The ideology you have when you’re not having ideology

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Nationalism. It’s got flags.

The English language version of Chinese state owned TV is always entertaining. It’s a window into the parallel universe of Chinese news media where different things are true. When we last watched a massive Chinese military exercise off the coast near Shanghai was the top story. Its paralytic effects on civilian air traffic went unmentioned.

The reporter interviewed a retired Chinese naval officer. His answers were spliced with endless shots of missiles careering off Chinese warships. No, he said, it was just a coincidence that the exercise coincided with the hundred and twentieth anniversary of the Sino-Japanese war. It had been planned as part of an annual calendar (because apparently it’s impossible to anticipate anniversaries in advance). But, he laboured, there were still messages given what he called “growing tensions” with Japan: keep your hard right politicians in check, don’t think about participating in foreign wars, and keep your hands off the rocky outcrops China claims as its territory, thanks.

The Japanese bare the brunt of China’s aggressive nationalism. I’ve read accounts of an engineering student who told a journalist he wanted to build tanks to exterminate the Japanese, and of shops that literally use Japanese flags as door mats. But almost any nationalist cause will whip the Chinese population into fever pitch these days. Pick an island, any measly island. China claims dozens, including one a thousand miles from its coast line and fifty from Malaysia’s. Have another power act on its claim in some way, and you’ve got the perfect reason for a mass demonstration. Protests like these are the largest in China since Tiananmen square in 1989. These ones are actively facilitated by government.

The century of humiliation

As strident socialism made way for no holds barred capitalism, there was an ideological vacuum to fill. It was becoming tough for schools to teach lessons about class enemies with a straight face. The government cunningly turned to the ideology you have when you’re not having ideology: nationalism. Its underpinnings are little more sophisticated than “we’re Chinese, bitches”. Encouraging pride in national identity was a useful companion for a culture that now encouraged pride in wealth. Both involve celebrating things you’ve got, without requiring you to question why you’ve got them.

The “century of humiliation” helped spur Chinese nationalism along. It suddenly appeared as a national meme in the 1990s, rewritten into text books and crowed about by politicians. The idea is that from 1842 onwards China suffered humiliations at the hands of foreign powers and now need to assert nationhood to atone. There are a couple of problems with this. First, excepting the brutal Japanese occupation of north eastern China which still makes Japan public enemy number one, the humiliations were pretty modest. The loss of the opium wars saw China concede Hong Kong to Britain – then basically a rock. The concessions in cities like Shanghai were mutually beneficial. China was never colonised, nor subservient to foreign powers. As humiliation goes the hundred years from 1842 was like a bad karaoke performance, not an unexpected nudity incident.

Second, the ‘century of humiliation’ is, to my mind, much less humiliating than the fifty years that followed. More people died under Mao, as a result of direct brutality and foolish economic policies, than in any other period in history – some 70 million – and it was all, pretty much, self-inflicted. And it hurt.

I accept that the ‘century of humiliation’ is a powerful rhetorical tool for galvanising Chinese. But the problem with using nationalism as a proxy for ideology is that it doesn’t explain, much less justify, what the Chinese government is doing. Not the rampant inequality. Not the outrageous corruption amongst officials. Not the myriad of restrictions on free speech.

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