Land of Many Nationalisms

Land of Many Nationalisms

Increasingly, residents of the Chinese mainland, especially the middle-class urbanites who regularly go online, seek answers to questions like: Is it possible to be a Chinese patriot, while acknowledging one’s unhappiness with the status quo?

Anti-Japanese demonstrators march near the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. Helen Gao/2012

If the events of this January were omens, 2013 should be an eventful year for the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It began with crowds of protesters gathering in front of the headquarters of Southern Weekend, a newspaper based in Guangdong province that has earned a reputation for covering controversial stories. The protesters, mostly youths, carried posters calling for freedom of the press and in some cases wore Guy Fawkes masks of the kind sported by an opponent of dictatorship in the V for Vendetta comic books and film. They took to the streets to show their support for the newspaper in its most recent struggle against official censors who, in this case, had deleted the publication’s New Year editorial calling for political reform and put in its place an anodyne commentary backing the government.

Soon, the Southern Weekend supporters were engaged in a battle of words and symbols with a group of counter-protesters, who took up positions across the street, carrying national flags and portraits of Mao Zedong. Mostly young workers and retirees, the counter-protesters cursed their opponents as “traitors to the nation” for daring to criticize the government and insisted they were connected to “external hostile forces.” “I heard that the group over there is trying to overthrow the Communist Party and the leadership of President Xi Jinping,” one woman in her fifties or sixties told a reporter from the New York Times. “That is why we are here, because we love the country.”

Those who rallied to Southern Weekend also presented themselves as patriots. A glimpse of their alternative love of country appears in a video, “A Traitor’s Patriotic Confession,” which went viral in Chinese cyberspace that same month. It consists almost entirely of the opening scene of the American television drama The Newsroom: an anchor, asked why he thinks America is the greatest country in the world, launches into a hard-hitting monologue that lists the flaws in American society and debunks the notion of American exceptionalism. On Sina Weibo (China’s answer to Twitter), a quote that seems to have originated in U.S. opposition to the Vietnam War and that has been attributed (falsely) to Thomas Jefferson circulated with the video: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

There is increasingly a more introspective form of patriotism, one deeply critical of the frustrating realities of life in the PRC.

The newspaper controversy reveals how complex is the love of country in China. At one end of the continuum a traditional form of chest-thumping nationalism that builds on resentments based on the era when China was pushed around by foreign powers is still potent. But it is increasingly counterbalanced by a more introspective form of patriotism, one deeply critical of the frustrating realities of life in the PRC.

This conflict is highly significant for the future of the PRC. The Chinese government has long relied both on strident appeals to national pride and the idea that life for the ordinary citizen keeps getting better and better under its post-Mao leaders. Now, those leaders have to navigate carefully between these two positions as they strive to maintain firm political control and avoid social turmoil.


One of the ways these divergent forms of nationalism show up is in the attitudes about Tibet held by members of the dominant Han ethnic group, which composes about 90 percent of China’s population. (The rest is made up of members of more than fifty ethnic minorities residing inside China, among them, notably, the Manchus in the northeast, the Zhuang in the south, and the Uighurs in the north-west.) On this issue, as with many others, variables such as region, generation, level of education and social class make a difference. Still, in general, Han attitudes toward Tibet are characterized by a combination of indifference and fascination.

When a wave of self-immolations swept Tibet in 2012, the international media covered it extensively, but most Han paid little attention. While censorship played a role, it does not fully explain the collective silence on the subject among all but ethnic Tibetans and a tiny number of Han writers and intellectuals. Even many people who are tech-savvy enough to scale the “Great Firewall” and gain access to unfiltered information, and who have spoken out against other forms of social injustice, remained mute on this topic.

What accounts for the apathy? The indifference may mark, as the New York Times suggested last fall, a “subtle current of antipathy toward Tibetans,” promoted by the state-controlled media. Official outlets, although they superficially urge harmony among China’s fifty-six ethnic groups, also regularly portray Tibetans as singing and dancing barbarians and ungrateful recipients of largesse from the central government. Many Han also perceive Tibetans as the “other,” whose lives and concerns are distant to them. As Tsering Woeser, a blogger of mixed Tibetan and Han ancestry, told the Times, quoting a famous Chinese proverb more than 2,500 years old, “If you are not of my ethnicity, you cannot share my heart.”

