China's Communist Party Stokes Nationalism at Its Own Risk

Stratfor Worldview

Key point: Nationalism is a double-edged sword for the Communist Party.

Chinese nationalism is once again on the rise. From the public military spectacle of the Oct. 1 National Day parade to a recent slew of boycotts against foreign firms for their perceived support of Hong Kong protests, a burst of patriotic fervor has increasingly made its way into China's state policies, public behaviors and business decisions. It's no coincidence that this chauvinist surge has occurred in tandem with Beijing's increasing strategic and ideological clashes with the United States and its allies over democracy and human rights issues in places like Hong Kong and Tibet.

Today, Chinese patriotism can be characterized as an uneasy relationship between the population's feelings of pride, hope and anxiety about the country's future, as well as a deep ambivalence toward the West. And the Communist Party has expertly harnessed these feelings to reinforce its role as the guardian of the Chinese state by cultivating a renewed sense of a foreign threat. But nationalism is complex and volatile, especially in a country as large and diverse as China. And this renewed patriotic push ultimately risks creating more problems than solutions for Beijing.

Nationalism, With a Chinese Twist

This shift in Chinese politics comes amid a surge of nationalism that has reached many corners of the world. But unlike the conservative populism and economic protectionism that has taken hold in Europe and North America, or the ethno-religious agendas being heralded by the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Beijing's nationalism is deeply informed by its troubled contemporary history. The stark contrast between the country's past glory and its "century of humiliation" at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialism remains alive and well among a large portion of the population, reinforced by propaganda and an educational system that fosters a longing for reestablishing China's position as a powerful nation-state.

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