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The Delusions of China's Growing Nationalism

BEJING: China has recently seen an upsurge of ultra-nationalism, all the more disturbing because of the way in which Party, state and military leaders have, by insisting that "hostile foreign forces" are arrayed against them, charged this nationalism with a xenophobia that is never far beneath the surface in modern Chinese history. This August on the 50th anniversary of Japan's defeat in WWII, hard-line Politburo member Liu Huaging invoked memories of "successive and fierce aggression by imperialist powers" to insinuate that certain antagonistic countries "will not accept a powerful and prosperous China." Flag pins have become popular. Then on October 1st at a National Day speech in the Great Hall of the People Premier Li Peng defiantly proclaimed that "After shaking off imperialist bullying and persecution from various powerful nations, the long suffering Chinese people have been on the rise ever since." More recently Taiwan is threatened with military maneuvers across the straights, even the firing of test missiles in its direction, whenever independence is suggested

Paradoxically, nationalist chest pounding is motivated not by the strength and confidence that Chinese leaders wish to project, but by deep-seated fear of weakness. This fear derives from two sources: the Party's lawless governance and an awareness of the way in which society has been defoliated of the shared assumptions that normally give a nation cohesion. First, Mao's revolution destroyed traditional values. Then Deng's counter-revolution destroyed their Maoist replacements, leaving China adrift with only materialism providing a sense of direction. The fact that after 45 years of Party rule China remains hostage to "great leader" kultur and that with a succession crisis looming there is no "great leader" on the horizon, makes many wonder how long things will hold together.

In the midst of this crisis of legitimacy, Chinese leaders seek to fan the flames of nationalism - and its even more dangerous sibling, anti-foreignism - as a substitute for political consensus. With a-historicism reigning supreme, the ruling elite seems to have forgotten that from the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 to the burning of the British Mission during the Cultural Revolution, there have been dangerous consequences for exciting mass sentiment by "blaming foreigners" for China's ills.

While it was true that the outside world once preyed on a defenseless China, modern Chinese must get beyond wounded pride because to insist that China is still being hobbled by foreign conspiracies against its sovereignty and prosperity is to encourage the Chinese to engage in a form of dangerously delusional thinking. Like its considerable economic successes, China's political failures are firmly rooted at home. Until its leaders cease seeking revenge for old grievances and face up to the fact that none but themselves is responsible for China's current situation, the day when they will be able to reckon with the formidable new problems their country faces will only be delayed.