China’s Political Trajectory and Foreign Relations under the Influence of National Identity

Since Xi Jinping formally ascended to power in 2013, China has been flaunting its superior “China Model” to the rest of the world more actively than ever before. The official media have published numerous articles with such eye-catching titles as “Establishing the Chinese Coordinates for Democratic Politics,”1 “China Is the Real Biggest Democratic Country in the World Today,”2 and “The Special Form and Unique Superiority of Our Socialist Democratic Politics,”3 creating an aura of China being a well-established, exemplary democracy.

Yet to qualify as a true democracy, a country needs to endorse democratic political procedures—e.g. free and fair elections, broad civil rights, and leaders’ accountability—that embody the fundamental tenets of democracy that all men are created equal and that sovereignty lies with the people. Those who are supposed to be equal and hold popular sovereignty should include all nationals living in a country, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, and political persuasion. In other words, the national identity definition of who is the national self, “the People,” vis-à-vis the others who do not belong to the nation, is closely tied to the extent to which democratic rights are enjoyed by average citizens. An accommodative, inclusive conception of the self-other boundary will allow the vast majority of the population to exercise sovereignty in the governance of the country, while a narrow and discriminative self-other delimitation depriving sizable segments of the society of national membership will not only encroach on the rights of individual citizens but also produce a culture of prejudice and intolerance that runs counter to democratic values of equality, diversity, and justice. In this sense, China since modern times has not seen genuine democratization.

For China, this period of more than a century is a nation-building process, starting with, first, the stage of nation-seeking (to establish an autonomous national polity), then entering the second, and current, stage of nation-promoting (to nationalize an existing polity).4 During this history, especially when facing severe domestic challenges, Chinese elites frequently aroused internally exclusionary nationalism for social mobilization and power consolidation, with the goal of “building group cohesion and group loyalty for purposes of international representation and domestic planning,” an essential condition for nation-building.5 Depending on the domestic enemies identified at different times in the Chinese national identity conception, various ethnic, socio-economic, political, and religious groups were denied equal rights and popular sovereignty.

Additionally, from time to time, this domestic exclusion in Chinese identity politics was linked to attitudes to foreign others. Mobilization of anti-foreign national identity was unnecessary when the target of internal othering could arouse a sufficient public echo. But when vilifying domestic adversaries was either emotionally unappealing or politically inconvenient, Chinese elites would reinforce it with a nationalist crusade against foreign countries to generate a legitimatory narrative for securing power. Thus, national identity has exerted a significant impact on both the Chinese domestic political trajectory and foreign relations.   

This is not to refute the fact that Chinese elites since the late 19th century have almost all espoused the pursuit of democracy, and some of them made serious attempts at dismantling China’s long-standing authoritarian tradition and institutional structure. Democracy had its opportunities in modern China. Yet every time such opportunities and good intentions were stymied by an exclusive interpretation of national identity in service of the power struggle aimed at nation-building.

Late Qing anti-Manchuism: Racial or political revolution?

China at the turn of the 20th century was in a profound national crisis, which prompted elites of various strands and persuasions to search for national salvation. Many of them believed a lack of national cohesion was the primary cause of China’s decline and failure in the face of Western imperialist aggression. As Sun Yat-sen said, “the Chinese are like a sheet of loose sand.”6 To strengthen national unity one must know the self-other boundary because, as one intellectual famously put it, nationalism means to build a nation-state premised on “uniting the same race and othering the other races [he tongzhong, yi yizhong].”7 In the late Qing, the elite conception of race and identity suggests two possible national others for defining what it meant to be Chinese. The first is obviously the imperialist powers. The second is China’s ethnic minorities, including the Manchus, Tibetans, Mongols, and so on.

On the one hand, most Chinese nationalists were ambivalent about the powers. Although popular hatred toward foreigners sometimes turned into extreme xenophobia, such as in anti-missionary incidents and, most strikingly, the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, Chinese elites largely disapproved of such “blind,” “barbaric” anti-foreignism that would not drive out foreign imperialists but only provide them with the excuse to invade China. Yan Fu once reproached that each and every move made by those “ignorant masses” was enough to bring about disaster to the nation.8 Meanwhile, many in the Chinese elite were steeped in modern political thought imported from the West. Liang Qichao, a prominent reformer, was a forerunner in enlightening his countrymen about democracy and civil liberty. He criticized China’s traditional political system that bestowed supreme power on the monarch while the people had no rights but only obligations to the state. His ideal state followed “new Western thought” that took the citizens as the principal of the state and the government, including a monarch, ruled only with citizens’ consent.9 Juxtaposed to Liang were Sun Yat-sen and his revolutionary comrades, who sought to overthrow the Qing monarchy and replace it with a republican government. But when proposing his well-known “Three Principles of the People” [sanminzhuyi] – nationalism, democracy, livelihood – for the first time in 1905, Sun too cited “the progress of Europe and America” to prove his theory.10

On the other hand, the late Qing elites were widely split regarding whether Chinese nationalism should be inclusively or exclusively defined vis-à-vis domestic others. The reformers argued that all ethnicities in China should jointly counter the country’s immediate external threat. Liang Qichao was celebrated for having coined the term Zhonghua minzu [Chinese nation], which would incorporate all the people living in the empire (albeit with a sense of racial hierarchy of Han versus non-Han) organically amalgamated into one unified nation.11 In contrast, the revolutionaries identified the Manchus, who were the ruling race of the Qing empire, as the primary national enemy because of not only their alien heritage but also their brutal conquest of the Han in the 17th century and more than 260 years of misrule. While the reformers warned that anti-Manchuism would cause national fragmentation, the revolutionaries insisted that China was carved up because the Manchus were acting as a pawn of the imperialists to sell out national interests. The revolutionaries therefore called for a racial revolution to exclude the Manchus from a new China.

Admitting that the racial revolution was aimed at avenging the Manchu evil, the revolutionaries nevertheless claimed that eventually they wanted to solve political problems. Sun Yat-sen promised that “When we overthrow the Manchu regime, we will achieve not only a nationalist revolution against the Manchus but also a political revolution against the monarchy.”12 Sun’s close protégé Feng Ziyou once offered a metaphor that nationalism to democracy is like flowers to fruits; the two were symbiotic and inseparable.13 At the same time, however, Sun did not hesitate to employ racially charged language in revolutionary mobilization because to include all Qing subjects in a new China as the reformers advocated would have “nullified the very foundation of his revolutionary activism – the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty.”14 Having carefully thought over the best propaganda strategy to mobilize revolution, Sun settled down on the term “paiman” [expel the Manchus] believed to have the power to “shake the Qing court and sweep the whole country.”15 The fact that after the Qing court was overthrown in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution Sun and his comrades quickly embraced a multiethnic republic speaks volumes about the instrumentality of their racial discourse. But when it was in vogue, anti-Manchuism was so remarkably attractive to the masses that it became a “religion without reason.”16 After all, it is violence and emotions, not reasoning, that propels a revolution.

Precisely because it appealed to extreme emotions, not cool-headed reasoning, anti-Manchu propaganda in practice often sounded like a declaration of war on all ethnic minorities. The manifesto issued by the Wuchang revolutionary army in October 1911, for instance, not only vehemently denounced the Manchus but also hurled sweeping insults at the Mongolians, Hui, and Tibetans.17 It was therefore not surprising that Tibet, Mongolia, and various parts of the former Qing frontier regions quickly seceded from the new republic as they never felt included in the nationalist vision of the revolutionaries.  

This heavy reliance on stirring up racial sentiment for mass mobilization severely hampered the revolution’s political programs. Right before the republican government was set up, on December 26, 1911, Sun Yat-sen pledged that the revolutionaries’ responsibility would not end with nationalism but rather with democracy and livelihood; “the former is the starting point while the latter is the fundamental objective.”18 However, when examining this history retrospectively, Dai Jitao believed that the political revolution was almost completely eclipsed by the racial revolution. To him, sanminzhuyi at the time degenerated into yiminzhuyi [one people’s principle], and even “an incomplete yiminzhuyi,” whereby “anti-Manchu revengism became the entirety of the principle of nationalism and the compulsive subject for teaching the revolutionaries, while the principle of democracy ended up being an elective, and the principle of livelihood merely an extracurricular seminar.” “Therefore, we defeated the Manchus but lost the revolution, and the ultimate fruits of the revolutionaries were ruined,” regretted Dai.19

Early Republic: From republicanism to anti-imperialist nationalism

Racial nationalism faded after the Xinhai Revolution. The political discourse of the revolutionaries-turned Nationalists, named after the newly established Nationalist Party (KMT), included such keywords as constitution, parliament, democracy, and republicanism. But their pursuit of democracy through wider political participation and decentralization of state power was soon thwarted by Yuan Shikai, a former Qing politician and firm believer in centralized power. After Yuan died in 1916, China was deeply fragmented as many of his former subordinates and military governors of various provinces vied for power. To strive for the republican vision, during 1917-1922 the Nationalists engaged in a Hufa Yundong [Constitution Protection Movement] based in southern China. Vowing to preserve the Provisional Constitution promulgated by the first republican government in 1912 and reconvene a legal parliament, Hufa was directed at not only the so-called Beiyang warlords in the north but also the southern militarists, who nominally supported Hufa but cared more about keeping the territories under their control than republicanism.

The Nationalists, however, failed to popularize and legitimize the Hufa cause as a mobilization campaign exclusively focusing on domestic others from the Han race was far less emotionally stimulating than the racial hatred spread by the anti-Manchuism of the late Qing. Meanwhile, without a thorough shakeup of the old political order, the Xinhai Revolution had only planted shallow roots of Western liberal democracy in Republican China. The public was also confused by the rhetoric of the warlords, whose autocratic governance was often dressed in the language of democracy and constitutionalism. Lacking military strength and political influence compared to the warlords, the Nationalists were seen as “mobs” and “rebels” for a long time. 

In terms of foreign relations, as the country was beset by internal strife, local political actors sought foreign arms and financial backing to maintain their territorial control, in exchange for which they conceded privileged interests to foreign patrons. The Nationalists might be more critical of foreign infringement on Chinese sovereignty rights than the warlords, especially after the outbreak of the anti-Japanese May 4th Movement in 1919, but they too actively searched for foreign sympathy and assistance to their nationalist cause, for the sake of which they typically acquiesced to imperialist oppression. Hopes for Western support, however, were dashed in Sun’s clash with the foreign controlled Guangdong customs in 1923 and in the riots of Guangzhou’s merchant militia in 1924, which he believed was propped up by “British imperialism.” Meanwhile, Sun’s military campaign against the northern enemies suffered repeated setbacks, including a coup staged by his own southern ally Chen Jiongming in 1922.  More than ever Sun awakened to the importance of ideological propaganda. “Propaganda is gongxin [psychological offense],” realized Sun in January 1923, “If our party can win the hearts and minds of the 400 million Chinese people through propaganda, it would be a great success.” 20 Since the principles of democracy and livelihood of sanminzhuyi were relatively inaccessible for ordinary people, promoting the principle of nationalism was central to such propaganda. Like the anti-Manchuism that successfully aroused mass fervor against the ethnic enemy from within, this time Sun discovered a new national other from without that captured the imagination of the nation: foreign imperialism.

Reorganized with Soviet advice, the KMT held its First National Congress in January 1924, which for the first time formally urged the abrogation of all unequal treaties imposed by imperialist powers.21 In September, the KMT further declared that “previously our revolutionary slogan was to expel the Manchus; now we change it to ‘down with imperialist intervention’ so as to eliminate the biggest obstacle to the success of our revolution.”22 An externally directed nationalist ideology could not only bring the urgently needed material aid from Moscow but also delegitimate the warlord adversaries and win support from the Chinese people. The political prestige of the Nationalists then received a significant boost after the eruption of the epic May 30th Incident in 1925, triggered by a British police massacre of Chinese protestors in Shanghai. The Nationalists and their Communist allies (CPC, the Communist Party of China) quickly seized the propaganda initiative and prevailed in a nationalist bidding war against the Beiyang government. They also launched the Guangdong-Hong Kong General Strike that lasted 16 months and badly damaged British trade. With the May 30th cause, the KMT firmly linked imperialist aggression with domestic warlords and openly called for overthrowing both in a grand nationalist revolution. Riding on the wave of anti-imperialism, the party successfully built up momentum for an ambitious northward military campaign starting in summer 1926, the Northern Expedition, to reunify the country.  

Adopting an anti-imperialist identity does not mean that the Nationalists were completely antagonistic vis-à-vis foreigners. Like the warlords who were backed up by foreign powers, the Nationalists also accepted Soviet help in the early stage of the expedition. Additionally, regardless of their fervent rhetoric, in practice Nationalist leaders exercised great caution in averting direct conflict with the powers lest they incur external intervention detrimental to the military campaign. The Northern Expedition never expanded its targets to anyone beyond domestic warlords, and Commander-in-Chief Chiang Kai-shek went to great lengths to reassure the powers that he would not upset the status quo of foreign interests in China by force.

Precisely because it was mobilized by an anti-foreign national identity, the nationalist revolution in the late 1920s concentrated on liquidating domestic enemies and establishing a strong central government that could withstand foreign threats. It was, however, minimally attentive to a democracy-promoting agenda. Drawing support mostly from the landed gentry and urban bourgeoisie that were politically conservative, the KMT formally split up in 1927, in the middle of the Northern Expedition, with the CPC, which wanted to incite a proletarian mass movement. The violent suppression of the Communists not only stripped dissident groups of their political rights but also hindered the development of labor rights and peasants’ welfare that had been envisaged in Sun Yat-sen’s principles of democracy and livelihood. Furthermore, before being replaced by the Communist-led People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, various Republican-era regimes at different times had promulgated three provisional constitutions, three constitutional drafts, and two constitutions. Yet no genuine parliament was ever put in place to execute the sovereign power of the state or implement democratic values and procedures.23

Nor were the equal rights of ethnic minorities upheld in the nation-building project of Republican China. When the Manchu rule collapsed, to stop the empire from falling apart, many formerly ardent anti-Manchu revolutionaries switched to the idea of wuzhu gonghe (Republic of Five Races) that highlighted multiethnic integration. Sun Yat-sen probably never genuinely accepted wuzu gonghe because, from the first day in office, he pledged to achieve “minzu zhi tongyi [national unity] by uniting Han, Manchus, Mongols, Hui and Tibetans into one.”24 But wuzu gonghe was so popularamong Chinese elites at the time, including the gentry and many former officials, that he initially was compelled to go along with it. But when reframing sanmin zhuyi in 1919, Sun began to openly reject wuzhu gonghe.25 He later commented that ethnic minorities were too weak to defend themselves against foreign aggression, so the much stronger Han must help them by “melding all ethnicities in China into a single nation called Zhonghua minzu,” and it should be “a nation completely of the Han race.”26 In 1924 Sun ordered the lowering of the Five-color flag symbolizing the harmony between five minorities of Han, Han, Manchus, Mongols, Hui, and Tibetans, and raised instead the “Blue Sky White Sun” flag that indicated a united citizenry.27 The Nationalist government in general took an assimilationist approach to ethnic minorities, which left little room for cultural diversity and political autonomy of non-Han ethnic communities.28 In the name of strengthening ethnic unity to counter foreign others, therefore, the democratic rights of minority people were sacrificed. 

The anti-Meidi campaign and establishment of People’s Democratic Dictatorship under Mao

When the Chinese Communist Revolution, after decades of armed struggles in remote countryside, swept into major urban centers in its final stage in the late 1940s, its leaders were confronted with a far more complex task of social mobilization and nation-building. Open or latent opposition was common among prior elites, and the poorly educated, politically numb populace was non-committal about the socialist future envisioned by Mao Zedong. To quickly reshape the political landscape and gain national endorsement of the new regime required not simply coercive subjugation but also ideological persuasion. The centerpiece of the new national identity discourse was a fervent repudiation of foreign imperialism, which resonated more strongly than Marxist theories of class struggle and historical development. By invoking the shared, traumatic memory of foreign aggression since the 19th century, Communist propagandists exhorted the Chinese people to identify themselves with the government that promised to stand up against imperialism.