Such prejudices lend credence to the government’s claim that all Tibetans who protest are “separatists” and “terrorists” who want Tibet to break away from China. For many Han, who grew up being taught about the “century of humiliation” (the 1840s through 1940s), when foreign powers chipped away at China’s sovereignty, any threat of losing part of their nation’s territory strikes a nerve. They see the crackdown on Tibetans’ struggle for freedom as both necessary and just.

Challenges to this belief have triggered popular backlashes. In 2008, mass protests erupted against the Western media’s reporting on the bloody Tibetan uprising in Lhasa, the capital of the region. In the United States, a young Chinese student, Grace Wang, who was attending Duke University, tried to mediate a fight between Chinese students and pro-Tibet demonstrators on campus. Some of her fellow Chinese classmates labeled her a “traitor to the nation,” while nationalists harassed her parents back in the mainland.

Many Han see the crackdown on Tibetans’ struggle for freedome as both necessary and just, but many Chinese are also drawn to Tibet’s spiritual atmosphere, as an antidote to the blatant materialism and moral degradation plaguing other parts of the country.

At the same time, Tibetan culture has a strong appeal for millions of Han, especially from the younger generation. China’s nonfiction bestsellers in recent years have included such titles as The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, The Tibet Code, and Suddenly I Have Wandered to Tibet. In 2012, close to eleven million tourists, most of them city-dwellers from other parts of China, visited the embattled region. This was a 22 percent increase from the previous year. Even Tibetan Buddhism, which the Communist Party has long sought to repress, seems to be gaining popularity among the Han middle class. Although there are no reliable statistics on its followers, underground teaching sessions conducted by Tibetan monks in Beijing and Shanghai regularly draw crowds of hundreds.

This growing fascination with Tibet reveals as much about the mindset of the Han majority as it does about what is viewed as an exotic culture. Many Chinese are drawn to Tibet’s spiritual atmosphere as an antidote to the blatant materialism and moral degradation plaguing other parts of the country. “In Beijing, in Shanghai, it’s all about materialism,” one Chinese, who relocated from Shanghai to Tibet to break away from the mainstream culture, told a reporter from the Washington Post, “But here, it’s different. . . . There’s a different culture, with different values, and I think I can learn from it.” Others are simply attracted by Tibet’s breathtaking scenery and relaxed lifestyle; it has become a fashionable vacation spot.


Chinese attitudes toward Hong Kong are similarly fraught with conflict and ambivalence. Consider an incident that took place last year in the former British Crown Colony, which, since 1997, has been a semi-autonomous “special administrative region” of the PRC. On the Hong Kong subway, local commuters scolded a mainland mother and her child for eating inside the train; the woman jeered back that the complainers spoke Mandarin atrociously (the local dialect is Cantonese). After a cell-phone video of the quarrel appeared on the Internet, it ignited a multimedia shouting match between mainland Chinese and residents of Hong Kong.

A Beijing University professor called Hong Kongers “bastards,” “thieves,” and “running dogs for the British Colonialists,” while a full-page advertisement in a major Hong Kong newspaper depicted mainlanders as a gigantic locust staring greedily at the city’s skyline. “We Hong Kong residents have had enough!,” read six large, striking characters above the picture.

Despite becoming part of the PRC in 1997, the former colony retains a democratic political structure, a wealthier population, and a more generous welfare system than on the mainland. In recent years, Hong Kong residents have increasingly fumed, as large numbers of mainlanders have poured into the already overcrowded city in pursuit of education, higher-paying jobs, and luxury products. The most serious issue for these residents, however, is exorbitant real estate prices, which they believe are driven up by mainland speculators, and the shortage of beds in hospital delivery rooms. Tens of thousands of pregnant mainland women cross the border to give birth in Hong Kong each year, so that their children will gain residency, which guarantees such benefits as free schooling and high-quality health care.

For days after the subway incident, the squabble between Hong Kong and the mainland topped the list of trending topics on Weibo. Many users condemned the Beijing professor for his callous insults. But sentiments proliferated too: “If it weren’t for the mainland Chinese treating you like a son, you would have died long ago,” claimed an advertisement that responded to the locust depiction and was widely shared among Weibo users.

