ‘U.S. media: China’s hawks and doves a carefully orchestrated show‘ (NetEase), and ‘U.S. media examine PLA hawkish faction: Luo, Dai etc. may have high-level support‘ (Sina).
I apologize in advance for the infelicitousness of this post, but i am a student and this is a blog, so can’t take these things too seriously ;)
My personal favourite was:
Since i now speak for “America” (or is it that i am America?), it is high time i actually went there.
As usual, I should be doing other things, but i couldn’t let this pass into the shadows: a chat session between Major-General (Retd) Luo Yuan and netizens from Huanqiu Wang (Global Times Website) in which Luo says the PRC’s debates between hawkish and dovish factions are “mixture of truth and deceit, real and fake”.
An English-language summary of the exchange was published on Chinascope in May, but that excluded many interesting parts, including, crucially, the ending. The more i read through the original, in fact, the more it seemed that just about everything in the article was pertinent.
Luo Yuan’s hopes for the masses
It starts almost exactly where i left off in this previous piece, discussing the strong market appeal of the PLA’s “hawkish” academic corps. The Huanqiu transcript claims to be a “actual record” of the chat, though the perfect, formal language the netizens allegedly used indicates that they were carefully vetted and edited. With questions prefaced by lines like, “Our country is currently situated in a period of complicated external circumstances,” we might legitimately wonder whether there were any netizens involved in the production of the questions at all.
Huanqiu netizen: China has always practiced peaceful coexistence, but in recent years our country has faced challenges everywhere in upholding territorial sovereignty. A significant number of the Chinese masses appeal for the coming of a “Flying General” from the poem line, “But when the Flying General is looking after the Dragon City / No barbarian horseman may cross the Yin Mountains.“ May I please ask, General Luo, how do you view these kinds of appeals?
“Flying General” refers to Li Guang 李广, the early Han Dynasty commander known for striking terror into the hearts of the Xiongnu raiders to the northwest. This raises a basic tension in China’s contemporary nationalist identity, between peaceful coexistence and merciless vengefulness and exclusion. Chairman Mao, of course, explained this away with his famous 1939 dictum, “If others do not assault me, I will not assault them; if others assault me, I will certainly assault them,” (人不犯我我不犯人，人若犯我我必犯人). Perhaps not surprisingly, that phrase became a slogan for destroying all kinds of real and fabricated enemies during Mao’s reign.
So, how does Luo Yuan view the masses’ alleged desire for a messianic “Flying General” figure to fight those fearsome Filipino raiders?
[I spent hours on this post, then WordPress kindly lost it without a trace, hence this is a bit out-of-date, sorry]
The April 20 edition of the Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) carried an article by recently-retired PLA Lieutenant-General Wang Hongguang, directly criticizing the Chinese media’s hawkish military commentators.
The article is brief — indeed so brief that the obligatory preface declaring support for the pundits’ patriotic mission does not even run to a full sentence:
In recent years, military affairs experts have frequently appeared on TV and in all kinds of publications, with the positive effect of strengthening the masses’ national defense awareness and arousing patriotism, but it cannot be denied that some have said off-key things, things that have misled the audience and been irresponsible.
Lt-Gen Wang, who now serves as Vice President of the PLA’s Academy of Military Science, made it quite clear that by “military affairs experts” he was referring to fellow PLA academics, particularly Zhang Zhaozhong, Luo Yuan, and of course Dai Xu.
It’s unusual to hear a PLA academic criticize his comrades in public; even more so for someone of such high rank. But most remarkable was Lt-Gen Wang’s claim that PLA academics’ war talk is “interfering” with the CCP-PLA leadership’s decision-making, citing the specific example of Sino-Japanese relations:
Some experts have inappropriately made comparisons of China and Japan’s military strength, claiming “China and Japan will inevitably go to war”, and that this “would not significantly affect our period of strategic opportunity”, [thus] inciting public sentiment and causing some interference with our high-level policy decision-making and deployments.
Wang Hongguang is in a position to know. Until recently he was Deputy Commander of the PLA’s Nanjing Military Region.
Last week the New York Times ran a story on how Ling Jihua’s attempt to cover up his son’s death in that Ferrari crash may have severely weakened Hu Jintao’s position during this year’s CCP leadership transition.
It might just be me and my island-centricness, but this story certainly didn’t seem to be following the inverted-pyramid rule, for only those readers who persisted to the very last paragraph (or read the Sinocism China Newsletter) would have learned that:
By September, party insiders said, Mr. Hu was so strained by the Ling affair and the leadership negotiations that he seemed resigned to yielding power. As Mr. Hu’s influence faded, Mr. Xi began taking charge of military affairs, including a group coordinating China’s response to the escalating row with Japan over disputed islands.
Given both the vital role Ling had played in managing the logistics of the General Secretary’s day-to-day activities, and the likely emotional toll of the death of a close associate’s son, this idea of a Human Jintao feeling the pinch is logical enough.
Although the Times‘ sources say Ling’s replacement as CCP General Office Director, Li Zhanshu, arrived in July, the public announcement of Ling’s reassignment from the post was only made on September 1. Then Noda reached his agreement with the Kurihara family to make the purchase on September 4. Could all this explain Xi Jinping’s lack of a public appearance between September 2 and September 12? If i were gearing up to take over as CCP General Secretary in a few months’ time and then found myself taking charge of the country’s response to a rapidly-escalating crisis, i’d have trouble finding time for photo ops.
Robert S. Ross built a reputation over the 1980s and 1990s as one of the leading realist analysts of Chinese foreign policy. He published a seminal article in 1986 highlighting the importance of the US-USSR-PRC “security triangle” in explaining China’s behaviour under Deng Xiaoping, and after the Cold War made a successful switch into the richer and murkier terrain of the domestic security situation of the CCP leadership and its relationship to Chinese foreign policy.
