China must watch for signs of rising nationalism spurred by tensions with the West, warns former top official

Amber Wang
·4-min read

A former top official responsible for training Communist Party cadres has warned against the rise of domestic nationalism while tensions between China and major powers were rising.

“(China should) continue to expand opening-up, actively and prudently handle relations with major countries, and prevent the rise of domestic populism,” said He Yiting, former executive vice-president of the Central Party School, during discussions in the Chongqing delegation dated last Friday.

He’s comment comes after relations between Beijing and Washington deteriorated sharply during the Trump administration and nationalist sentiment has risen as China confronts the US, Europe, and other countries over issues such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea.

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Chinese cartoonist Wuheqilin’s artwork commenting on the attack on the US Capitol building was posted on his Weibo social media account on January 10, 2021. Photo: Handout
Chinese cartoonist Wuheqilin’s artwork commenting on the attack on the US Capitol building was posted on his Weibo social media account on January 10, 2021. Photo: Handout

In January, thousands of Chinese social media users used the attack on the Capitol in Washington to attack failures in the US political system including the cartoonist Wuheqilin, a self-proclaimed Wolf Warrior, who published a work called Separation of powers – Thief Mob Murderer.

Beijing should contain ‘extreme nationalism’, Chinese ex-diplomat says

Last May, a proposed regulation to make it a little easier for foreigners to get permanent residency in China caused uproar online, with many Chinese expressing strong opposition to the move.

Other Chinese officials and academics have warned that the rise in nationalism could backfire both inside the nation and abroad. But it is rare for someone of He’s stature – a former senior official from the Central Party School, the top ideological indoctrination institution of the Communist Party – to issue such a caution.

He’s warning comes as perceptions of China are deteriorating internationally. A new survey by Pew Research Centre found nine in 10 Americans now viewed China as a competitor or enemy, rather than a partner, and most favoured putting pressure on Beijing over human rights and economic issues. Some 67 per cent of respondents reported feeling “cold” towards China this year, up from 46 per cent in 2018.

Zhu Lijia, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Governance, said domestic nationalism was on the rise as China faced challenges from other nations.

“Radical and emotional voices online regarding the conflicts between China and the outside world – these are all manifestations of populism,” Zhu said.

“Such indignant remarks add fuel to the fire and are detrimental to China as a big country moving towards the centre of world civilisation,” Zhu said. “The government should be cautious dealing with nationalism and try not to let it bring the relationship of China and other countries into a state of hostility.”

China’s nationalism might work at home, but not on the world stage, experts say

Xiao Gongqin, a history professor at Shanghai Normal University, wrote in November that the rise of nationalism in China had made people in the US see China as aggressive.

Xiao wrote that those sentiments would affect the judgment of American experts on China issues, and strengthen their stereotyped misconceptions that China had become a “red empire”, and further influence the American elite and civilians.

The Chinese government has always tried to prevent nationalist sentiment backfiring.

Ma Yusheng, deputy director of the party office handling issues affecting social and political stability, wrote in 2017 that authorities must stop sovereignty disputes from triggering mass protests.

“[We must] properly handle the relationship between people’s patriotism and social stability … identify, contain and deal with them as early as possible,” Ma said at the time.

A small number of protests broke out in 2016 after an international tribunal in The Hague ruled against China’s claims to much of the South China Sea. State media slammed the ruling as illegal and deemed it a conspiracy by the US and its allies.

But Zhang Ming, a political professor at Renmin University, said nationalism in China was controlled and there was no cause for concern.

“Don’t take the anti-American voices online too seriously. If the relationship improves, these voices will all disappear,” Zhang said.

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