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China Inside Out

Pál Nyíri
Joana Breidenbach

Chapter 3. Researching Chinese Nationalism: the Foreign Relations Dimension

Daojiong Zha

Texte intégral


Nyíri on Zha’s chapter
This chapter is the only one in this book written by a political scientist, and it bears the mark of the positivist, ”rational choice,” noncultural argumentation of that discipline. This discipline is, in fact, the most visible in discussions of Chinese nationalism and the one that, more than others, gets the ears of policy makers. The text gives a good overview of the ”hot” topics in that discussion in political science and its various sub- and neighboring disciplines such as security studies, international relations, and political economy.
On the other hand, the text is like one by an anthropologist in the sense that it challenges all the statements commonly made by these disciplines as it introduces them, looking at them from the warp and from the weft. It goes through all the assumptions that are frequently rehearsed in policy documents but also challenges them. It does not say whether they are wrong or right, but it makes the reader ask some questions the next time he or she sees a statement like that.

1At the outset, I should make it clear that this chapter is not intended to offer yet another version of nationalism in contemporary China’s foreign relations. A search in an average college library’s database can easily produce a list long enough to satisfy an interested reader’s curiosity on this subject matter.

2China’s conduct in international affairs is a common feature in news coverage around the world. College courses on international relations almost invariably cover China and its pursuit of respect in the world. Now that China is more engaged in the process of economic globalization, public seminars are yet another source of information about China’s international relations. Last but not least, Chinese have migrated to just about every corner of the world, bringing with them news from home as well as viewpoints that leave a direct personal impression about what the Chinese are like and, by extension, images of what those 1.3 billion Chinese may think about China and its relations with the outside world. In short, there is no shortage of opportunities for one to try to make sense of how China relates to the rest of the world. The abundance of information about China’s foreign relations, on the other hand, presents a challenge.

What counts as admissible evidence?

3To conduct research, you have to decide what constitutes admissible evidence. Personal experiences/stories matter, but at what level are they admissible as evidence? If you occupy your research with your personal impressions, aren’t you missing something larger? This question is particularly relevant in thinking about China’s foreign relations. The last thing you want to do is to have a model United Nations type of exercise where one represents China, you represent your home country, someone else represents a third country, and so on. Everybody delivers a speech in defense of his or her own positions, finds it difficult to publicly change his/her positions, and then walks away, mistakenly thinking that there has been an exchange of minds.

Critical thinking

4The central message I hope to convey in this chapter is that there ought to be a willingness to question yourself. If a speaker or writer confirms what you already know about China, you are tempted to feel you have found the key to truth. When you hear or read something that doesn’t fit with what is already on your mind, it is natural to have an emotional reaction: he/she is nationalistic, he/she puts me down or looks down upon my race/culture, etc. But such instincts get in the way of critical thinking. The most important thing in diplomatic negotiations, in journalistic reporting, or in other areas of cross-cultural activities is to take a step back from stereotypes.

5Thus, there is no correct version of what Chinese nationalism is. Nobody is in a position to tell you. It is necessary to get different viewpoints, beginning with trying to sort out what analytical basis you yourself come from and how the messenger and the message may be (un)related. Behind the messenger/message there is a much larger world to explore. By so doing, you can begin building up something on your own. This is a critical element in scholarly research.

Duara on authenticity see pp. 18–19

Nyíri on the insider’s and the outsider’s view
You have to question whenever you encounter the claim that just because you are part of a society, you will therefore automatically say something different from an outsider. Especially in China you hear this very often: because you are a foreigner, no matter how you try, no matter how friendly you are, you will not be able to understand China. This idea of reserving the right to speak authentically and genuinely about a nation to its members is very central to nationalism. The purpose of this claim is for them to control the subject of the statement, to control you, the interlocutor.

6In the following space, I try to deal with this subject by way of beginning with a general discussion about the conceptual dichotomies in international relations research on nationalism in general terms. Then, I address what I see as important questions in thinking about how Chinese nationalism manifests itself. These questions are:

  • Where is China?
  • Where does China belong?
  • Signs of Chinese nationalism on the rise or acts in pursuit of China’s national interest?
  • Who speaks for China?
  • What is “Chinese”?
  • What is your purpose in researching Chinese nationalism?
  • What about mastering the Chinese language?

