»  National Review

April 30th, 2001

  Communist, Nationalist and Dangerous


The recent crisis in Hainan Island has brought Chinese nationalism to the front of our minds. Specialist China-watchers have understood for some time that the events of 1989 — not only the student and worker movements that were crushed in Tiananmen Square on June 4 of that year, but also the collapse of Soviet and East European communism — presented China's leaders with a crisis of legitimacy. Those leaders responded by pushing traditional Marxism-Leninism into the background and fortifying China's state ideology with angry, uncompromising assertions of national pride. Ordinary Americans probably woke up to this first in May 1999, following the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Demonstrations broke out in Beijing, and TV viewers in this country saw young Chinese hurling rocks at the U.S. Embassy. Though no such thing could happen in China without the approval of the authorities, it was nonetheless plain that much of the emotion on display was genuine.

In fact, an earlier, quite spontaneous, outburst of aggrieved nationalism was stifled by the Chinese authorities. This was in September 1993, when Beijing's bid to host the 2000 Summer Olympics was turned down in favor of Sydney. Feelings were especially inflamed on that occasion because, owing to the way the announcement was made, and a poor translation to China's TV audience, viewers' first impression was that Beijing had won the bidding. When the truth dawned, some minutes later, disappointment was intense, and riots in Beijing were averted only by a massive police clampdown. There were, even so, bitter expressions of anger that the world was not treating China with the respect to which she was entitled. It is now widely believed in China that the U.S. deliberately thwarted Beijing's bid for the 2000 Games by manipulations behind the scenes.

Chinese nationalism was not born in 1989, of course. One of Deng Xiaoping's first initiatives, after consolidating his power at the Twelfth Party Congress of 1982, was to launch a movement entitled: "Five Emphases, Four Beautifications, Three Loves." The "Three Loves" were for the country, the party, and socialism, in that order. Mao's revolution was, in fact, as much nationalist as communist. This was one reason Stalin — who was quite a learned man in the narrow sphere of Marxist-Leninist theory — looked down on Mao. Orthodox communist dogma was internationalist, and foresaw a worldwide socialist utopia in which national boundaries would be obsolete. Once they saw the advantages of socialism, people everywhere would clamor to join that commonwealth. Until then, national boundaries should, in theory, be respected. The Constitution of the USSR guaranteed the right of secession to every Union republic. This right existed only on paper while the dictatorship lasted, but when Soviet power collapsed, all the republics chose to exercise the right of secession, and they are now independent.

Mao's China was never like that. The non-Chinese nationalities trapped in the People's Republic have their own "autonomous regions," but the "autonomy" is perfectly fictitious, and they have no right to secede under China's Constitution. To the contrary, Article 4 prohibits acts that "instigate the secession" of any minority, and there is perhaps no article more ruthlessly enforced. "Splittism" (fenlie zhuyi) is one of the most serious thought-crimes in the People's Republic, and the accusation that the West seeks to break up China is a staple of the xenophobic polemics now widely published and read in China, with the obvious indulgence of the government. All of China — 62 degrees of longitude — is on Beijing time, to the great inconvenience of the western territories. Notwithstanding much mendacious window-dressing about "preserving minority cultures," China's actual policy towards her subject peoples is one of determined Sinification. Every Mongolian, every Tibetan, every Uighur knows that to enjoy anything better than a subsistence living, he must speak, dress, eat, and think Chinese.

"Nationalism" does not really capture the whole of the phenomenon under consideration here. There is a large component of racial pride. I used to belong to a scholarly e-mail group for Chinese scientists and researchers in the U.S. When I ventured some mild remarks about the status of Tibet and Turkestan, I was met with a volley of frankly racial abuse. One respondent addressed me as "England big nose," and another offered sarcastically to kiss my "hairy hand." These are not illiterate rednecks, mind you, but the cream of the Chinese intelligentsia, bearers of advanced degrees from prestigious universities. Another staple of the xenophobic literature now popular in China is the claim that U.S. scientists are working on racially selective biological weapons; and the very respectable British Sinologist Jasper Becker, in his 2000 book The Chinese, claims that the government sponsors research to prove that the Chinese belong to a separate species. One wonders what direction China's own biological-weapons research is taking.

This psychopathological aspect of Chinese nationalism has been on display in the Hainan affair. Chinese e-mail forums have been buzzing with demands for the captured U.S. servicemen to be beaten, or sentenced to life imprisonment. Years of relentless propaganda about historical grievances, real and imagined, and the need to restore ancient glories, have created a febrile atmosphere of hyper-patriotic agitation to which it is hard to think of any Western parallel other than the banal and obvious ones of early-20th-century fascism.

Yet while race-conscious and intensely introverted, Chinese nationalism does not — like, for example, Irish nationalism — see its scope as limited by strict geographical bounds. The ambitions of Chinese nationalists are not restricted to Chinese territory, they are hegemonic. Indeed, they are imperial. In the early 1950s, when the world's attention was distracted by events elsewhere, Mao set about reassembling the old Manchu empire by asserting control over Eastern Turkestan, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet. The base populations of these regions are not Chinese, and their cultures have nothing in common with Chinese culture — not even an alphabet. They were, however, claimed as subjects by the Manchu rulers of China, and Mao looked on them as a part of his proper sphere of influence.

