The anti-Japan protests that continue to roil China are just another indication of the rise of a potent Chinese nationalism. After a century slowly fomenting among Chinese intellectuals, national sentiment has captured and redefined the consciousness of Chinese people during the last two decades of China’s economic boom. This mass national consciousness launched the Chinese colossus into global competition to achieve an international status commensurate with the country’s vast capacities and its people’s conception of their country’s rightful place in the world.
Rapidly, visibly and inevitably, China has risen. Indeed, this era will likely be remembered as the time when a new global order, with China at the helm, was born.
Competitive national consciousness — the consciousness that one’s individual dignity is inseparably tied to the prestige of one’s “people” — worked its way into the minds of China’s best and brightest between 1895 and 1905.
In 1895, China was defeated by Japan, a tiny aggressor whom the Chinese dismissively called wo (倭,“dwarf”). China was already accustomed to rapacious Western powers squabbling over its riches, but had remained self-confident in the knowledge of these powers’ irrelevance. However, the assault from Japan, a speck of dust in its own backyard, shattered this self-assurance and was experienced as a shocking and intolerable humiliation.
Japan’s triumph in 1905 over “the Great White Power,” Russia, repaired the damage to China’s sense of dignity. From the Chinese point of view, Russia was a formidable European power, one feared by other Western powers. Its defeat, therefore, was seen as a successful Asian challenge to the West, in which China, its intellectuals felt, was represented by Japan.
Japan thus became the focus of Chinese attention. Gentlemen-scholars, who would reform and staff the Chinese army and civil service in the early decades of the twentieth century, went to study in Japan. The Revolution of 1911 in China was inspired by the example of Japan’s Meiji Restoration; and, because early-20th-century Japan was stridently nationalistic, the new China that emerged from its image was constructed on nationalist principles as well.
Thus, Japan became the significant “other” for China, the model that was imitated and the anti-model that was resented. Chinese nationalism borrowed from Japan its concept of the nation, including the very word by which it was expressed (kuomin (國民) from the Japanese kokumin). The Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist Party, or KMT) was explicitly inspired by Japan and fueled by repeated Japanese aggression.
Paradoxically, but not unexpectedly, former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) struggle against the KMT was inspired by anti-Japanese nationalism as well. As was the case virtually everywhere else, communism in China was nationalism incarnate. Mao’s speech on the establishment of the People’s Republic plainly expressed the nationalist agenda behind it. Calling the nation “communist” assured the new People’s Republic of China of the Soviet Union’s support, which was viewed by Mao as more reliable than that of the US.
However, neither the Russian nor the Chinese communists were ever unclear about the nationalist nature of their respective projects.
The upper echelons of the bureaucracy and intelligentsia in Russia and China were self-consciously nationalist and, throughout Communist rule, shrewdly pursued the supreme nationalist goal: prestige — the power, naked and otherwise, to impose the nation’s will on others. However, national consciousness, particularly in China, was limited to a narrow elite, leaving the masses almost untouched.