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  • China’s Pragmatic Nationalism:Is It Manageable?
  • Suisheng Zhao (bio)

China's rise as an economic, political, and military power has been accompanied by an outburst of nationalism among its population. In his recent book, while acknowledging that China has "legitimate grievances" against Western powers, China watcher Peter Gries warns that an emotionally popular nationalism empowered by "victim narratives ... [is] beginning to influence the making of Chinese foreign policy."1 Sure enough, many in the West were shocked earlier this year to discover an Internet posting with more than 20 million Chinese signatures opposing Japan's bid to join the UN Security Council. In early April 2005, thousands of Chinese protesters demonstrated in major Chinese cities, enraged over Japan's approval of history textbooks that protestors claim whitewashed Japan's wartime atrocities, as well as Japan's recent pledge to help the United States defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. In May 2005, Beijing's dramatic last-minute cancellation of a meeting between Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and Chinese vice minister Wu Yi to protest Koizumi's contentious visits to the war-tainted Yasukuni Shrine, which serves as a memorial for Japan's war dead, including convicted World War II criminals, plunged relations between Beijing and Tokyo to a perilous low.

Whereas some observers have been cautious about exploring its limits and determining its motivations, others have decried this rise in nationalism as a reckless movement driven by China's traditional Sino-centrism and contemporary aspirations for great-power status. Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro have previously admonished that, "[d]riven by nationalist sentiment, a yearning to redeem the humiliations of the past, and the simple [End Page 131] urge for international power, China is seeking to replace the United States as the dominant power in Asia."2 Massive anti-U.S. demonstrations, for example, erupted in front of the U.S. diplomatic missions in China after U.S.-led NATO forces mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999. Many Western observers were astonished by the immediate assumption among the Chinese that the bombing had been deliberate. After a midair collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea in April 2001, popular nationalist sentiment exploded again. Wang Wei, the Chinese pilot killed in the collision, was quickly declared a "martyr of the revolution" and praised as a heroic defender of the motherland.3

Anxiety is growing in Asia and the West that a virulent nationalism has emerged out of China's "century of shame and humiliation," threatening to make China's rise less peaceful.4 Yet, Chinese nationalism is a phenomenon much more complex than the expression of its emotional rhetoric on the streets. Although the Chinese government is hardly above exploiting nationalist sentiment when doing so suits its purposes, Beijing has practiced a pragmatic nationalism tempered by diplomatic prudence. State-led and largely reactive, pragmatic nationalism is not fixed, objectified, and defined for all time; nor is it driven by any ideology, religious beliefs, or other abstract ideas. Rather, pragmatic nationalism is an instrument that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses to bolster the population's faith in a troubled political system and to hold the country together during its period of rapid and turbulent transformation into a post-Communist society. These leaders have set peace and development as China's primary international goals and have tried to avoid confrontations with the United States and other Western powers that hold the key to China's modernization. They have made use of nationalism to rally public support, but they realize that, if allowed to persist unrestrained, nationalist sentiments could jeopardize the overarching objectives of political stability and economic modernization on which the CCP's legitimacy is ultimately based. The question remains, can Beijing keep this nationalism reined in, or will it begin to accelerate out of control?

The Rise of Alternate Nationalisms

Before the nineteenth century, when China was still an empire, nationalism did not exist. The Chinese political elite begin to embrace modern nationalist doctrines for China's defense and regeneration only after China's disastrous defeat by British troops...


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pp. 131-144
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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