“You should all go back to be Britain’s concubine. You should go change your skin!,” another response read. “A child who is ashamed of his own mother’s poor clothing and uncultivated manners should be abandoned.”

“Your food comes from the mainland, water from the Pearl River, and electricity from the Daya Bay nuclear power plant,” one comment scolded, echoed by hundreds of others. “Who gives you the right to act that way?”

It is not surprising that some mainlanders feel bitter and betrayed. Hong Kong has long had an oversized significance for them. History books in the PRC always include a chapter on the First Opium War, from 1839 to 1842, during which the British imperialists pried open the door of China “with opium and cannon” and gained control of Hong Kong. The city epitomized China’s “humiliation” until Deng Xiaoping negotiated its handover in a 1982 meeting with Margaret Thatcher. Then it became a symbol of China’s return to global prominence. “The Chinese people . . . have never forgotten for a single day the humiliating state of Hong Kong under occupation,” declared President Jiang Zemin in a speech to the nation at the handover ceremony in 1997. “Hong Kong’s return to the motherland is a shining page in the annals of the Chinese nation.”

But Hong Kong is also a painful reminder of what is lacking in the booming cities on the mainland. “I am very jealous of our fellow countrymen in Hong Kong,” one Web user confessed on his microblog page. “They enjoy democracy as well as personal freedom. No one will be forcefully evicted from their houses, and no petitioners will be intercepted by state police. What I envy the most is the safe quality of the meat, vegetables, fruit, and drinking water that they consume—all imported from the mainland!”

A desire for what Hong Kongers possess—from freedom of speech to higher pay—helps explain the defensiveness some mainland residents express when the city’s residents insult their part of the PRC. As one online commentator put it, “Actually, we feel conflicted. Who wants to leave their home and toil in a distant city to make a living? The good things about Hong Kong—open-mindedness, freedom, justice, safe food—the mainland should totally learn, but it doesn’t. It is pushing us away and driving us to the other side. . .”


China’s deepening engagement with the world leads to still other kinds of tensions between national pride and quotidian frustration. Consider the dramatic territorial dispute that has flared up be-tween China and Japan over a group of uninhabited islands claimed by both countries—known as the Diaoyu in Chinese and the Senkaku in Japanese.

Many Chinese people harbor a strong hostility toward their Asian neighbor— primarily because of the humiliating naval defeat China suffered at Japan’s hands in late nineteenth century, and atrocities committed by Japanese occupiers during the 1930s and 1940s, which PRC patriotic campaigns emphasize loudly and repeatedly. That sentiment kindled a blistering nationalist fervor that swept through major cities in China in 2012, bringing tens of thousands of protestors into the streets.

However, as the demonstrations raged on, a curious side discussion about the Diaoyu controversy took place on Weibo. In late August, one user posted a poll on his page that asked, “If your child were born on the Diaoyu Islands, what nationality would you pick for him/her: Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or the mainland?” The poll went viral, retweeted more than twenty thousand times before censors took it down nine hours later. By then, the response was clear: around 40 percent picked Taiwan, 25 percent chose Hong Kong, followed by Japan at 20 percent. The mainland came in last, at a mere 15 percent.

“As a global citizen, I want my next generation to grow up in a place like Taiwan or Japan.”

The results surprised even many of the Chinese respondents themselves, judging from the disbelief and confusion expressed in the poll’s comment section. Many went on to explain the thinking be-hind their personal choices: “I don’t want my kid to grow up drinking poisonous milk and eating food cooked with ‘gutter oil.’ When he is sick, I don’t want him to have to taste a pair of leather shoes when he thought he was taking his medicine,” one Web user wrote, referring to a string of food scandals that have rocked China in recent years. “I’m just facing the facts.”

Another agreed: “Political correctness aside, as a global citizen, I want my next generation to grow up in a place like Taiwan or Japan. I don’t want him to consume tainted baby formula, take brainwashing classes, and have to love a Party that hurts its people.”

“I don’t want to pick China. There are too many sad things happening here.”

“Actually, any place is fine but China.”