This nationalist propaganda centered on attacking “American imperialism” [Meidi]. After entering the Korean War in October 1950, Beijing engaged in a rigorous, sustained “Resist America Aid Korea” [RAAK; kangMei yuanChao] movement that demonized the United States for both its past aggression and present crimes, as well as its pernicious social and political system. In particular, a nationwide campaign of sanshi (three ways of viewing [America]) was launched, which called upon every patriotic Chinese to “hate America” because of its continuously “aggressive policy” to China since the Opium War; to “despise America” because of its corrupt, decadent capitalist system, sham democracy, and military expansionism; and to “scorn America” because it was merely a paper tiger despite its proclaimed military superiority.29 Labelling the United States “the deadly enemy of the Chinese people” and “the headquarters of reactionary degeneracy in the whole world,” sanshi set the extreme tone of China’s anti-Americanism throughout the Korean War. This saturating, hysterical “Hate America Campaign”30 was even more virulent than China’s anti-Japanese nationalism thus far, which was rare for a nation whose traditional philosophy favored the Doctrine of the Mean; it also deprived Beijing itself of diplomatic ambiguity and latitude in dealing with the United States.

Enmity toward America was deliberately fomented, not simply or primarily for war mobilization, but more importantly to justify and reinforce a succession of massive political campaigns at home, such as the land reform [tugai] and suppression of counterrevolutionaries [zhenfan], whichwould otherwise be too hard for the nation to swallow. Since these political campaigns promised to dismantle the deeply entrenched socioeconomic foundation, rash execution would risk disrupting economic reconstruction and alienating the propertied class and a broad range of elites associated with it, whose cooperation the young PRC sorely needed. In its initial months the Communist government was forced to proceed slowly and cautiously with tugai and zhengfan. But from the outset it was clear that collaboration with non-proletarian classes was a political expediency. The PRC would eventually eliminate land tenure, private ownership, and “all forms of exploitation,” before entering socialism. Once the war with the United States began, popular persuasion and mobilization were rendered much easier by the war and the accompanying anti-American clamor. It was no coincidence that on October 10, 1950, just two days after deciding to send troops to Korea, the CCP initiated nationwide zhenfan, or that from November Mao urged the acceleration of tugai. In fact, the war decision itself was in large part motivated by Mao’s desire to push forward his “grand programs for carrying on the Chinese revolution.”31 Mao reportedly told Luo Ruiqing, minister of public security, not to miss the “golden opportunity” afforded by the war to suppress the counterrevolutionaries.32

At the leaders’ bidding, zhenfan embarked on “harsh strikes” in spring 1951, and big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Nanjing endured the heaviest impact, where swift and unified actions were taken to make massive arrests and executions. Mao himself estimated that about 700,000 people were killed and another 2.4 million imprisoned or subject to control during zhenfan.33 In the countryside, arrests, executions, and torture of landlords soon became unchecked. Originally scheduled to last for 3-5 years from 1950, by September 1951 tugai had concluded for the vast majority of the rural population, and the deadline for completion was advanced to spring 1952.34 Additionally, under the banner of “increasing production and practicing economy” to aid the war, in late 1951 the CPC introduced the Three Antis [sanfan] campaign, mainly to discipline corrupted party cadres. But itquickly expanded into Five Antis [wufan], to combat economic crimes committed by the capitalists who were accused of endangering the Chinese forces fighting in Korea. When wrapping up wufan in June 1952, party leaders minced no words that the principal domestic contradiction now existed between workers and capitalists. Also pressed hard in this socialist revolution were Christian institutions and bourgeois elites, who were prodded to sever their ties with foreign imperialism. Meanwhile, former government personnel and intellectuals inherited from the KMT era also had to undergo stringent vetting, and ideological rectification stepped up in the fields of literature, art, and education. In 1952 thought reform merged with sanfan and wufan to thoroughly remove “bourgeois mentality” among intellectuals, particularly their pro-Americanism. College teachers must “take a bath” [xizao], meaning thought cleansing, before they could “pass through the gate” [guoguan].35

