Positive nationalism could prove bond for Chinese

THE CHINESE Communist Party is struggling for its survival because communism in China, for all practical purposes, is dead.

China's recent surge in anti-Japanese protests and nationalism has been criticized worldwide for being intolerant and nonconstructive. The criticism is mixed with fear of the red dragon and the coming clash between China and the West over world domination.


Moreover, critics have accused China's Communist Party of playing the nationalist card to gain popularity and support among the people, and this is partly true. The Chinese leadership has supported the emergence of nationalism - not to save communism but to fill the vacuum after the death of communism in China.

Communism no longer has any appeal for the population generally or the elite. But the party is still in control of the country and seeks new ways to control the people in a way that they can tolerate. The party has allowed a surge of democratization within itself in an effort to stay in power.


China's problem is that there is very little in the country that is sufficiently appealing to unite the Chinese population as a political entity. Chinese culture and language are unifying factors, but they cannot prevent separatism and factionalism. Religion is absent, so there is no possibility for the people to rally together for religious coherence. Politically, there is no support among the elite for democracy. So nationalism seems to be all that's left to drive the people toward unity.

Nationalism is cost-effective for the Community Party and non-threatening to the power of the elite. It's also strong enough to cause people to rally around the flag, especially against Japanese "aggressors" or any other historical adversary.

Contrary to popular belief, Chinese nationalism is positive not only for China, but also for the world at large. Without a consolidating force in China, we could face a fragmented and increasingly desperate Chinese state.

By focusing on the strengths of China and its increasing power in the international community, Chinese leaders can consolidate the people behind the state.

But there are drawbacks, such as the growth of a state that would seek more influence in the international arena (maybe too much), and slower political change in China even if the country has been moving away from communism, and not toward Western democracy.

The possibilities are these: A nationalist China that seeks its rightful place in the world or a fragmented, communist China that is desperate to control its population. Nationalism is not, by definition, a problem, and it may well be the foundation for a more democratic China.

Nevertheless, China could show an ugly face of nationalism that could be a problem for the United States and the West through its search for its rightful place on the world stage; never mind its current focus on Japan because of Japanese aggression before and during World War II.

China's military might and increasing economic strength will be a dark shadow for many policy-makers. A China that seeks its role in the world without finding it and desperately clings to communism as its guiding principle will not only destabilize the country but could also threaten Western interests, in China and internationally.


It should not be forgotten that communism was the nemesis of the free world for more than half of the 20th century. If China decides to get rid of communism, it should be supported, not attacked. Nationalism has been a positive force in the United States for more than two centuries. The question is how we help Chinese nationalism follow the positive path of American nationalism and convert it into people power rather than party power.

Niklas Swanstrom, a research fellow at Renmin University in Beijing and at Johns Hopkins University, is an associate professor and director at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research Program for Contemporary Silk Road Studies in Sweden.

Columnist Cal Thomas will return next Wednesday.