Dichotomies in IR research on nationalism

7International relations research (IR) faces a neverending dilemma between a demand for generalization across time and space and the necessity of empirical specificity. To generalize or theorize is to produce “general statements that describe and explain the causes and effects of classes of phenomena” (Evera 1997). In IR, more than in other subdisciplines of political science, the search for evidence to support a generalization often demands that one ventures into the unfamiliar territory where linguistic differences are probably the least of obstacles for communication. Yet an IR researcher is required to be able to emerge from that journey of inquiry with findings about the nature of a research object, often driven by the need to explain unpredicted events.

IR—an American social science

8In IR, the research object—a civilization, nation—state, government, leader(s) and/or leadership, society, etc-being necessarily foreign, the framework(s) the researcher adopts is often as important as the evidence he/she gathers, if not more so. This is because IR is by and large comparative in nature, whether or not one makes it explicit in writing. The contours of that comparison, in turn, have to do with the purpose such study attempts to serve. In this regard, one of the most insightful critiques of the spread of IR research following the end of the Second World War is Stanley Hoffmann’s identification of IR as an “American social science.” The American tradition, which has sustained its influence worldwide, carries with it a number of weaknesses: focusing on the contemporary, from the perspective of a superpower, and a glide into a part of the policymaking apparatus (Hoffmann 1977).

9Hoffmann’s complaints, made in 1977, remain valid today. An entire generation of IR scholarship on Soviet nationalism (supposedly manifested in its communist and expansionist nature) failed to predict—as IR theorization posits to—the abrupt and complete ending of the Soviet Union as a unified governing entity in 1991. A more recent example is that the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City were such a shock to the IR community that the International Studies Association issued a call to its three thousand members around the world for expertise in order to help make sense (and, as usual, policy recommendations) of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Prior to the attacks, research on Afghanistan as a nation/state fell squarely in the “area studies” category (i.e., less theoretical and less prestigious). The attack has not necessarily elevated, so to speak, the status of Afghan studies in mainstream IR communities, but it most certainly drove home the need for more attention to the Afghan dimension of “Islamic fundamentalism,” a subject of diverse debates as well.


10Nationalism as a key concept in IR research is supposed to be able to address challenges presented by sudden events like the September 11 attacks. This is so because the term is thought to offer sufficient insight into the ideological basis for a regime’s behavior in dealing with its external relations.

11Although there is no general theory, there is a broad consensus in IR that nationalism both as a form of consciousness and as a political ideology has been the single most important factor shaping the structure and the processes of the modern world (Hoffmann 1977, Evans and Newnham 1998).

12Understandably, the term “nationalism” is often prefixed with various modifiers in order to differentiate the scope of inquiry in one particular study from the broad, global phenomenon that the term tries to capture. Such prefixes can be references to a research object, one component of a country’s foreign policy, sponsors of projects to foster national consciousness, or seemingly apolitical projects that can be understood as part of a nationalistic agenda. Examples include “American nationalism,” “economic nationalism” of many countries, “state nationalism” and/or “popular nationalism,” and connections between sports and nationalism (Fousek 2000, Bairner 2001).

13At one level, as is true in studies of “security,” arguably the most enduring concern in IR (Miller 2001), adding more prefixes does not necessarily lead to conceptual clarity. At another level, there are perhaps few other choices than going with more prefixes, both as a result of the context for research and in response to the demand for precision in elaboration.

14When the prefix to “nationalism” is a reference to a state or a civilization, subjectivity easily sets in. This is true of not just the conceptual gaps in the debates over the so-called “Clash of Civilizations” (Huntington 1997) thesis (i.e., a purportedly Western civilization versus a Confucian civilization, which is understood to be in collaboration with an anti-Western Islamic civilization). Research rhetoric about nationalism within the same geographical area—Europe—also makes a distinction between “good” and “bad” nationalisms. More importantly, such tendencies are not restricted to discussions about Cold War politics; they take on a far more historical dimension.

Us vs. Them

15In the voluminous literature on nationalism, especially that of a particular state/nation, a number of dichotomies shape the background for making sense of one another and of the dynamics in international interactions. The first dichotomy is the security-inspired “Us vs. Them” images. Identifying enmity or sources of threat is as natural to debates about a state’s security policymaking as it is to an individual’s making judgments about a neighbor’s possible intent and/or motives. Identifying an external source of threat can be conducive to shoring up internal cohesiveness, very much like members of a family can find it easier to overcome differences among themselves if they are convinced to be faced with a belligerent neighbor.

