Nationalism and Realpolitik Thinking: Popular and Intellectual Responses to US Containment

Chinese nationalism is thus not a purely Chinese domestic phenomenon. To a large extent, its revival has been bound up with the hardening of US China policy after the end of the Cold War, although the latter is by no means the sole factor. During the Cold War, the US had, for nearly two decades, treated China as a quasi-ally and played the China card to contain their then common enemy, the Soviet Union. In 1985, the improving relationship with the West in general and the US in particular led Deng Xiaoping to famously pronounce that the international situation was marked by two major themes: peace and development. Throughout the 1980s, rather than flirting with xenophobic nationalism, China was largely in the thrall of a fever to learn from the West. In economic realms, this enthusiasm was manifested in a hunger for global linkages.72 According to a nationwide survey in 1987, three quarters of Chinese were tolerant of the inflow of Western ideas, and 80 per cent of Chinese Communist Party members held a similar attitude.73 In the summer of 1988, China’s national soul-searching and the zeal of learning from the West reached a zenith with the repeated broadcast of a hugely popular six- part television series called River Elegy (Heshang) on the national TV network.74 The series called upon China to reflect upon the backward ‘Yellow River civilisation’ and head out into the open ‘azure ocean civilisation’, a euphemism for Western civilisation.75 Indeed, if there was Chinese nationalism back then, it was, according to Wang Xiaodong, ‘reverse nationalism’, a kind of nationalism that feels ashamed about Chinese culture.76

The end of the Cold War, together with the 1989 Tiananmen incident, saw a dramatic change in both Western perception and policy vis-a-vis China. As noted in earlier chapters, in the search for a new enemy, many Western, especially American, commentators and policy-makers began to find in China a new source of fear and a fresh target for containment. The emergence of China’s so-called new nationalism largely coincided with this initial phase of a more confrontational US policy.

A high-water mark of the new nationalism is the publication of a highly polemic book China Can Say No in 1996.77 Both the provocative title and its timing are significant in that they reveal the clearly mimicking and responsive nature of China’s new nationalism. At one level, the book mirrored Shintaro Ishihara and Akio Morita’s 1989 nationalist book Japan Can Say No,78 which itself came after the popular Western sport of Japan-bashing during the 1980s. At the same time, within a few years after the Cold War, a widespread perception emerged in China that the US was deliberately keeping China down on a range of issues, such as attaching human rights conditions to China’s MFN status, opposing Beijing’s Olympics bid, orchestrating the Yinhe incident,79 back-flipping on Lee Teng-hui’s 1995 visit to the US, and sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait in the Taiwan Strait missile crisis. As many Chinese participants argued at a UK conference on Chinese nationalism, the popularity of the hyper-nationalist text China Can Say No had more to do with its timing and context—the 1995-96 US-China standoff over Taiwan—than with a pre-existing, inherently nationalistic China.80 Most of the aforementioned ‘incidents’, as we may recall, emerged amidst the pursuit of a more hardline policy on China.

If we read beyond that book’s sensational sound bites and pay closer attention to its arguments, the responsive nature of Chinese nationalism becomes even more obvious. One author notes that ‘I had been an internationalist, but having witnessed the various [bullying] acts of the U.S. and Britain on the issue of China’s Olympics bid, I was deeply hurt and ever since have gradually become a nationalist’.81 This transformative experience summarises well the general sentiment of the book. Another author describes how the hawkish shift in US China policy similarly changed his attitude towards America. Back in the 1970s, he felt excited to know that the Americans were on China’s side against the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, his pro-American sentiment reached such a high pitch that he saw America as the model for China in almost every aspect. However, after a series of perceived hostile American actions in the early 1990s, that feeling quickly evaporated. His high hope for the US ended with a bitter disappointment.82 Another controversial book published in the same year, Yaomohua Zhongguo de beihou (Behind the Demonisation of China), told a similar story of disenchantment with the US:

If we had held some pro-American feeling before we went to the United States, this feeling which had been accumulated during our [Chinese] university and graduate school years was totally swept away once we got there and saw [firsthand] the demonisation of China and the neo-racist attack on our Chinese culture by American mainstream media.... It was Americans and their media’s demonisation of China that ‘instigated’ our anti-American sentiment.83

Perhaps no other event has contributed more to the rise of contemporary Chinese nationalism than the US’s ‘accidental’ bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in May 1999. Three Chinese nationals were killed and many more wounded in that incident. Shocked by the news, many university students who cheered NBA superstar Michael Jordan and welcomed President Clinton’s visit just one year before now staged demonstrations in front of the US Embassy in Beijing. On the campus of Renmin University of China, a group of Chinese students surrounded several American students, shouting ‘Blood must be repaid with blood!’ One student admitted that the scene looked rather ugly, but then he quickly added that ‘compared to what we were responding to, it was pretty restrained’.84 Previously popular Chinese outrage at the US had been confined to the printed media. Now for the first time, this bombing set off violent expressions of nationalist sentiments in cyberspace.85 In response to public outcry against the NATO bombing, the online version of the People’s Daily set up the ‘Protesting against NATO Atrocities BBS Forum’. This forum later evolved into the highly nationalistic Qiangguo luntan (Strong Country Forum), now one of the most influential current affairs online forums in China, whose regular visitors include even Chinese President Hu Jintao.86 For many, this incident was a significant and unforgettable formative event. Previously indifferent to international politics, many were turned nationalistic almost overnight. Even some Tiananmen demonstrators, as Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize) found out, now instantly became anti-Western nationalists.87

Thus, this ‘new nationalism’ should be understood less in isolation than in terms of mutual responsiveness. Specifically, it was a ‘response’, as Fan Shiming puts it, to ‘America’s unilateralism, arrogance, hypocrisy, and hegemony in its international behaviour and foreign policy’.88 Without the 1999 bombing, it would be hard to imagine that those anti-American demonstrations could have occurred. Similarly, had it not been for the routine flight of American spy planes along China’s coast, there would not have been the 2001 spy plane incident to begin with or the subsequent outpouring of Chinese nationalism. And without the violent disruption of the international routes of the Beijing Olympics torch relay, the world probably would not have witnessed the strong nationalist backlash from mainland and overseas Chinese alike. Insofar as it often takes place in an interactive setting, the new nationalism is not just ‘made in China’; it is co-constructed in the US and the West as well. Still further evidence of such reciprocity lies in a positive correlation between Western policy and Chinese behaviour: ‘when the West, especially the United States, shows its respect to China, nationalistic voices decline’.89

If the public response to US hardline policy is characterised by nationalist fervour, then responses from Chinese intellectuals (especially IR scholars) are marked by a renewed interest in realpolitik thinking. It is true that China, in the words of Thomas Christensen, is ‘the high church of realpolitik in the post-Cold War world’.90 Many Chinese scholars are convinced that international relations still resemble what Hobbes calls ‘the state of nature’.91 Peking University professor Zhu Feng views the Western IR theory of power politics as the most important theoretical framework within which to interpret contemporary international affairs.92 Zhang Ruizhuang, a Berkeley-trained professor at Nankai University, argues that the realist assumption of selfish human nature is a true reflection of world reality. As such, conflicts of interests among nations are inevitable: if you want peace, then prepare for war (parabellum).93 From a similar vantage point, Yan Xuetong, another Berkeley graduate and director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, argues in his book Zhongguo guojia liyi fenxi (An Analysis of China’s National Interests) that safeguarding the national interest depends on power. In the absence of power, the former is mere wishful thinking.94 If these ideas sound familiar, that is because to a large extent they have been appropriated from mainstream Western strategic thought.95 Mark Leonard, the author of What Does China Think?, sees Yan Xuetong as almost ‘the mirror image of William Kristol’, a leading American neoconservative strategist. Just as Kristol is obsessed with a China threat and the danger of appeasement of Beijing, Yan Xuetong seems equally wary of the US and strongly urges China not to show weakness. ‘We think if you make concessions [to the USA, Japan and Taiwan], they will just ask for more. The problems we are having with Japan and Taiwan are a direct result of years of appeasement’, Yan told Leonard.96

Of course, this ‘mirror-image’ argument does not mean that Chinese thinking is always a passive derivative of Western ideas. It may be argued that this simply reflects the fact that ‘realist minds think alike’ when it comes to world reality. In Yan’s case, his realist thinking may also be traced back to his personal experience of hardship as a young school-leaver sent to a construction corps in the 1960s.97 That being so, this still does not explain why in recent years similar perceptions of US China policy are increasingly taken up by more liberal-minded scholars as well. During the Spy Plane incident, Chu Shulong, a moderate liberal intellectual often cited as a contrast with his hardline colleague Yan Xuetong, suggested that Beijing should not release the US crew members without receiving a real apology.98 Wang Yizhou, a professor at Peking University, calls himself a ‘realistic liberal’. But as a scholar from a ‘weak, developing country’, he expresses his agony over what he calls the ‘crude reality of power politics and hegemony imposed upon the weak in the daily practice of international politics’.99 To both Chu and Wang, their reluctant embrace of power politics seems to have less to do with their theoretical persuasions and more with the perceived American containment of China.

In saying so, I do not intend to rehash the old, Eurocentric ‘impact- response’ approach, that is, China’s nationalism and realpolitik thinking are merely a product of external stimuli.100 No doubt, the Chinese are more than capable of fostering their own nationalist/realpolitik ideas. But even when we rightly recognise Chinese agency here, we need to keep in mind the broader historical context of Western construction of Chinese realism. Realism is certainly not alien to traditional Chinese culture (such as the Legalist school), but without European gunboat diplomacy, it is highly doubtful that it could have flourished in a culture traditionally dominated by Confucianism.

The change of heart by the imperial commissioner Lin Zexu during the Qing dynasty serves as a good example here. Responsible for stemming the illicit opium trade by British merchants, Lin Zexu sought initially to persuade Queen Victoria to cooperate through a Confucian logic of reciprocity. In his letter to the Queen in 1839, he pleaded that ‘you would not wish to give unto others what you yourself do not want’. However, his message fell on deaf ears. Witnessing the constant coming and going of European powers’ ships on the open sea ‘as they pleased’, the commissioner eventually succumbed to the ‘reality’ of power politics. In 1842, he wrote to a friend that ‘ships, guns, and a water force are absolutely indispensable’ for the defence of China’s sea frontiers. 101 But at that time Lin Zexu considered such an idea so revolutionary and controversial in China that he begged his friend to keep it confidential. Lin’s transformation from a Confucian scholar-official to a realist strategist is a microcosm of the lasting impact Western powers had left on Chinese strategic thinking and behaviour in modern history. Just as China’s determined quest for wealth and power since the mid-nineteenth century cannot be separated from those imperial encounters, its present status as the high church of hard-nosed realism needs to be properly understood, especially, though not exclusively, in the context of contemporary Sino- American interactions.

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