French Revolution activists liked to unite the French nation, republic, and revolution into a sacred trinity, and declared an implacable antagonism between two French peoples: the mass of citizens loyal to the trinity and a “pack of factious traitors and intriguers” against it.36 Likewise, during the Korean War, landlords, capitalists and other “bad” elements in China were portrayed as agents of foreign imperialism and, therefore, the worst enemies of not just the state and its revolution but also the Chinese nation; they were demonized as “non-People.”37 Additionally, like the notion of a “grand conspiracy” that prevailed during the French Revolution, “wherein all threats were viewed as part of a monolithic master plan, directed from a single source,”38 any persons deemed disloyal to the Communist regime were framed as “lackeys” or “worshippers” of Meidi emboldened by its Korea intervention to level assaults at the new China.

Thus, fierce domestic struggles mobilized by the urgency to repel Meidi effectively eradicated the Communist regime’s internal enemies and established a highly centralized political structure. The state now claimed to have successfully built a democracy, where “the People” [renmin] who were supportive of the socialist revolution enjoyed individual freedom and equality, while the “non-People” who were against it would be subject to the People’s Democratic Dictatorship [renmin minzhu zhuanzheng]. First written into the PRC’s constitution in 1954, to the present day the concept of People’s Democratic Dictatorship continues to provide the legal basis for denying democratic rights to a significant portion of the Chinese population who dissent from the state. It also acts as a coercive deterrent to those members of “the People” sympathetic with the dissidents and undermines the political freedom of the entire nation.

Post-Mao era: Resurgence of anti-Westernism and resistance to democratic transition

Mao died in 1976, which brought the disastrous Cultural Revolution that he launched in 1966 to an end. The immediate political goals of the new leader, Deng Xiaoping, in the 1980s were to restore the people’s trust in the CCP and consolidate his own power base within the party, both crucial to implementing his overall strategy of economic reform and his open-door policy. But he soon met challenges from both Chinese society and within the party itself. From late 1978, a Democracy Wall campaign emerged in Beijing, which, starting with sharing experiences of suffering during the Cultural Revolution, soon escalated into bold demands for democracy and political freedom. Deng initially tolerated the Democracy Wall, but when the campaign began to question the legitimacy of the reformers like Deng himself, he ordered a crackdown. This, however, did not mollify public resentment about many socioeconomic problems that had cropped up since the reform, including inflation, official corruption, increasing crime, and industrial pollution. The dismal situation was captured in the remarks of CCP secretary general Hu Yaobang, who admitted that the party confronted a threefold crisis of faith, belief, and trust in its relations with the Chinese people.39 Meanwhile, the intraparty split deepened between the reformists like Deng and conservatives, who opposed market reform and the open door permitting the infiltration of dangerous, Western liberal ideas.

With the inexorable decline of Communism, the government once again resorted to nationalism to enhance internal consolidation and shore up the regime’s legitimacy. From the mid-1980s, Beijing began to foster a mixture of what Michel Oksenberg calls “confident nationalism” and “assertive nationalism.”40 It was moderate in the economic sphere, acknowledging the importance of Western technology and investment, but rigid and muscular in the ideological and cultural spheres, often using the othering of the Western out-group to glorify the Chinese in-group. The latter became crystalized in several ideological campaigns sanctioned by Deng against liberal-minded intellectuals, including the 1981–82 attacks on “bourgeois liberalization,” the 1983–84 campaign against capitalist “spiritual pollution,” and the 1986–87 renewed campaign against “bourgeois liberalization.”41 The dual nature of official nationalism aimed at raising the national spirit while retaining the economic benefits of the reform and open-door policy. But it also had consequential implications for China’s political path because, by defaming pro-Western Chinese political dissidents, the government effectively dampened societal aspirations for liberalization and democratic changes.