16But the same practice can also blindfold one, or the collective consciousness, from questioning whether or not a “clear and present danger” is indeed in existence. An illustrative example is the campaign in the United States to root out so-called Communist sympathizers within the American society itself during the early Cold War years. The campaign led to the social trauma known as McCarthyism, which began with the persecution of an entire generation of career diplomats with firsthand knowledge about China and the Soviet Union. More importantly, the campaign was translated into a drive to turn many American universities, the very institutions that were in a position to educate how “They” were truly different from “Us,” into little more than institutions capable of reaffirming societal fear of “Them” (Chomsky 1997).

Aggressive vs. benign nationalism

17A second dichotomy is that given the impossibility for outsiders to halt the progression of nationalistic projects, research then focuses on identifying the implications of a particular nation/state’s nationalism: aggressive or benign. Aggressive nationalism calls for counteroffensive strategies or such preparations. Benign nationalism can be counted as part of a “nation-building” process, warranting perhaps watching with interest but not necessarily responsive strategies or actions. This dichotomy is particularly relevant for making sense of ongoing events. No matter how (a)historical a research project is, there does exist an imperative to define the nature of a major event somewhere in the world. Judgment about if or not that event is of concern beyond the borders of a country where the event takes place, in turn, derives from identification of the event’s nature, among other factors.

18It should be noted here that an act of “aggressive nationalism” does not necessarily require aggression in a nation/state’s foreign policy. The scope of a country’s military buildup invites the obvious question: whom is the buildup meant to target? The same buildup, in contrast, can be self-explained as a legitimate and necessary measure for “self-defense,” although the potential enemy is often not clearly identified. In Asia, ideas of nationhood were imported from the West. Many Asian nations are continuing on their paths to build effective governance structures domestically. Still such measures are easily construed by other countries in the region and beyond as constituting an aggressive nationalism (Leifer 2000).

Nationalism vs. national interest

19A third, closely related with the second, dichotomy is that between “nationalism” and “national interest.” Both terms are commonly used in political science/IR research. “Nationalism” denotes a level of undesirability since it reflects attempts to change the status quo, indicating movement into the unknown (Hall 1993). In contrast, pursuit of “national interest” is often accorded legitimacy and hence is not a subject of external concern.

20Acts of nationalism can be undesirable in part because they can threaten the status quo—often expressed as “order”—in regional and/or global political realities. Between the two lies a qualitative difference in a researcher’s assessment of a state’s foreign policy behavior. How that difference is handled at the foreign policy level can make the difference between quieting down an ongoing dispute and fueling its further explosion.

21There can be more dichotomies to identify. What I have outlined thus far is meant to remind students of contemporary China to be mindful of the conceptual/philosophical points lurking in the background of just about every piece of research literature on China’s international relations. Concerns about Chinese nationalism are always existent, though only at times expressly stated. To arrive at an independent interpretation of contemporary Chinese foreign relations in general, however, one must be aware that research on Chinese nationalism is very much a process of identifying where China belongs in the international system at different stages in history. The following section outlines my understanding of debates in research conclusions about Chinese nationalism, with a particular focus on attempting to make sense of China’s international relations.

Questioning China

Where is China?

22This question may seem silly at the first glance. Yet different answers to this question provide arguably the most important basis for debates about Chinese nationalism. This is because IR research takes the territorial boundaries of a country very seriously. When a government takes measures to defend its territory whose boundary is not subject to dispute, it is seen to be taking legitimate action. When a government refuses to compromise and settle a border dispute, it is seen as a display of nationalism. An indirect party to a border dispute sees a stake in it out of concern about disruption to the status quo in international politics. A good recent example is Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 because the two had failed to agree on their border demarcation. Countries did not rush to defend Kuwait because their own border regions were under attack by Iraq. Rather, the principle of observing the integrity of a sovereign state’s boundaries as well as the goal of reaching peaceful solutions to border disputes were violated.

Border disputes with Russia

23Contemporary China has had border disputes with virtually all its neighbors. China’s land border with the Soviet Union and its successor states were not legally demarcated until November 1997. To Valerii Osenev, “even a successful demarcation of the Russian-Chinese border will be insufficient to relieve various acute problems that have surfaced in recent years concerning Russia’s interests as a nation-state on its far eastern borders” (Osenev 1998). Sasha Lomanov’s chapter gives a good indication of those “acute problems,” particularly unregulated Chinese migration.

