Yesterday I participated in a very odd panel on Chinese nationalism at the Association for the Study of Nationalities convention in New York. My co-panelists were Wang Chenzhi and Li Lifan of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Li argued that nationalism was essentially a popular rather than a governmental phenomenon, and while the “ruling party” benefited from it in some ways it has not yet acted upon it. There was still “plenty of time to mold” and channel Chinese nationalism in a more militant or a more benign direction, but if Western powers did not respect China’s territorial integrity and supported ethnic separatism, then it would no doubt become more of a challenge.
I could see this as either a kind of Shanghai liberal approach to world affairs, or China’s official diplomatic line in the West — probably both. Wang’s paper, on “the subordinate role of nationalism in Sino-Russian relations,” while less coherent, was more provocative. Wang blamed “pro-Western” Russian scholars for giving false advise on China to Russia’s government and being responsible for Russian versions of the “China threat” discourse. He ignored the Far Eastern provincial governors (who have of course now been removed or tamed by Putin) and the simple nationalists, although he did talk about “fascists” who went about attacking Chinese. He talked about the incident with the Chinese cargo ship that was recently sunk by a Russian warship near Nahodka (8 sailors perished and 4 are missing) but offered no explanation why this happened. His point was that the Sino-Russian “strategic partnership” was too important to be jeopardized by such “small” incidents, which is why the Chinese government took no serious countermeasures. (In fact, this is remarkable, because this is probably the single largest loss of Chinese life abroad as a result of hostile fire since the China-Vietnam war.) Wang did not respond to a question about why the public response in China was much less subdued than in the case of the American intelligence ship in the South China Sea (where no one died and the ship was harassed by Chinese fishing boats). But the answer seems clear — China and the US have no “strategic partnership,” and the US ship was perceived as having hostile intent against the Chinese state, not merely some Chinese sailors.
Wang, who has spent some time in Kyrgyzstan, rejected a suggestion that Chinese influence in Central Asia is growing. He said he learned that the Central Asians “use Chinese money but Russian brains.”
The discussant, David Crowe, said that Chinese nationalism was an understandable expression of frustration that China was a “great country” but was not treated as such in international affairs. He, personally, did not think it was such a bad thing. Why would it be OK for Americans to go around waving flags but not Chinese?