Ross’s shift in emphasis towards the importance of domestic factors in explaining China’s behaviour towards the outside world was foreshadowed in his 1986 piece, which noted:
The relative importance of domestic politics has been a function of the range of choice allowed by the pattern of triangular politics [ie. the international environment]. When the range of choice was narrow, domestic politics had a small impact on China’s US policy. When the choices expanded, domestic critics wielded greater influence on foreign policy making.
In recent years, this Boston College professor and Harvard Fairbank Center associate has become fixated on the idea of nationalistic public opinion as a singular driving force behind the Communist Party’s foreign policy.
One early example was 2009′s ‘China’s Naval Nationalism’, which argued the PLA Navy’s modernization, especially its aircraft carrier program, was irrational and against China’s national interest. Instead, Ross wrote, “widespread nationalism, growing social instability, and the leadership’s concern for its political legitimacy drive China’s naval ambition”. This contention provoked a lengthy response from Michael Glosny and Phillip Saunders, who pointed out a range of national interest arguments that could be made for China’s naval modernization.
Ross was evidently unmoved by this critique, for in a 2011 piece in the National Interest he produced a greatly expanded list of PRC foreign policy actions allegedly designed to appease nationalist public opinion. Although there is no question that domestic public opinion, including its loudly hawkish trends, form an element of the CCP leadership’s decision-making environment, there are obvious interest-based explanations for each of the examples on Ross’s list:
- The Impeccable incident in the South China Sea, in which a motley flotilla of fishing boats and patrol ships harassed a US surveillance ship. (Forget the undesirability, from the PRC’s strategic perspective, of having US surveillance ships gathering data on its new submarine facilities at the bottom end of Hainan Island.)
- China’s intransigence at the Copenhagen climate change conference. (Never mind that the PRC’s delegation was led by the National Development and Reform Commission, which has responsibility for China’s economic planning and thus a vested interest against binding carbon reduction targets. And ignore the repeated studies showing Chinese people to be relatively climate-aware.)
- The harsh reaction to the announcement of US arms sales to Taiwan in 2010. (Disregard how US military support for Taiwan stands between the PRC and fulfillment of its “sacrosanct mission” of “national reunification”.)
- China’s repeated strong protests against joint US-Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea in June-July 2010. (Also cited as an example of media-driven nationalist influence by Michael Swaine & M. Taylor Fravel, though China wound back its statements somewhat when further exercises were announced in November 2010.)
- The PRC’s lack of denouncement of North Korea for the sinking of the Cheonan. (Nothing to do with North Korea’s status as China’s only true ally in East Asia.)
- The party-state’s overreaction to the September 2010 detention of Captain Zhan, the Chinese fisherman who rammed a Japanese Coastguard vessel near the Diaoyu Islands. (Japan’s deviation from the established precedent of quickly releasing detained Chinese fishermen must have been irrelevant, likewise the opportunity this offered for China to use its burgeoning maritime law enforcement fleets to advance its sovereignty claims.)
- Denouncing the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. (Liu’s jailing for criticizing the Chinese government was presumably won widespread praise from nationalist critics of the Chinese government.)
- The treatment of Google. (Unrelated to the latter’s refusal to censor its search results.)
“[T]he source of all the aggressive Chinese diplomacy,” wrote Ross, is “the party’s effort to appease China’s nationalists”.
The same dubious list has been extended and wheeled out again in the latest edition of one of the US’s top foreign policy journals Foreign Affairs, along with a number of related misperceptions, in a piece called ‘The Problem With the Pivot’.
For the benefit of any time-stretched readers, my problems with Ross’s argument, detailed below, are that it:
- Relies on the mistaken premise that there has been a severe economic downturn in China since 2009, from which a legitimacy crisis has ensued.
- Wrongly assumes that China’s assertive foreign policy actions are seen as such by nationalist sections of Chinese public opinion.
- Discounts the huge strategic and economic interests China has, or perceives it has, in advancing its claims to disputed islands and maritime space.
- Claims, in the face of strong evidence to the contrary, that the Chinese party-state is unable to prevent anti-foreign protests.
- Argues that the recent protests over Diaoyu caused the PRC’s foreign policy escalation, without considering the uses that such protests can serve in advancing the government’s foreign policy objectives.
CDs with a song (one song) were being handed out for free at the anti-Japanese protests on September 18.
The song was specially recorded after the protests began by Lu Haitao 陆海涛 and Mi Li 米粒, two moderately successful contestants from the CCTV talent show Star Avenue. (Lu made the grand final, Mi won one round of the competition last year.)
I don’t know who bankrolled its production, and neither did any of the other bemused attendees who, like me, rushed over to grab whatever everyone else was grabbing. But according to this BBS post, Mi Li herself shelled out her own money for 1000 of the CDs to be pressed.
As horrid as its mixture of Han-chauvinist and Maoist nationalism is, i have found it compulsive listening….and strongly advise against giving up before you get to 2 minutes in — for a spectacularly hammy rap section awaits there. Yes, Diaoyu RAP!
I particularly love the way the guy’s “之” syllables just become growls. Being based on the language of officials during imperial times, it’s not surprising that the Mandarin language is amenable to the kind of haughty authority the song attempts to voice.
As for the diva, well, she may be rather nastily screechy, but not nearly as screechy as the lady who sang ‘Battle Hymn of the Paracel Islands’ to celebrate China’s victory over hapless South Vietnamese remnants there in 1974:
Source for the background image is Chineseposters.net.