Border disputes with India

24Another longstanding land border dispute China has is with India. The Himalayan Pass poses a formidable challenge for human migration either way. However, different interpretations over the value of a historical legacy of British colonialism (i.e., the so-called McMahon line) have prevented the two governments from reaching an agreement about just where Chinese territory rightfully ends. The Sino-Indian border dispute not only resulted in a war in 1962 but also provides an important background for India to become a nuclear power. Another important dimension of India’s rationale for going nuclear is the China–Pakistan relationship. Pakistan has competing claims for Kashmir with India, which accuses Pakistan of giving away part of the area to China.

Maritime boundaries

25China’s maritime territorial boundaries have been likewise subject to dispute. In the East China Sea, dispute over ownership of the islands known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese present a classic case for the study of competing Chinese and Japanese nationalisms (Downs and Saunders 1998–99). China’s disputes with five Southeast Asian states over the South China Sea have generated so much literature that it is virtually impossible to give a sampler of the different perspectives.

Taiwan and Tibet

26On an everyday basis since the end of the Second World War, the single most important question about China’s sovereign boundaries is whether or not Taiwan and its adjacent islands and Tibet are legitimate parts of China. For the past half century, dispute over the international political status of Taiwan has dominated the diplomatic agenda between Beijing and other political capitals around the world. Taiwan has now come to more forcefully claim an independent international identity of its own.

27Tibet is under actual control by the Beijing government but its distinct culture as well as an active campaign led and symbolized by the Dalai Lama, a Tibetan religious leader, have kept alive the issue of whether or not China has the right to continue ruling Tibet. Over Taiwan and Tibet, the Beijing government has made its official positions known in the form of white papers. The very fact that the Beijing government continues pursuing its territorial claims is seen as a manifestation of Chinese nationalism using nationalism as an ideology for governance. A manifestation of Chinese nationalism means that because, among other factors, contemporary China has had difficulties in identifying itself in world politics, it chooses to keep Taiwan and Tibet as issues of contention in its foreign relations (Dittmer and Kim 1993). Chinese nationalism as an ideology for governance means that since the government of China has had difficulties in effectively governing the land that is under its actual control, continuing to remind its populace of the historical injustice done to China by foreign countries serves the purpose of shoring up domestic unity. In either case, using Chinese nationalism as a framework for making sense of China’s foreign relations in relation to Taiwan, Tibet, and other territorial disputes leads one to recognize that there is a construction of “Us” (China, the Chinese people, and Chinese civilization) versus “Them” (foreign countries, Taiwan and Tibet independence advocates as well as their foreign supporters) by the Chinese government.

Where does China belong?

28Over the years, the academic and international political significance in answering the question “where is China” has gone beyond debates about China’s territorial scope and rights. When we refer to China as an Asian country, we are recognizing China’s cultural and economic ties with the other countries in Asia. The historical legacy of Chinese dynasties in a tributary trade relationship with its neighbors often conjures up memories and images of domination by China. At the level of culture, it is common-sensical to note that traditional Chinese culture has left a lasting and tangible impact on Asian societies: Japan, Korea, and Vietnam in particular. Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia, in particular, invoke mixed feelings about how they can affect relations between Southeast Asian states and China (Wang 2001).

Neither democratic nor traditionally Communist

29The trajectory of political change in contemporary China (since 1949) certainly makes China a nonmember of the world of democracy. Yet China is not a Communist country in the traditional sense of the term, either. One recent survey identifies seventeen “contenders for taxonomic hegemony” in attempting to categorize change in China since the end of Mao-era (Baum and Shevchenko 1999). The very fact that China is not a democracy has a significant impact on the acceptability of Chinese foreign policy practices in dealing with political issues (not least in its policies over the international political status of Taiwan, which has transformed itself into a democracy since the late 1980s). China’s path to economic growth does not offer much help for addressing the question of where China belongs in the world, either. Unlike other “transition economies,” China did not choose privatization of property rights as a key strategy (Nolan and Wang 1999). Constitutional right to private property ownership, among other things, separates China from the Newly Industrializing Economies (NIEs) in Asia. The NIEs are thought to offer a lesson for other less developed countries around the world. The trajectory of economic reform that most closely resembles China’s is that of Vietnam. In other words, China stands as a model that can be applicable to its own land.

