China’s one-party state has survived as other communist regimes crumbled by embracing capitalism to deliver new wealth — but is turning increasingly to nationalism in place of a coherent ruling ideology.
The [Chinese] Chinese Communist Party still pays lip-service to Marxist-Leninist rhetoric and trains its cadres in Maoist philosophy — and also in business management and high finance, injecting a gaping contradiction into China’s ideological mindset.
However, any talk of political reform to resolve that contradiction is in abeyance. With public opinion ever less willing to tolerate corruption, and factory workers and migrants increasingly restive, the party is also cultivating patriotism.
“Faith in socialism has become problematic, so the Chinese authorities are seeking other sources of legitimacy, and of course nationalism is a dream substitute,” said Jean-Philippe Beja, a political scientist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research.
“The Communist Party can boast of having fulfilled the dreams of all the country’s leaders since the Opium War [from 1839]: giving China its rightful place in the world,” he said.
“To maintain that, they must assert themselves against their neighbors, beginning with Japan,” he said.
This year Japan has found itself under verbal fire over five uninhabited islands in the South China Sea, controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing — and Taipei.
Chinese authorities facilitated anti-Japanese protests that spiralled into rioting and serious production losses at factories owned by the likes of Toyota and Sony.
Winston Lord, a former US ambassador to China who accompanied Richard Nixon when he became the first US president to visit Beijing in 1972, warned of China’s communists resorting to xenophobia if the regime feels threatened.
“If they don’t make changes in their economic and political system in the next decade, I think you could see real instability, which could in turn lead to a more nationalistic and aggressive foreign policy,” he said last week.
Since the anti-Japanese upsurge, Chinese media have repeatedly broadcast images of China’s modern fleet.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has seen its budget grow by double-digit annual rates over the past 10 years, far exceeding even China’s rocketing GDP increases.
However, Roderick MacFarquhar, a specialist in contemporary China, said the rise of Chinese nationalism was a “double-edged sword” for the authorities.
“It is a very dangerous weapon, as Chinese governments have known since 1919,” he said, referring to a nationalist furor after China’s treatment at the Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I.
Speaking at an event in Hong Kong, MacFarquhar said China’s rulers need to exercise “some caution, especially vis-a-vis Japan.”
“If you stoke the fires of nationalism too much, then if you cannot fulfil what the nationalists who have been aroused want you to fulfil, then their anger will turn against the government of the day,” he said.