Linking internal and external enemies: Impact of national identity on Chinesedemocratization and foreign relations

Yinan He

Since Xi Jinping formally ascended to power in 2013, China has been flaunting its superior “China model” to the rest of the world more actively than ever before. The official media have published numerous articles with such eye-catching titles as “Establishing the Chinese Coordinates for Democratic Politics,”1 “China Is the Real Biggest Democratic Country in the World Today,”2 and “The Special Form and Unique Superiority of Our Socialist Democratic Politics,”3 creating an aura of China being a well-established, exemplary democracy.

Yet to qualify as a true democracy, a country needs to endorse democratic political procedures—e.g. free and fair elections, broad civil rights, and leaders’ accountability—that embody the fundamental tenets of democracy that all men are created equal and that sovereignty lies with the people. Those who are supposed to be equal and hold popular sovereignty should include all nationals living in a country, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, and political persuasion. In other words, the national identity definition of who is the national self, “the People,” vis-à-vis the others who do not belong to the nation, is closely tied to the extent to which democratic rights are enjoyed by average citizens. An accommodative, inclusive conception of the self-other boundary will allow the vast majority of the population to exercise sovereignty in the governance of the country, while a narrow and discriminative self-other delimitation depriving sizable segments of the society of national membership will not only encroach on the rights of individual citizens but also produce a culture of prejudice and intolerance that runs counter to democratic values of equality, diversity, and justice. In this sense, China since modern times has not seen genuine democratization.

For China, this period of more than a century is a nation-building process, starting with, first, the stage of nation-seeking (to establish an autonomous national polity), then entering the second, and current, stage of nation-promoting (to nationalize an existing polity).4 During this history, especially when facing severe domestic challenges, Chinese elites frequently aroused internally exclusionary nationalism for social mobilization and power consolidation, with the goal of “building group cohesion and group loyalty for purposes of international representation and domestic planning,” an essential condition for nationbuilding? Depending on the domestic enemies identified at different times in the Chinese national identity conception, various ethnic, socioeconomic, political, and religious groups were denied equal rights and popular sovereignty.

Additionally, from time to time, this domestic exclusion in Chinese identity politics was linked to attitudes to foreign others. Mobilization of anti-foreign national identity was unnecessary when the target of internal othering could arouse a sufficient public echo. But when vilifying domestic adversaries was either emotionally unappealing or politically inconvenient, Chinese elites would reinforce it with a nationalist crusade against foreign countries to generate a legitimatory narrative for securing power. Thus, national identity has exerted a significant impact on both the Chinese domestic political trajectory and foreign relations.

This is not to refute the fact that Chinese elites since the late 19th century have almost all espoused the pursuit of democracy, and some of them made serious attempts at dismantling China’s long-standing authoritarian tradition and institutional structure. Democracy had its opportunities in modern China. Yet, every time, such opportunities and good intentions were stymied by an exclusive interpretation of national identity in service of the power struggle aimed at nation-building.

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