30Answers to questions about China’s place in the conceptual division of the world matter because they inform comparison and contrast about China with the rest of the world. When similarities cannot be easily identified across space lines, comparison has to be based on historical patterns. In this regard, China’s own histories are found to be more relevant. This further solidifies the notion that China is different. In a word, researchers' conceptualization of China’s place in the world serves as a strong impetus for analyzing Chinese nationalism: to see how it is different from other nation-states and societies.

Questioning nationalism

Chinese nationalism on the rise or China in pursuit of its national interest?

31Answers to questions about China’s territorial scope and its place in world politics have a direct impact on assessing significant developments in China’s relations with the rest of the world. To categorize a particular Chinese foreign policy behavior as “nationalistic” is to imply that there is something abnormal and undesirable to the parties on the receiving end. To see the same behavior as part of a pursuit of China’s national interest, in contrast, implies acceptance of normalcy.

China’s position during the Kosovo war

32Let us use China’s foreign policy during the 1999 war on Yugoslavia as an example. China did not support the United States and European members of NATO when they made the decision to launch military strikes on Yugoslavia. Behind debates about legitimacy of the war was a clash in seeing whether or not state sovereignty still remained supreme in international politics, since what Yugoslavia did was well within its state boundaries. China was on the side of the sovereignty argument and by extension a sympathizer with the Yugoslav regime, which was facing overwhelming military power. The huge gap between American and Chinese military power is part of the background for relations between the United States and China since the end of the Second World War. For China to offer sympathy to Yugoslavia, of course, was an act of nationalism-through presentation of identity with the weaker side in international conflicts.

33In May, the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was “mistakenly” bombed by the United States. There were angry protests in Beijing and other major cities in China. Demonstrators threw stones at and damaged the American Embassy in Beijing. At one level, “national interest”—in protecting the property of an embassy and the lives of embassy staffers—was at stake first for China and later for the United States. At another level, questions can be asked about whether or not the fates of these two embassies represent something larger, i.e., a pattern of nationalism in either the United States or China, or both. One comment on the embassy incidents sees it necessary to ask the following questions:

34What are the ultimate goals of China’s nationalists? Do they want to integrate China into the extant world system? Or do they seek to construct a separate, China-centered Asian order from which to eventually challenge the West? In short, is there a “China Threat” (Gries 1999)?

35What we see here is a perfect illustration of beginning and ending with the question of whether or not a noticeable development constitutes a pattern of change. More importantly, identifying that pattern is firmly rooted in this simple yet prevalent demand for making a choice (either you are with us or against us) in everyday international politics.

Who speaks for China?

36Research on Chinese nationalism has to make reference to “Chinese perspectives.” For a number of reasons, this is a particularly challenging question. Scholars specializing on political and social change in China have long been troubled by the problem of identifying the credible representations of Chinese (government’s) points of view.

37From the 1950s to the early 1970s, few Western scholars or journalists had direct access to Mainland China. Taipei, Hong Kong, and Tokyo became the operational bases for the purpose of “China watching.” When China did open itself up for direct observation, the challenge for studying China only grew stronger. Now that academics, government officials (many of whom were China specialists before joining the government), businessmen and tourists, and journalists all write about the China, they are able to see with their own eyes. The explosion of research findings invites criticism and self-criticism (for example Shambaugh 1993).

Differentiating and analyzing discourses

38The study of China’s foreign relations is made more perplexing due, in a large part, to the lack of transparency in debates within the Chinese government. Official positions the Chinese government presents offer some clue. But since so much of the official rhetoric is meant for China’s domestic audience, the researcher finds it necessary but difficult to differentiate between rhetoric and substance. There is also room for suspicion to give value to interviews with Chinese government officials, due to a lack of access to the internal process of foreign policy decision-making. Nevertheless, movement from having to rely on translations of publications and articulations coming out of China to being able to conduct direct observations inside has greatly enriched our understanding of the making of Chinese foreign policy, in spite of the continuing challenge for theorizing Chinese foreign policy (Hughes 1997).

39When Chinese writers, either academics or journalists, do dissent from their government in expressing opinions about China and China’s international relations, such dissenting views are taken rather seriously. An excellent case in point is the sensational book China Can Say No, published in 1996. The book immediately drew international media attention and became a topic for scholarly debates about its value.

  • * Most Favored Nation status granted by the US Congress, which entails trade privileges (eds.).

The editors of China Can Say No about the book
Zhang Xiaobo and Song Qiang, ”China Can Say No to America” in New Perspectives Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 4, p. 55 (Fall, 1996). Reproduced unchanged.
BEIJING—A generation of Chinese has totally and uncritically absorbed Western, particularly American, values. Lately, however, the tide has begun to turn. More and more people in China are looking East instead of West to find a future. Because of the growth of the Chinese economy and the legacy of China’s rich cultural traditions, many of us maintain that China should aspire to take its place as a world power instead of lamely emulating Western society as, for example, Japan has.
The bold expression of this point of view in our book China Can Say No has drawn sneers from Western observers as well as China’s own established ”intellectuals,” such as Su Xiaokang, whose consistent putdown of China comes from looking East through Western eyes. But those who sneer have not been able to propose any way of their own for China to become democratic and more prosperous that does not compromise our national dignity. Those who criticize the fact that ”America bashing” has become fashionable in China ignore the fact that ”China bashing” has always been fashionable in America.
In fact, Chinese intellectuals are now in the process of seriously examining and rejecting the pro-Western views of the older generation, particularly those in exile, such as the physicist Fang Li Zhi or the journalist Liu Binyan. They have long lost touch with realities in China and can never again be an inspiration to Chinese youth. Nor will they have a part to play in future changes in China.
In writing down such views in our book—which includes chapters titled ”We Don’t Want MFN”* and ”I Won’t Get on a Boeing 777”—we and the other contributors are not ”confessing our sins” about once being attracted to the ways of the West. We are only pointing out a dangerous fact: The sense of loss and resentment at this overwhelming Western influence in the Third World is a breeding ground for a growing, anti-Western post-colonialism. As a consequence, saying no to America will become more and more common in the world, particularly in Asia.
Our book openly condemns Japan for, in essence, defecting from Asia. We argue that Japan should not be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and suggest, sarcastically, that the UN may as well give two seats to the United States instead. Further, our book makes the case that China has the right to claim damages from Japan for its invasion and occupation of China and exposes, for the first time, the resentment of Chinese students over former Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang’s over-optimistic invitation to 3,000 Japanese youth to visit China. Critics of China Can Say No have noted that we make no secret of our appreciation of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Russian nationalist. But our view is that if we can permit an open airing of views by national black sheep such as Su Zaozhi, who has said ”if only I could change my blood,” then we should also allow those who think like Zhirinovsky in our country.
After all, the emergence of differing views in the debate is just a reflection of our future democratic political situation. Examining the state of US-China relations, we are pessimistic about the future. The younger generation China can’t stand America’s disingenuous preachiness on human rights (haven’t we all seen the video of Rodney King or of the immigrant workers being mercilessly beaten by police in Riverside, California?) or its irresponsible threats on trade sanctions and Taiwan. In turn, we take a critical look at the weak and vague stance of China in international relations, calling on the Chinese authorities never to give an inch to the ”Anti-China Club” which exists in America. China should be more like Cuba, which has admirably stood up against America.
No doubt our views on Taiwan will worry the Americans and some people in Taiwan because we encourage Chinese youth to prepare to solve the Taiwan issue by force. The theory that the people of Taiwan have the right to determine their own political future is ”absurd.” This is not meant to be a provocation, only a reaction to the arrogance of the American Congress who thinks it is their vocation to ”protect” Taiwan.
There should be no illusion that relations will be qualitatively improved by visits from high-level American officials such as Anthony Lake, the US National Security Adviser. Barring revolutionary change in American foreign policy, the confrontation between China and America will be a protracted one.
Though the neo-isolationist strain apparent in American thinking may eventually be self-defeating for the US, we believe it could nonetheless also be constructive in dampening America’s indulgent self-exaltation. Certainly, the commercial greed and impotence before terror revealed during the Olympics in Atlanta should shake America from its illusion of being the sole world leader from here to eternity. This is especially noteworthy because the ”Anti-China Club” in the US vetoed Beijing’s chance to host the Summer Olympic Games for the year 2000 in that city because ”we couldn’t handle it.” At the end of the 20th century, China has once again become a world power in its own right. It need not play second fiddle to anyone. The next generation coming to power in China is prepared to say no and won’t hesitate to do so when it is in our interests.
Zhang Xiaobo and Song Qiang are the editors of, as well as contributors with four other young Chinese writers to bestseller, ”China Can Say No—Political and Emotional Choices in the Post Cold War Era” (May 1996). The book is consciously modeled after the famous 1991 tract by the Japanese nationalist Shintaro Ishihara, ”A Japan That Can Say No.”

