It is an item of current conventional wisdom that the Chinese Communist Party, confronted with a population to whom communism no longer has any appeal, has resorted to an extreme form of nationalism to justify its rule over China. The principal message of Peter Hays Gries’s fascinating book is that while this is true, it is by no means the whole truth about modern Chinese nationalism, and that there is much more going on here than just the “top-down” imposition of yet another ideology on the Chinese people. Certainly the dictatorship makes what use it can of nationalistic appeals; but as often as not the most forceful manifestations of nationalism surge up from the people, in a manner the Communists can barely control.
This was seen most recently in May 1999, after U.S. planes inadvertently bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The protests that erupted in the streets of China’s cities were described in the Western media as being fully approved by, if not actually organized by, the government in Beijing. Not so. Gries tells us — correctly, I believe — that: “The protests were actually an overwhelmingly bottom-up phenomenon; the Party had its hands full simply responding to the demands of popular nationalists.” In over one hundred Chinese cities, Chinese citizens of all ages and backgrounds protested the bombing, while the authorities struggled to contain the unrest. Vice President Hu Jintao (he is now President) actually went on TV to urge people to return to their places of work and study. To be sure, the Communists got what advantage they could from the outburst of popular anger, making a fine show of righteous indignation at the U.N. and elsewhere, portraying the embassy bombing as a deliberate act in order to show America in the worst possible light. The passion of the crowds in those Chinese cities was genuine, though. As Gries notes: “The Western press’s insistence that a diabolical Communist elite manipulated the Chinese protestors tells us more about ourselves than about what actually happened in May 1999.”
Modern Chinese nationalism is, in fact, a very peculiar thing. It is not much like the ordinary patriotism of Western nations. There is an element in it of racial pride — the Chinese are not shy about speaking of themselves as a race. It is also intensely resentful of past wrongs, even more so than the Irish variety. This resentment is especially directed at Japan. I recall seeing the late Bruce Lee’s second movie, The Chinese Connection, in a Kowloon movie theater thirty-two years ago. Lee plays the part of a student at a martial-arts school in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. To insult the Chinese, students at a nearby Japanese school present Lee and his classmates with a scroll containing the words Dong Ya Bing Fu — “The sick man of Asia.” The Kowloon theater audience roared their indignation.
Gries covers this resentment against Japan very thoroughly, leaving the reader with the impression — again, I believe a correct one — that there is something pathological going on here. No apology the Japanese offer for their wartime behavior is ever enough to satisfy the Chinese. Gries writes of Japanese frustration and increasing irritation at what they perceive to be “incessant and unappeasable Chinese criticism.” The pathology is not restricted to the Chinese of China. American author Iris Chang, whose book The Rape of Nanking was a best-seller in both the U.S. and China, is just as angrily unaccepting of Japanese attempts to apologize. Nor, as Gries describes in detail, will Ms. Chang tolerate any criticism of the fatality statistics in her book, in spite of widespread suspicions that those figures were inflated upwards to outnumber the Japanese dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those statistics are tokens in a game of moral one-upmanship.
All this would be a little easier to put up with if it were not the case that the vast majority of unnatural deaths of innocent Chinese people this past hundred years were inflicted by other Chinese. If there is a prize awarded in Hell for killing Chinese people, the easy winner in the twentieth-century division would be Mao Tse-tung, with Chiang Kai-shek and various Chinese warlords vying for the number two spot. (There was in fact an earlier and lesser, though still appalling, rape of Nanking when the army of warlord Sun Zhuanfang evacuated the city ahead of Chiang’s advancing Sixth Army in March 1927.)
What are the psychological factors in play here? Gries gives us a good account. There is of course the whole miserable business of “face,” the endless quivering fear that someone, somewhere might be able to claim moral superiority over oneself. There is also the worldwide modern disease of victimitis — the desperate yearning to see oneself, or one’s kin, as wronged. Victimology has taken off in a very big way in China, with self-pity now vying with moral indignation as the most characteristic emotion of that nation, as she presents herself to the outside world. The evolution of the victimological ideal in modern China is very interesting. In the early years of Communist rule it was nowhere in sight. The national narrative centered on heroism and victory. Only with the draining away of ideology did the “victim” paradigm take over. Now it is everywhere in the national culture, with gushing, lachrymose tellings, re-tellings, and re-re-tellings of Chinese suffering during the “century of humiliation.” (That is, from the Opium Wars of the 1840s to the Civil War of a century later. The century, the suffering, and the humiliation were all real, by the way; it is only the obsessive dwelling on them that invites attention.) A similar development took place in the U.S.S.R., casualty figures for WW2 being minimized in the early postwar years to show the military superiority of the heroic Soviet people, then being quickly inflated during the post-Stalin era so that the nation could acquire victim status, moral superiority, and international sympathy.
It all seems very unhealthy to me. Unnecessary, too. This vast, talented, civilized nation does not need to pose as a beggar displaying her sores for the world’s sympathy. What she needs is a rational, consensual form of government. China’s new nationalists are angry that their country does not get the respect from others they think she deserves. But free peoples do not take kindly to being lectured on “moral behavior” and “spiritual civilization” by a self-selected and bloodstained clique of gangster-despots elected by nobody, answering to no laws, obedient to no constitution, and squatting in military occupation of two million square miles of other people’s land (Tibet, East Turkestan and Inner Mongolia). China’s angry nationalists will get the respect they so desperately crave from the rest of the world when their country has shaken off her ancient addiction to imperial despotism, and embraced democracy — not before.