The poll and the comments reflect the respondents’ disappointment and frustration with their homeland more than they do a simple admiration for more developed societies. “Can I choose Japan for my next generation,” one agonized commentator asked, “but still be a patriot and support China’s claim over the Diaoyu Islands?”


Increasingly, residents of the mainland, especially the middle class urbanites who regularly go online, seek answers to such questions: Is it possible to be a Chinese patriot, while acknowledging one’s unhappiness with the status quo? Must a patriot unconditionally defend the nation from external threats while remaining obedient and silent about her discontent in daily life?

An alternative type of Chinese patriotism does seem to be emerging, advocated by liberal Chinese intellectuals and dissidents, and supported by a growing number of ordinary people. “We cannot narrowly interpret patriotism as the bravery to fight external enemies. It is also about confronting domestic woes,” the prominent social critic Li Chengpeng argued in a poignant essay written on the fourth anniversary of the devastating earthquake that rocked Sichuan in 2008. The quake caused the collapse of hundreds of shoddy school buildings, killing ten thousand children among almost seventy thousand fatalities, and revealed evidence of widespread government corruption. “[Patriotism] is about taking fewer kickback fees when building schools for our children, about erecting less extravagant government offices and building more winter shelters for the homeless, about drinking less expensive liquor and speaking more unflattering truth….More important than the territorial integrity of our nation is living with dignity and integrity in our daily life.”

Patriotism, Li and his supporters believe, should be based on a sense of civil duty, rather than an unconditional allegiance to the Party-controlled state. It should encourage citizens to question and criticize the government instead of stifling such voices and labeling them acts of treason. If citizens, driven by this kind of patriotism, come to view themselves not as mere subjects but as agents with the power to effect change, they may finally be able to face the depressing social realities that clash so painfully with their nationalist pride.

The outcry that resulted from the censorship of Southern Weekend represented this attitude and this hope. So, too, did angry comments triggered by record high smog levels in Beijing last winter, which called into question the government’s economic strategy of development-at-all-costs. In both these cases, the now-predictable voices of politically aware and articulate groups were heard—lawyers and intellectuals, academics and movie stars, real estate tycoons and singers. But a huge number of unheralded members of the middle class made the same complaints.

Surely not all had patriotism on their minds; some were simply fed up with omnipresent censorship and foul air. But taken together, their responses speak to the growth of a constructive patriotism and, perhaps, a weakness of the jingoistic kind.

Accustomed to exploiting patriotic feeling, the Communist Party is now obliged to listen to the discontents of the populace.

As citizens of the PRC struggle to reconcile their love of and frustration with their country, national officials face a difficult task. Accustomed to exploiting patriotic feeling, the Communist Party is now obliged to listen to the discontents of the populace, lest their patriotism turn into demands that advancing China’s greatness requires better leaders.


During the anti-Japanese protests in 2012, many of the demonstrators, mostly working-class men and women in their twenties and thirties, hoisted aloft portraits of Mao Zedong. The Party has long depicted him as the nation’s supreme leader during the battle against the Japanese invasion. Behind this link between Mao and the nationalist protest, however, lurked another kind of message, which the authorities in Beijing could hardly miss. “The phenomenon suggests there is widespread discontent with the current leadership and dissatisfaction with policies,” Liu Kang, a Chinese studies professor at Duke University told the South China Morning Post. For today’s Chinese youth, struggling to make their way in a society plagued by economic privilege, corruption, and stalled social mobility, the Mao era can seem (however erroneously) a vanished utopia, in which citizens lived in a rough equality and harmony with one another. The portraits of the Great Helmsman both express their patriotism and their frustration with the status quo.


During January’s protest outside the headquarters of Southern Weekend, the Mao portraits appeared again, brought by the conservatives who challenged the advocates of a free press. Most of the time, the local police just stood by, warily watching both groups. For their part, government officials eventually reached a compromise with the Southern Weekend; they promised to loosen up on some forms of censorship and not meddle directly with the paper’s content again as long as the reporters and editors who had gone on strike returned to work. Despite the angry words hurled by the two groups of patriots, it was perhaps not too hard for the men who rule the PRC to figure out what they wanted in common.


Helen Gao is a Chinese native and freelance writer based in Beijing. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and the Web versions of the Atlantic and of Foreign Affairs, among other publications.


Lima