40The book was written by three Chinese freelance journalists who had no direct input into China’s foreign policy making process. Yet it was so uncharacteristic of the usual Chinese rhetoric that it confirmed an instinct long on the minds of China scholars: the Chinese had good reasons, both historical and contemporary, to hate the foreigners (especially governments of the major powers) for inflicting wounds on China’s search for glory. Furthermore, the Chinese government was thought to be responsible for having either monopolized its propaganda machine to drum up so much anti-Western sentiment among its youth or suppressed freedom of expression to face the consequence of a backlash more aimed at the government than at the foreigners. Years later, the book and the debate it generated within China remain subject for further inquiry (Forges and Xu 2001). But it is clear that Chinese government policy has not followed the policy prescriptions the book laid out.

Questioning the speaker and yourself

41To make a decision on who speaks for China can be tricky. On the one hand, there is the problem of deciding what role your writer and/or interviewee plays in China’s foreign policy making process and what intentions that person may hope to achieve. On the other hand, there is the need to resist the urge to challenge your writer/interviewee to make a choice (though often unspoken): are you with us or against us? Furthermore, how this “Us” is defined also matters to what you eventually decide to take as indicators of the larger phenomenon you want to describe.

42An illustrative example is a New York Times article (Rosenthal 2002). Written against the background of U.S. President Bush’s visit to Beijing in February 2002, a journalist tries to address the meaning of being a Chinese by drawing links between popularity of Western brand products among ordinary Chinese consumers and the distance Chinese leaders try to paint between the two countries.

43Granted, even in democratic societies, individuals and their governments will for sure have different opinions about how their society/country ought to associate with another society/country. China is no exception. But it can be a fallacy to draw a connection between Chinese consumers’ purchase of Western brand products and their political inclinations. Chinese food, for example, is popular in many cities around the world. But, obviously, it would be too far-fetched to draw a connection between eating Chinese food and supporting the Chinese government’s political behaviors and/ or projects.

What is ’Chinese’?

44Another question that informs much of the research on nationalism in China’s foreign relations has to do with the object the very word “Chinese” refers to. When we take “China” to simply refer to a governing unit, the issue is fairly simple: it has an official name, a capital city, and a bureaucracy to implement its policies, among other features of a governing body. The research problem arises when we try to make sense of what is done in the name of China the country.

Historical context

45In foreign policy studies it is necessary to make sense of a particular policy act by situating it in a historical context. What we refer to in the English language as Chinese civilization has a very long history. “Modern China”—beginning with the formal ending of the Qing Dynasty in 1911—is only a very short period in the long evolution of that civilization. Various political movements that have been taking place since all claim to be in the interest of advancing the Chinese civilization. Just what constitutes “Chinese,” however, is a contentious issue for both the champions of those movements and for other countries/civilizations affected by what goes on in China (Wang 1991). Since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, academic debates about how Chinese—in a civilizational sense—its foreign as well as domestic policies are have never ended.

Ethnic nationalism

46A second dimension to this question is related to assessing just which ethnic group(s) making up the totality of the population in China does the government of China’s policies aim to protect in the name of “Chinese civilization.” In this regard, what anthropologists call the production of “ethnic nationalism” in China is directly related to debates about “self-determination” in international politics and international law. Indeed, a large part of contemporary, even modern China’s foreign policy problems has to do with the promotion of ethnic Han Chinese nationalism at the expense of equal treatment of ethnic minorities inhabiting vast areas of China’s frontiers (see Gladney’s chapter).

“The party” or “the people”?

47Still a third dimension has to do with the process of selecting a government in contemporary China. The People’s Republic of China was established on the basis of armed struggles. It has not instituted or committed itself to move in the direction of representative democracy. Therefore, when we come across references to “Chinese interests,” there is the question of whether it means interests of maintaining the governing apparatus or those of the people (here again, bear in mind the ethnic diversity issue mentioned in the previous paragraph).

Nyíri on agency
When you speak about a group you always have to be specific about who are the people who are acting. If you say that the Chinese in Hungary are nationalistic, you have to be specific about who are the ones who make nationalistic statements in one situation, and who are the ones who simply overtake those statements and reproduce them, and who are the ones who suffer from these statements.

