Beijing calls out nationalism elsewhere but exploits and encourages its own.
Often feeling insecure from Western-induced barbs, the Chinese Community Party (CCP) is taking its turn for viewing the other side from a pedestal. The rise of Donald Trump and Brexit have allowed the CCP a renewed sense of confidence, given that these two phenomena demonstrate the fallbacks of liberal democracy—and, by default, the success of China’s one-party state.
The Global Times, a state-owned newspaper, wrote that the rise of Trump opened a “Pandora’s box,” after which the “US faces the prospect of an institutional failure.” Comparing Trump to fascists of the 1930s, the party mouthpiece reminded readers that “Mussolini and Hitler came to power through elections, a heavy lesson for Western democracy.”
And then there is Brexit: the victory of an inward-looking, Little England mindset. Though Beijing will regret the loss of its best ally in Europe, the disastrous impact of Brexit on the British economy—as well as the exposure of exaggerations and lies from the Vote Leave camp—adds to China’s argument that Western-liberal democracy is inefficient and destructive.
Beijing’s case for a one-party state is, of course, self-serving. Since China began getting rich in the 1980s, the CCP sought to legitimize its rule through its economic successes. Now the economy is faltering, the party will inevitably seek other sources of legitimacy. One of these is the failure of Western democracy to prevent self-destructive and nationalist leaders coming to power. Paradoxically, the other source of legitimacy is its own Chinese nationalism.
China’s criticism of liberal democracy is more a finger-wagging exercise against nationalist forces that inevitably arise within liberal frameworks. But China, too, is guilty of exploiting and encouraging these forces. China calls out nationalism elsewhere but actively fosters its own.
The Hague Ruling
To distract ordinary Chinese from the economic slowdown, the party has diverted their attention to the South China Sea. Based on dubious historical claims, it uses a “nine-dash line” to mark its territory and seeks to control 90% of the South China Sea, including its encompassing strategic islets and reefs. Chinese state media has aggressively pursued a campaign to reiterate these claims to the population.
On July 12, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of claims by the Philippines over control of disputed waters in the South China Sea, which Chinese state-owned media were quick to disregard. China’s state news agency, Xinhua, said that “as the panel has no jurisdiction, its decision is naturally null and void.”
Chinese celebrities, too, joined the nationalist chorus by hastily posting a map of China and the “nine-dash line” on Chinese social media using a viral hashtag that roughly translates to “China, not a single part can be taken out.” It is reasonable to believe some of these celebrities may have been coerced by the government, given that others have seen their careers threatened for disagreeing with the state.
When asking ordinary Chinese about the ruling, this author found they were likely to reiterate the party line.
“The South China Sea is China’s inseparable territory. Every fish is China’s,” said Liu Lijuan, a journalism student from Tianjin.
Some took an uglier nationalist approach. Lu Miyuan, a nurse from Hebei province, threatened: “If the Philippines claims the South China Sea, then China will claim the Philippines.”
By using nationalism, Beijing is, to use the Chinese idiom, riding a tiger and unable to get off. The use of nationalism may help prop up the CCP in the short term, but the party will find itself unable to quell the increasingly hostile sentiments of its citizenry.
Just like how Brexiters made unrealistic claims about a life outside the European Union, Beijing may disappoint the nationalist forces on which it is riding. If the Chinese government cannot secure territory and meet its citizens’ unrealistic nationalist aspirations, the CCP will lose a source of legitimacy. The people may turn against it.
And beyond the South China Sea, China is having other territorial problems, again thanks to its heavy handedness. Relations with Taiwan—which is included in China’s territorial claims but enjoys de-facto independence—are frosty, with Taiwan showing no appetite to rejoin the mainland. Calls for independence in Hong Kong, unthinkable before Xi Jinping’s premiership, are growing. The supposedly autonomous region of Xinjiang is descending into civil war, and hundreds have died in the conflict there since 2007.
It is unlikely that China will not be able to secure all these territorial claims and calm nationalist sentiment. Warning against the rise of Trump, The Global Times wrote: “The US had better watch itself for not being a source of destructive forces against world peace, more than pointing fingers at other countries for their so-called nationalism and tyranny.”
Perhaps China should take its own advice.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Holger Gogolin