Garble on Nationalism

Chinese nationalism is scary. It’s scary and fiery and uncertain and very very alive. It is also one of the most powerful forces keeping society stable and the government in power, along with economic growth and political control. And since the 90’s it has grown much stronger, to the extent that the authorities at times seem to be working hard to dampen it so as not to damage their foreign interests. Particularly disturbing is the chinese exceptionalism which sees an absolute divide between Chinese and foreign. Chinese are different and foreigners should stay out of their business. Whereas on the flip side Chinese emmigrants and their descendants are actively involved in the politics of all sorts of countries from Thailand to Canada. 

But whereas Chinese nationalism is scary, I don’t find it any more scary than American or British nationalism, not to speak of Israeli or Iraqi nationalism. For every loony who wants to nuke Taiwan, we have a loony across the pacific who wants to nuke Iran. Some go on about China’s glorious long history and need to restore its greatness. Equally some Brits (especially in HK) talk whistfully of the days when Britannia ruled the waves. Following the Xinjiang riots, I have read website comments saying that the only solution to the Uyghur “problem” is to 杀杀杀 - kill kill kill. But these views are not uncommon in countries experiencing ethnic unrest and violence. Which does not in any way serve to excuse them.


The thing is of course, is that China is already the richest non-democracy in history, and will soon be the richest country in the world. Its record of rule of law, freedom of speech and treatment of non-conformists is by 21st century standards very poor, although a huge improvement from the 1970’s. Which is why everyone is so much more afraid of Chinese nationalism than of, say, Vietnamese nationalism. But it does have a positive side too – the desire for China to be respected or even loved as a per capita poor country on the international stage, helping to work with and represent other poor countries in a global community dominated by the rich and the western. Just like American and European nationalism played a role in pushing for democracy and human rights around the world since 1945, right? 

No, not right. We MUST keep clear the distinction between our values, and our nationalism. Democracy and human rights as pushed by the west, and non-interventionalism and poverty reduction, as pushed by the east (massive generalisation there) are all very noble values. But we cannot allow them to be monopolised by any group of countries or peoples. Firstly because it is untrue, secondly because it is impractical. If we are to have constructive interaction between different people, we must keep our values and political goals at a distance from our passport cover and ethnic box-tick. We care about society and people and the environment because we are people, not because we are european or chinese or anything else. 

This sort of nationalism is hard to challenge head-on. Because challenging nationalism is too easily misinterpreted as attacking a country or a people. But loving the land and the people and the history of the piece of earth where you were born is not the same as blind nationalism. Indeed if you really love your country, you should be happy to allow other people and foreigners to share your love. And if you love a country, you will want what provides peace and prosperity in the long term. I love China, although it is not my country, and I wish for whatever provides peace and prosperity in the long-run for all its people. As I wish for Europe and Britain, which is the piece of land where I come from. 

But though nationalism is hard to challenge, it must be. First, it must where possible be channelled in a constructive direction – love pride sharing and setting a good example, rather than muscle flexing, nastiness and war. Secondly, we must delink values which may be universal to humanity, from narrow national identities. Because no nations are eternal. I think the best way to challenge nationalism is gently and persistently, showing time and time again what people have in common, steering away from generalizations and superficially herd mentality.


I read a quote somewhere once that “nationalism is taking pride in achievements you had nothing to do with, in order to differentiate yourself from people you have never met”. I’m not sure I agree 100%, and certainly there is the difficulty over how exactly we define nationalism. But in an age where the nationstate as an institution is at a transition between shifting towards a new power emphasis or becoming further entrenched, we are all involved in shaping what happens. And in overcoming all forms of nationalism, so we can just be different, individual, cultural, historical people. Like everyone else.


5 Responses to “Garble on Nationalism”

  1. Sally Evans Says:

    very interesting and well written, Ellie. here (Scotland) nationalism is akin to small is beautiful, and most people’s definition of a Scot is born here and lives anywhere, or born anywhere and lives here. Apart from pointing that outas a good definition for anywhere, which precluded anti-strangerism, my question and I dont know how to begin answering it, is Why is China such a large country?

  2. Will Rose Says:

    A really well articulated and conceived article. For me nationalism has so often been a frustrating issue when trying to engage in debate with Chinese. The replies I have gotten “You’re young/ western, you don’t understand China”, or “western media is biased (it is, but nowhere near China’s)”. I perhaps disagree on how “soon” China will become the richest country in the world (as you say), by my reckoning it could be 30-100 years before that happens (if ever).
    In my opinion, China have harnessed this national mentality so well, it is like Iran, an arguably unelected, illegitimate government, but which plays its people off against western governments, not itself. Very clever of them!

  3. Dick Says:

    A well articulated article as ever! In the long term enlightened self interest will always prevail, though the emphasis here has to be on enlightened, As we move into the 21C and populations grow and key resources such as water and oil that underpin the worlds economy become scarce nationalism will inevitably will define interest groups.

    My hope is that our species under such pressure will discover new ways to produce the agricultural surplus necessary for civic society and that technology will better connect all the peoples of the world. A bit grandiose I know, but hey here we are communicating half a world away.


  4. Oscar Says:

    Well written, I think you get the point(s) better than most people, including both Chinese and foreigners. I’ll leave it at that – just wanted to say I enjoyed reading it.

  5. Audun Says:

    Very well written. Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

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