DENVER – Among the many arguments that former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević used to make to his interlocutors was that he never incited nationalism among his people. Indeed, his public statements and speeches during those turbulent times were carefully calibrated to avoid any outright exhortation to nationalism.
But it was not so much the words that he used as it was the music. With his crafty use of code words and body language to encourage a sense of victimhood among Serbs, Milošević was one of the most demagogic nationalists Europe had seen in generations.
Today, East Asia – especially China – is awash in a sea of nationalism. The patterns of this age-old scourge are familiar, featuring national narratives based on a supposed record of victimization. In China’s case, the narrative revolves around “the century of shame,” when China was too weak to defend itself against encroachments on its sovereignty, and the idea that it should never have to succumb again.
Among Japanese nationalist groups, the narrative is one of frustration with the wartime Allies’ version of history; almost 70 years – and billions of dollars in reparations and foreign assistance – later, Japan would like to move on. “We are done apologizing,” Liberal Democratic Party leader Shinzo Abe has said.
Whether this outbreak of nationalism will end soon depends on the willingness of governments in the region – not just China’s – to take a stand and appeal to their publics to cease and desist. These governments need to engage in a more honest dialogue with their citizens.
While historical frustration often shapes the narratives that fuel nationalism, there are clearly deeper and more powerful forces at work. One of Japan’s persistent problems in recent years has been growing disenchantment with the political class and its inability to articulate a vision for the country’s future. Many young Japanese are alienated from their country’s politics. Although this is hardly an exclusively Japanese phenomenon, the narrowness of the political elite has made the problem more acute than elsewhere.
Japan is rapidly becoming one of the world’s oldest nations. Having already passed its population peak, it will, in the continued absence of significant immigration, begin an increasingly rapid slide down the demographic curve, becoming a country that is much smaller than it is today. And China has been a major source of angst for Japan, because, historically, there has seldom been a time when both countries could be strong. Thus, in the hierarchical understanding of power that prevails in East Asia, if China is up, Japan surely must be down.
But Japan remains one of the world’s most culturally sophisticated societies. And, just as the British made the transition from “Rule Britannia” to “Cool Britannia,” Japan, too, can engage in an internal process to define better its identity as a vibrant modern culture in the context of globalization. Japanese culture has global reach, and much to be proud of, besides a desultory and unproductive debate about victimization and rock-strewn islands.
The problem in China is more serious. China is moving toward another leadership transition, relatively calm by the standards of other powers, where elections sometimes take on the characteristics of political warfare. China’s political rivalries do not play out in televised national debates; rather, they play out in the shadows, leaving the public to guess what the country’s leadership has in store.
As China’s economy slows, the public stirs, and its confidence in nonelected leaders wanes. While some of the criticism calls for more openness and accountability in government, much of it is less inspiring to the rest of us. The critics ask – often in pointed terms – what the government is doing to safeguard the country’s economic interests.
In democratic countries, such critics would group themselves into some kind of political movement, ultimately creating an opposition party that, through the dialectical process of democracy, would influence policymaking by the party in power. China, however, lacks the institutional framework needed to channel this sentiment into the political process. This does not mean that opposition disappears, much less moderates itself; rather, it simmers and incubates – and gathers strength.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party has no intention of ceding economic nationalism to an Internet-based proto-opposition. After all, rapid economic growth lies at the heart of the CCP’s raison d’état, so it embraces economic nationalism, whether in disputes with Japan, the Southeast Asian countries, or the United States.
China needs to rein in these processes. However it is done (which is for the Chinese to figure out), China has no choice but to embrace a world order based on stable relationships among countries – including its own neighbors. Indeed, whether nationalists like it or not, this is the future that China has, in effect, already chosen. China’s leaders need to stand up and articulate more clearly to the country’s restive public this vision of membership in an interdependent world.
Regardless of whether it charts a course toward a brighter or darker future, a country’s political leadership by definition plays the central role at the helm. Leaders of both China and Japan need to accept their position in this process and, above all, not simply ride on the froth of current events.