The Manchus had taken a minimalist approach to these possessions, demanding from them token allegiance but very little else. Under Manchu rule, the Tibetans went on speaking Tibetan, practicing their religion, and running a theocratic administration in which government bureaucrats bore titles like "Grand Metaphysician." The Uighurs and Mongolians tended their flocks, conducted their vendettas, and said their own prayers unmolested, except when the occasional uprising needed to be suppressed. There was no real Sinification of these regions. The Manchus, a Siberian tribe with a language and script of their own, were too busy Sinifying themselves. (Unsuccessfully, to judge from the attitudes of modern Chinese. Watching the recent movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, my wife, who is Chinese, shook her head in dismay at Chow Yun-fat's hairstyle — the front half of the head shaved, the back bearing a long pigtail. "Ridiculous! I hope Americans don't think that's a Chinese style. That was forced on us by the Qing [i.e., Manchu] bastards.")

This hands-off approach would not do for modern dictators, for whom control must be total, and the superiority of Chinese culture impressed on all subject peoples. Both Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist party and Mao's Communists claimed all the Manchu dominions as part of China. Chiang never had the strength to enforce his claims, but Mao did. Sinification and colonization of the old Imperial suzerainties have been unrelenting, and accompanied by numberless horrors. In some regions, the native population was annihilated in the wars of resistance that went on through the 1950s and 1960s — wars like the one described with such desperate passion in Michel Peissel's book Cavaliers of Kham. Tibet, which had the strongest sense of nationhood, has been the main sufferer, but the other occupied regions endured similar atrocities. In the early 1960s, a quarter of a million people fled out of Eastern Turkestan to the comparative sanity and tranquility of the old USSR — the only known case of mass flight into that state.

The grand project of restoring and Sinifying the Manchu dominions has unfortunately met three stumbling blocks. The first was Outer Mongolia, from which the Chinese garrison was expelled following the collapse of Manchu rule. The country declared independence in 1921 under Soviet auspices, and that independence was recognized by Chiang Kai-shek's government in 1945, in return for Soviet recognition of themselves as "the Central Government of China." Mao seems not to have been very happy about this. In 1954, he asked the Soviets to "return" Outer Mongolia. I do not know the position of China's current government towards Outer Mongolia, but I should not be surprised to learn that somewhere in the filing cabinets of China's defense ministry is a detailed plan for restoring Outer Mongolia to the warm embrace of the Motherland, as soon as a suitable opportunity presents itself.

The second is Taiwan. No Chinese Imperial dynasty paid the least attention to Taiwan, or bothered to claim it. The Manchus did, though, in 1683, and ruled it in a desultory way, as a prefecture of Fujian Province, until 1887, when it was upgraded to a province in its own right. Eight years later it was ceded to Japan, whose property it remained until 1945. After Japan's fall, the people of Taiwan hoped for independence, but Chiang Kai-shek's army claimed the island and put down resistance with great savagery. The place has not been ruled from China since Chiang lost the mainland in 1949. In its entire history, it has been ruled by Chinese people seated in China's capital for less than four years. China's current attitudes to Taiwan are, I think, pretty well known.

And the third stumbling block to the restoration of China's greatness is . . . the United States. To the modern Chinese way of thinking, China's proper sphere of influence encompasses all of East Asia and the western Pacific. This does not mean that they necessarily want to invade and subjugate all the nations of that region, though they certainly do want to do just that to Taiwan and some groups of smaller islands. For Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Micronesia, etc., the old imperial suzerainty model would do well enough, at least in the short term. These places could conduct their own internal affairs, so long as they acknowledged the overlordship of Beijing, and, above all, did not enter into alliances, nor even close friendships, with other powers.

Which, of course, too many of them have done, the competitor power in every case being the U.S. It is impossible to overstate how angry it makes the Chinese to think about all those American troops in Japan, Korea, and Guam, together with the U.S. Seventh Fleet steaming up and down in "Chinese" waters, and electronic reconnaissance planes like the EP-3 brought down on April 1 operating within listening distance of the mainland. If you tackle Chinese people on this, they usually say: "How would you feel if there were Chinese troops in Mexico and Jamaica, and Chinese planes flying up and down your coasts?" Leaving aside the fact that front companies for the Beijing regime now control both ends of the Panama Canal, as well as Freeport in the Bahamas, the answer is that the United States is a democracy of free people, whose government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, so that the wider America's influence spreads, the better for humanity: while China is a corrupt, brutish, and lawless despotism, the close containment of which is a pressing interest for the whole human race. One cannot, of course, expect Chinese people to be very receptive to this answer.

Or, indeed, to anything much we have to say on the subject of their increasingly militant and assertive nationalism. We simply have no leverage here. It is no use trying to pretend that this is the face-saving ideology of a small leadership group, forced on an unwilling populace at gunpoint. The Chinese people respond eagerly to these ultra-nationalist appeals: That is precisely why the leadership makes them. Resentment of the U.S., and a determination to enforce Chinese hegemony in Asia, are well-nigh universal among modern mainland Chinese. These emotions trump any desire for constitutional government, however much people dislike the current regime for its corruption and incompetence. Find a mainlander, preferably one under the age of thirty, and ask him which of the following he would prefer: for the Communists to stay in power indefinitely, unreformed, but in full control of the "three T's" (Tibet, Turkestan, Taiwan); or a democratic, constitutional government without the three T's. His answer will depress you. You can even try this unhappy little experiment with dissidents: same answer.

Is there anything we can do about all this? One thing only. We must understand clearly that there will be lasting peace in East Asia when, and only when, China abandons her atavistic fantasies of imperial hegemony, withdraws her armies from the two million square miles of other people's territory they currently occupy, and gets herself a democratic government under a rule of law. Until that day comes, if it ever does, the danger of war will be a constant in relations between China and the world beyond the Wall, as recent events in the South China Sea have illustrated. Free nations, under the indispensable leadership of the United States, must in the meantime struggle to maintain peace, using the one, single, and only method that wretched humanity, in all its millennia of experience, has so far been able to devise for that purpose: Qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum.