“War is good, it reshuffles the cards”: Qiu Zhenhai’s taxi ride

China Anti-Japan Protests - Beijing

Instability threat: Anti-Japan protesters in Beijing, September 2012

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.

Teargas battle in Shenzhen, 2012

Teargas in Shenzhen, 2012

2 Comments on ““War is good, it reshuffles the cards”: Qiu Zhenhai’s taxi ride”

  1. […] constrained by public nationalism, Andrew Chubb asks at South Sea Conversations, “to what extent should we really understand the phenomena that get labelled ‘Chinese nationalis…” He translates a conversation with a pro-war taxi driver from the introduction to Phoenix TV […]

  2. […] what the outside world commonly understands as Chinese nationalism. In this way, it’s another illustration of how much more lurks behind shows of apparently […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s