Beijing has been fueling nationalist sentiment across China.
If you have seen the appallingly blunt tweet on December 3rd, 2020 that consists only of the insult “B***h” made by a columnist of China Daily, in response to US senator Marsha Blackburn, chances are you would have also heard of “Wolf warrior diplomacy”. It is used to describe the increasingly assertive and high-profile diplomatic approach of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) beginning from 2017-2018. It is extremely popular amongst younger generations, as reflected by the 81.5 thousand likes the tweet got. Their nationalistic behavior, however, is not limited to keyboard fighting, as there has been countless fanatical mobilisations under pro-Beijing sentiment both within China and overseas.
But why and how are the Chinese people becoming so belligerent and occasionally jingoistic, despite being one of the biggest beneficiaries of globalisation? It is important to note that there are multiple categories of Chinese nationalism adhered to by different demographics.
Liberal nationalism, dating back to the 1919 May Fourth Movement, envisions a westernised, democratic China. It is also the only version that does not see the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the ultimate representative of the Chinese. However, it is no longer relevant within the PRC after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Instead it was replaced by conservative nationalism, endorsed by historical leaders like Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. They were content in remaining coercive domestically while adopting a pragmatic, low profile attitude on the international stage, characterised by the saying “taoguang yanghui”.
Nonetheless, this article focuses on contemporary populist nationalism. Other than being exclusively chauvinistic and bellicose, populist nationalism can be classified by the tech-savvy millennial and gen Z who grew up in the PRC. Their identity is dictated by a pride of being a part of the thriving PRC, and are consequently contemptuous towards the perceived western hypocrisy and scornful towards the rest of the world, especially when international relations sour.
There are three main roots to this vehement mentality: China’s economic success and rising global influence, China’s modern history, and state censorship and propaganda. These are all simultaneously state-sanctioned and grassroots-initiated, but the two factors tend to merge and reinforce each other.
Although rising world powers do typically become egoistic and demanding, populist nationalism is also ironically fueled by domestic failure. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) encourages its people to find psychological compensation through China’s international success during internal crises and personal setbacks, often through drawing comparisons to other countries facing similar issues. For instance, China’s relatively successful Covid-19 handling has remained a major morale boost and vocal point for Chinese superiority, while completely neglecting their initial coverup of the epidemic and the current second wave. Similarly, those suffering from ongoing social issues and human rights abuses have no choice but to take China’s macroeconomic growth and rising status as a world power as their sole spiritual pillar.
If the “hundred years of humiliation” has not been sufficient in arousing nationalism on its own, the CCP certainly made sure it could. They spent tremendous efforts in emphasising its historical importance, whilst fabricating their sole contribution in salvaging the people from the Western imperialists and Japanese invaders. In fact, this period of history is such an integral part of the PRC’s founding myth it has been indoctrinated through the national “Patriotic Education Campaign” since 1991. The national identity is thus dominated by a tenacious inferiority complex and a fervent yearning to defend national interests militaristically even when unnecessary. For example, calls for the “liberation of Taiwan” and the massacre of Hong Kong protestors with military force are extremely popular amongst these ultranationalists.
Nationalism has always been effective in securing public support by distracting them from local crises. This is particularly vital to authoritarian governments like the CCP. With total control of information through the press and the “great firewall of China”, they are able to create and feed a parallel universe of fake news to the people. By banning all western social media and monopolizing international news coverage, they mistranslate foreign events and selectively report news, like labelling all protests in Hong Kong, Xin Jiang, and Tibet as subversive and western criticisms as neoimperialism in order to incite nationalistic emotions.
To conclude, their philosophy can be best captured through the image of the Wolf Warrior. This highly jingoistic and chauvinistic action blockbuster featuring Chinese troops defending national interests from foreign mercenaries has a clear message: China is no longer weak and is more than capable to seize hegemonic power. It achieved huge commercial success, earning multiple state-approved awards, and has become the all time highest grossing film in the country, showing how mainstream it is. This is how the aforementioned “Wolf warrior diplomacy” came to be.
But how does the CCP handle these radicalists? Going back to the tweet, China Daily is an English-language newspaper formally overseen by the CCP’s propaganda department. Being the spokesperson, all tweets must have been internally approved. Thus, the apparent aggressiveness displayed through playground insults can be seen as accommodating the rise of domestic nationalism. However, it is important to note that it was not vocalized by the official Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This signals that this is not the official diplomatic approach the CCP wants. As a result, we can assume that the CCP is constantly balancing the radicalists’ expectations and practical diplomatic gains. That being said, the latter is always prioritised for the former is merely the means to stabilizing their rule within the PRC.
Photo source- Flickr (Rebecca Witherspoon)
Written by Anonymous