Chinese President Xi Jinping, on screen, delivers a speech during the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on July 1, 2021. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhao

The Communist Party of China’s celebration of its centennial has drawn global attention. In the West, the spreading lament is that China’s official ideology is more about a worrying emphasis on nationalism intertwined with the “century of humiliation” cliché rather than communist ideology per se. But in reality, this may have always been the case.

The humiliation discourse can be traced to Liang Qichao, a writer and activist of the Qing Dynasty. Later, it was exploited by the Chinese Nationalist Party, the adversary of the CPC during the Civil War, at the end of the 1920s after the death of Sun Yat-sen, who had proposed nationalism as an indispensable component of his Three Principles of the People.

As for the Mao era, while it seemed like a period when communism took control, this was also not totally true. Despite the lip service Mao Zedong and the CPC paid to the Soviet Union, their national revolution might have gained support from Moscow, but it had little to do with its communist ideology.

Mao shied away from the Marxist orthodoxy that the urban working class should be the key force of a socialist revolution. The solemn proclamation Mao made in Tiananmen Square in 1949 was that the Chinese people had stood up, rather than expounding that communism had ultimately succeeded after several previous attempts such as the Hundred Days’ Reform and the 1911 Revolution.

Wang Fanxi, one of the early CPC leaders, argued that “Mao built his ideological foundation on the Chinese classics … with the acquired knowledge of Marxism-Leninism … a rough superstructure of foreign style on a solid Chinese foundation.”

That said, there were still some Beijing-initiated ideological exports in the Mao era. However, when Deng came to power, these exports stopped.

Looking back at Chinese history, the Mao era appears to be an aberration. As Henry Kissinger argued, historically, the Chinese did not export ideas or attempt to convert other countries to its own values but rather let others come to seek them. 

During the Deng period, the ideology returned to the normal track and evolved into much more of a Chinese product: socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Currently, Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” directly refers to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Xi even claimed the CPC “is the successor to and promoter of fine traditional Chinese culture,” which is substantially different from Mao’s rejection of traditional Chinese culture during the Cultural Revolution.

Professor Andrew Mertha of Johns Hopkins University has said that “the genuine narrative that has emerged under the Xi’s era … is also not an ideology but a blunt, albeit historically grounded, nationalist imperative.” Kishore Mahbubani, of the National University of Singapore, went even further to contend that “CCP” functionally does not stand for Chinese Communist Party, but “Chinese Civilization Party,” a much more nationalistic narrative.

More concretely, Martin Jacques, author of the global best-seller When China Rules the World, argued that unlike the US, which advocates democracy while enabling and supporting hierarchical relations internationally, China largely remains aloof to the domestic policies of other countries, unless those policies can be construed as being insulting or demeaning to China.

More crucially, China in essence has no allies, which is a stunning distinction from the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union, signifying a resort to non-military solutions to conflicts. The recent reconciliation of South China Sea issues may be evidence for this.

Nevertheless, the West is justified to worry about the overheating nationalism in China, because it may bring danger and chaos to the world. Yes, the Taiwan conundrum concerning the party’s legitimacy and its whole narrative is a potential flashpoint. In essence, the Taiwan dilemma is also a test for Chinese nationalism against Taiwanese self-proclaimed identity.

However, except for Taiwan, it is doubtful that the Chinese version of nationalism is very menacing, because a majority of Beijing’s logic has not sprung from communism, but from its history and culture that Chinese people have enshrined for thousands of years, and of course, the party’s desire to remain in power.

In fact, China’s historical expansion of influence was marked by indifference, self-centeredness, Han Chinese dominance, and occasional ignorance toward other “barbarian” nations, with a goal of superiority but showcased mostly in a peaceful fashion.

That said, some of these historical habits now have no place. Modern history has shown civilizations have evolved beyond self-centered superiority. The “century of humiliation” was also a bloody lesson that aloofness, clinging to previous achievements and rejecting changes, in the end, go nowhere.

Thus, the current scenario may be not only about the West adapting to Chinese nationalism, but also Chinese nationalism accommodating the world. This is simply because when Chinese and Western leaders face irreconcilable conflicts of interest such as Taiwan, there may be a dark and bottomless chasm facing them that humankind should not be tragically forced to fall into.

Yuan Jiang

Jon (Yuan) Jiang is a Chinese PhD student in the Digital Media Research Centre at the Queensland University of Technology. He completed his master’s degree in political science at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, and bachelor’s degree of law at Shanghai University. As a Russian speaker, he worked with ZTE Corporation as an account manager, and as a special correspondent with Asia Weekly and Pengpai News, all in Moscow.