48In short, coming to grips with the level of reference in a particular claim of “Chinese nationalism” or “Chinese national interest”—either in official explanations or in research conclusions—is of great importance. Among other things, such an understanding is required for identifying the philosophical benchmark that informs analysis of various claims and counterclaims.

What is your purpose in researching Chinese nationalism?

49This is a standard question that applies to any research effort. The very topic of China, its foreign policy in particular, comes with controversies at all levels of reference. Therefore, one needs to make a decision about whose action and in what area one would like to see change. Indeed, IR, as a part of political science, is a study of change: how and why change has taken place? In what directions would future change likely evolve? Which of those directions is desirable and/or possible?

50In this connection, the identification of an American “missionary complex” in dealing with China (in a civilizational sense) serves as a good reminder. Such missions include: to modernize China through commerce; to convert China to Christianity; to mold China’s universities and research institutions in the American tradition; to impart American values in the Chinese populace through promotion of American pop culture; and finally, to affect China’s behavior in world politics (Shambaugh 1997). The relevance of such insights about American interests and policy goals in dealing with China for research about Chinese nationalism is that you, the researcher, ought to be clear about your own purpose in taking on the subject matter. Is it an academic exercise, speaking to an audience that is less involved in the daily making of foreign policy towards China? Or, if it is going to be a policy-oriented project, what can be the possible consequences of your identification and analysis of, as well as policy recommendations in response to a demonstration of nationalism in Chinese foreign policy? In each of these and other possible choices, what do you hope to accomplish? Your awareness of these issues will be critical for you to decide on the evidence you select, the framework for analysis, and your presentation of conclusions and recommendations.

What about mastering the Chinese language?

51The answer to this question is obvious. To master the Chinese language in the course of researching China is definitely helpful and, as many college programs insist, necessary. It is important to be aware that language itself is very political: there are particular philosophical values and prejudices language producers want to impart on its learner. This in no way implies that studying China and Chinese nationalism is so formidable a challenge that it is beyond reach. Quite the contrary, now that access to language learning opportunities in the main Chinese speaking societies (China, Taiwan, Singapore) is free from political/diplomatic constraints, one has the benefit of comparing how the subject of “China” is being treated in all of them. Indeed, it is ideal for one to experience studying and living in all those societies when possible. Even if one cannot afford studying Chinese in more than one Chinese speaking society, it is desirable to try to learn about the historical evolution of key notions about China and its foreign relations as expressed in Chinese language texts. Additionally, mastering the Chinese language can be of great help in differentiating between official and unofficial texts/ voices. Doing so can help avoid mistaking the contemporary for the historical, mixing official with private opinions, among other possible areas of error.

52My point here is that, as is true in studying any country or civilization, learning its language is no replacement for critical thinking. Instead, with this awareness, a student of China and Chinese nationalism can sharpen his spirit of inquiry through learning the Chinese language and making good use of research materials produced in it.

Concluding remarks

53I have tried to touch on some conceptual as well as pragmatic aspects in studying Chinese nationalism as manifested in its foreign relations. It is a large subject that has attracted the attention of generations of scholars around the world. It is also an important subject, thanks to, if nothing else, the large size of the population that inhabits the land known as China, no matter how its geographical boundaries are drawn. As such, it requires devoted efforts to produce new research on Chinese nationalism that can shed deeper insights than what is available.

54I hope the message you get from my chapter is a willingness to question yourself. Many times it is very agitating. You hear something that doesn’t fit with what you already know. You have this emotional reaction. This speaker is stupid, or this speaker is nationalistic, this speaker puts me down, this speaker looks down upon my race. Get away from that. Be cool. The most important thing in diplomatic negotiation, in journalistic recording, or in cross-cultural exchange is that you try to take a step back from stereotypes. The first point is that you build in yourself a willingness to question yourself. Never take the second step. People usually take that second step. Don’t tolerate it.


* Most Favored Nation status granted by the US Congress, which entails trade privileges (eds.).


Daojiong Zha is Associate Professor in the School of International Relations, People’s University, Beijing. Politics of social science and its interplay with international relations in post-1949 China is among his interests. He guest-edited special issues of Political Science (New Zealand, Summer 1997) on the interplay between Western social science and Asian studies in Asia, and East Asia (Rutgers) on globalization and local governments in East Asia.

© Central European University Press, 2005

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