Harvard's China scholars on Chinese nationalism

I recommend this long, informative roundtable discussion on China by seven China scholars in the current issue of Harvard Magazine.

The article covers broad ground. I’ve excerpted only segments on Chinese nationalism, a very significant issue.

Chinese literature professor Xiaofei Tian:

It will be very hard to achieve reform—especially when the Chinese government is rather successful in instilling a lot of nationalism and nationalistic patriotism in its citizens, from primary and secondary education all the way through the test-oriented higher-education system. There has been a lot of aiguozhuyi jiaoyu [“education in patriotism”], coupled with this anxiety about Chinese identity that we were discussing. So I think the one thing the Chinese government wants to try to get across is this idea of being a Zhongguo ren, literally, “a person of China”—that is, not being a Han Chinese in terms of ethnicity, but rather being a Chinese person in terms of national identity.

The government controls a huge amount of money and resources. As long as the ministry of education and the state planning committee control the educational system, it’s very hard for other opinions and ideas to get into the younger generation. They have become increasingly nationalistic, buying into all this stuff they’ve been getting from their teachers and from radio, TV, and the Internet—everywhere. It’s very different from the 1980s, which was much more liberal, open-minded, and tolerant of foreign things. Now I feel China is becoming more closed up, in the sense that it becomes more self-absorbed. It’s kind of a regression, compared with the huge economic leap forward…

I was in Shanghai, talking to a friend who is a professor at East China Normal University, whose child is in high school. The child came home and told him the teacher was criticizing the government in class, as a digression. And the next day, the teacher discovered that he had been informed on to the local police by a student in that class. …[T]his kind of incident is something to be worried about. It’s different from institutionalized control in the form of the local committee supervising the citizens on the street. I find that a student from a very good Shanghai high school informing on the teacher for criticizing the government — and feeling very righteous and very patriotic because they think that any criticism of the government compromises the great enterprise which is China — illustrates the ideological influence that’s seeping into people’s consciousness and the discourse.

If China keeps closing in — and government is spending so much effort and money and energy on promoting “national learning” and Confucianism—basically, no diversity there — I’m very concerned about the attempt to make it monolithic, despite all the diversity among the populace and on the local and regional levels…

China always feels misunderstood. Every Chinese visiting scholar or student I talk to always says, “We have a great civilization, a great history, a great culture. We’re just always misunderstood by the entire world.” There are grains of truth to that. But conversely, I don’t think China has been making huge efforts to understand the world….

[The Chinese government is] very much trying to push for this “national unity, prosperity, and harmony.” They keep talking about harmony in Chinese society, harmony in the global community. But the important thing for them to understand is that without differences, there cannot be harmony.

The statistic about people from media backgrounds becoming heads of provincial government is very interesting—they know this point about communications very well. I think that’s to the detriment of China itself, and to people living in China, like Uighurs and Tibetans, whose cultures are being overwhelmed by the Han Chinese culture. (KIRBY: “Harmonized,” so to speak.) “Harmonized,” right. Arthur was saying about nationalism that there’s nothing wrong with feeling proud about one’s country. Quite true. But in some ways the government in China has tremendous power, and something is very troubling when they’re pushing nationalism without a true spirit of internationalism.

So many fields in China are so underdeveloped. People can speak English, they can speak business Italian. But there are few good programs, and no healthy fields, in European history, Islamic art, African literatures, or things like that. There are experts in languages for practical uses, but few experts in the cultural depth of languages—not to mention the history and culture of many regions of the world. As it is becoming a player in the global community, China really has to understand its place better, instead of just rehashing the same line, “We’re the oldest civilization in the world, and nobody understands us.” The government is not making a conscious, self-aware effort to promote understanding of the world. And if it doesn’t, it might repeat some of the mistakes that the U.S. government has made, by not understanding world cultures better.

The New Yorker’s Beijing correspondent Evan Osnos:

About a year and a half or two years ago, I began to encounter a growing sense among the young elite—young bankers and political scientists—a kind of triumphalist feeling that the Chinese system was thriving despite the efforts of the West to hem it in.

In response to things like the failed effort by a Chinese oil company to buy an American oil company [Unocal, in 2005], that triumphalism reinforced the feeling that China’s only philosophical refuge was nationalism—that the only place they could really be strong was if they rallied around the flag.

…the average person on the street in China believes the image of the country abroad is as a friendly, benign figure in the world. In the spring of 2008, in the run-up to the Olympics, around the time of the uprisings in Tibet, it was shown to them that that was not the case — or at least that the image of China abroad was much more complex. It was in that gap that you saw this enormous energy released, in that space between reality and perception [as Chinese spontaneously assailed foreign critics of the government’s use of force in Tibet].

Beijing-based managing director of Dragonomics Arthur Kroeber:

[According to] Polling data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project… If you ask Chinese citizens how they feel about their role in the world, and whether people like them, they say, “Everyone likes us.” But if you go everywhere else and ask, “Do you like the Chinese?” the answer is, “No, not really,” or “We’re suspicious, we’re concerned.” …[B]oth [Americans and Chinese] think they’re the center of the universe. They think they’re benevolent, and everyone likes them because they have a good sense of humor and so forth. But sitting at this table, we have some doubts.

Posted by James on Tuesday, February 23, 2010