The Chinese government has repeatedly resorted to using nationalism whenever it felt threatened or weak over the last few decades. They also exploited nationalism to gain domestic support for prominent foreign policy directions, especially when it came to Japan, Taiwan and the United States.
However, in recent years, nationalism is being cultivated in order to gain support for domestic policies. In a post-ideological political environment, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has had to resort to nationalism in order to rally the masses in support of its policies.
Since taking over as President Xi has argued that the Party is the main user and proponent of patriotism, saying it should be an important part of both the education system and the road to the “China Dream”. Patriotism needs to be combined with the idea of socialism as well. After abolishing the two-term limit on the presidential term in March, there has been a major push by the party to eliminate domestic criticism with the help of nationalism. But as experience shows, nationalism has always been a double-edged sword.
Chinese intellectuals vehemently criticized the party’s move to abolish the two-term presidential limit and argued that China was moving away from the process of political reforms that began in the Deng Xiaoping era. The issue also led to discussions about a more authoritarian rule and the shift to a Mao-style of governance. Given the extent of Beijing’s control over the media, most critical articles were removed or censored.
However, in the last few months, there has been a surge in such opinions online. It’s important to note that Xi has regularly praised Mao, especially his patriotism and dedication to the country and party. Thus, it was no surprise that it was under Xi’s leadership that China marked the 80th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre. The government even organized a national day of remembrance on December 13, 2017, further exploiting nationalistic sentiment.
Immediately after news that the limit on presidential terms had been abolished there were a lot of reactions on the internet arguing that China was moving in the direction of North Korea. But these were quickly removed. However, the recent focus on intellectuals appears to be in response to the article titled “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes”, which was written by Xu Zhangrun. It criticized government policies and also argued that Xi was working towards building a cult. The increased criticism because of the vaccine scandal has also played a crucial role.
In order to gain support, the Chinese government announced a new idea that ‘intellectuals should be more patriotic’. In order to achieve this, they announced the establishment of a ‘patriotic spirit campaign’ primarily aimed at young and middle-aged intellectuals. In an article in the Global Times, Su Wei, a professor at the Party School of the CPC Chongqing Municipal Committee argued that “Intellectuals expect more toward democracy and the rule of law from globalization. Some of them express unrealistic dissatisfaction toward the country. Corruption has also affected people’s trust in government and the nation”.
The major aim is to manage growing discontent among intellectuals and push them to follow the communist party’s line. Criticism of state policies has spurred a strong reaction, as seen in the case of Sun Wenguang, a retired professor, when he criticized the increased expenditure on foreign abroad. It is believed that six police officers went to his house after his appearance on a television show and he has not been seen since.
It is not only intellectuals who have been on the receiving end of the party’s “patriotic” campaign. There has been an ongoing program of patriotic education in China which has gained more impetus under Xi. One report said school students were asked in 2016 to watch shows and give speeches about the Long March spirit, which is an indication of ideological control and monitoring by Xi.
In some cases, parents had to even send proof to school showing that their children watched the required shows. In addition to this, there has also been an increase in the glorification of the CCP in textbooks, plus an additional focus on Confucianism, Chinese folklore and traditional medicine. However, the push for patriotic education is not that recent. The Chinese government relied on this program after the incident at Tiananmen Square in 1989 to help the party and try to make Chinese people more patriotic.
However, such efforts only strengthen the argument that the Chinese government, despite being in power for almost 70 years, is highly paranoid and scared of critics. Xi is clearly not as strong a leader as the world might believe. The CCP has had a history of crushing dissent in a top-down fashion and Xi wants no repeat of the Tiananmen Square uprising, as it may prove tougher to censor and manage considering the world’s globalized communication links.
Xi’s standard approach towards handling domestic problems and criticism has been one of increased control and command. Since taking over as President of the People’s Republic of China, he has followed a strong-man approach with no leeway for independent opinions or discussion. The Chinese media today is more controlled than ever and there has been a rise in monitoring and propaganda.
There have also been reports suggesting the government’s “incessant ideological indoctrination by the Chinese government has been counterproductive”. However, Xi needs to understand that if the government continues to clamp down on public debate there could be a severe backlash from society over the rise in mistrust towards the party.