The People’s Republic celebrates its seventieth anniversary as people throughout China face heavy repression. Liam Glen writes on the danger of putting abstract concepts above human wellbeing.
October 1 was the Chinese National Day. In 2019, the country is celebrating the 70th anniversary of Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War.
It comes at a troubled time. In Hong Kong, violence between police and pro-democracy protesters continues. In Xinjiang, the world still does not know the exact scope and nature of state repression of Uighur Muslims.
Meanwhile, a trade war with the US has not helped the country’s economic slowdown. The regime needs a way to ensure the people’s loyalty.
Liu Shaoqi, the second president of the People’s Republic, once condemned imperialism and “bourgeois nationalism” as tools used by the elites to rally the people against their own interests. Ironically, Xi Jinping, the current holder of that position, is now pulling the exact same trick.
The state increasingly urges national unity while warning of foreign threats. Often, this rhetoric comes with no direct promise of improving citizens’ lives, but rather an appeal to the Chinese nation as a romantic concept.
I have written before on the myopia of tribalistic nationalist worldviews, which judge individuals’ moral worth based on their nationality. But even more sinister is Jinping’s form of nationalism.
In this worldview, not only do the lives of one’s compatriots take priority over foreigners, but the abstract ideal of national glory takes priority above even the wellbeing of the country’s citizens.
The Thin-Skinned Dragon
This phenomenon is about as old as human civilization. It was the modus operandi of every ancient king who rallied his forces with the promise of glory in battle. It was perfected into an art form by European rulers of the nineteenth and twentieth century.
It is present in nearly every country, but recent events have made it particularly salient in China. That the country is a growing world power that is home to nearly one fifth of humanity only makes it more relevant.
As recounted by writer Jianan Qian, the government does its best to embed ideas of national pride into Chinese culture. In this worldview, the nation is, of course, indistinguishable from the state.
This has led to truly noxious behavior from a vocal subset of nationalists. In Australia for instance, a small group of students from the Chinese mainland assaulted supporters of the Hong Kong protests.
It is difficult to see how increased autonomy for Hong Kong harms the denizens of mainland China. For some, however, any threat to Communist Party authority is intolerable.
Nowhere can this be seen better than social media. Keyboard warriors brought the fashion brand Versace to heel over a t-shirt typo that appeared to endorse Hong Kong and Macao’s independence. A similar incident came over pro-democracy shirts being sold on Amazon.
Online outrage is a feature of the modern world. But often the outraged party at least claims to be fighting against the establishment. There is something deeply strange about those who would spend their free time having an online meltdown on behalf of an authoritarian government.
If nothing else, the Chinese government knows how to use this phenomenon to its advantage. Controversies like the perpetual territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which are important to state interests but have no utility to average people, are constant rallying point.
The Communist Party’s increasing authoritarian tendencies, abandonment of any coherent ideology, and reliance on nationalist fever have led some critics to deride it as fascist. This label is controversial for obvious reasons, but there is no question that the state has spent its energy promoting a troubling mindset that emphasizes China as an abstract concept over actual Chinese people.
Ideas Over People
The Chinese government is one of the most egregious practitioners of this trick, but it would be laughable to present it in any way as a Chinese phenomenon.
It can be seen in slogans from “Make America Great Again” on the right to “Insubmissive France” on the left. Anyone who wants to rally the people need only to take a mixture of real and imagined grievances and wrap them up in a vague promise of national glory.
Concrete issues such as employment, wages, discrimination, and inequality can be swept under the rug in pursuit of a greater goal.
Nationalism is the most common vehicle for this mindset, but it is not the only one. Again, an extreme example comes from China, where Chairman Mao’s goal to revolutionize the country’s economy and culture cost the lives of tens of millions of his citizens.
These grand, abstract goals and principles carry a deep appeal to the human psyche. This becomes problematic, however, when these ideas are divorced from any tangible impact that they have on other people. While they may be abstract concepts, the consequences that come from pursuing them are very real.