The CPC’s prestige further tumbled in the aftermath of its violent suppression of the Tiananmen democratic movement in 1989. This legitimacy crisis was sharpened by the political turmoil in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that eventually toppled their Communist governments. Furthermore, post-Tiananmen Western sanctions accentuated a siege mentality for the party-state. The CPC conservative faction was particularly alarmed by so-called “peaceful evolution,” through which “reactionary forces at home and abroad” were plotting an active conspiracy to subvert Communist rule in China. The leftist ideologues pushed for a hostile posture against the West, fiercely attacked Deng Xiaoping’s reform and open-door policy, and cried for the strengthening of socialism. Deng eventually prevailed in this debate about China’s national identity with the argument that “peaceful evolution” was not an imminent threat as long as most Chinese people gained material benefits from economic reform.42 Regardless, in exchange for the leftists’ support for his economic programs, Deng continued to keep a lid on political reform. In his famous “southern tour” to revitalize economic reform, Deng stressed anew the necessity to exercise People’s Democratic Dictatorship during economic development to defend the socialist system.43

After the Tiananmen crisis passed, and especially following China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, its anti-Western rhetoric receded for some time. Through most of the 2000s Beijing was credited for carrying out a “Charm Offensive” to engage international institutions and cultivate foreign friendships. Particularly US–China relations, in Lampton’s words in early 2009, “are more fundamentally sound than they have ever been before.”44 But starting from the end of the decade, China’s attitude towards the West took a significant turn for the worse. This change needs to be, again, understood in the context of China’s national identity politics in response to domestic challenges to the regime.

Although boasting a rapid rise in national power, Chinese society under Hu Jintao (in power during 2003-2012) was fraught with disorder and unrest. Generally speaking, there are three categories of internal threats to the party-state. The first category was widespread public resentment about various social problems from environmental degradation to land and labor disputes and the ever-worsening income disparity. The situation was compounded by natural disasters and adverse global economic impact, both at their worst in 2008–2009. As a result, social stability deteriorated dramatically in the 2000s, as borne out in an upsurge of “mass incidents” of social unrest. Accompanying growing social turmoil was the weiquan [rights defense] movement that first started in 2003. Because of its potential to escalate into nationwide political campaigns, weiquan falls into the second category of threats, namely, political resistance. Initially focused on protecting the economic and social rights of individual citizens through litigation, weiquan evolved into a broad citizens’ movement to promote social liberty and rule of law. In 2008, this new wave of social activism converged with liberal intellectuals’ push for political democratization, as signified by the publication of the Charter 08, drafted by China’s most prominent political dissident Liu Xiaobo and other like-minded people demanding political reform in the fashion of Western democracy. The last category of threats is ethnic conflicts on the “volatile periphery” from Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia, to, more broadly defined, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where people increasingly contested the Chinese identity imposed by Beijing. Ethnic unrest, not uncommon in PRC history, now turned particularly frequent and violent, including, most notably, the riots in Tibet 2008 and in Xinjiang in 2009.

Of the three sources of threats, the second and third were more dangerous from Beijing’s perspective: isolated cases of social protest were more or less manageable, but cross-regional, organized political movements must be checked at all cost. The lethal blow to authoritarian regimes by pro-democracy movements, often mixing religious and ethnic appeals, was evident in the Color Revolutions and Arab Spring. The party-state was extremely nervous about the demonstrative and contagious effect of these international events on a discontented Chinese population.45

Facing aggravating political and ethnic tensions, the Hu Jintao government put great emphasis on an elaborate weiwen [stability maintenance] structure. First built in the 1990s but expanded and strengthened under Hu, this system included prominent party central institutions and drew their personnel mainly from the security and propaganda apparatus. Weiwen practices relied heavily on coercive measures. Coercion alone, however, cannot establish a legitimate order, which has to win the “consent of the governed.”46 Especially if the targets are adversaries of the Party, rather than the nation, repression has weak public appeal. A campaign to uproot these adversaries is more effective if it unites intimidation with persuasion. Indeed, China’s second approach to stem anti-government trend is to dissuade the citizens from emulating democratic movements in other countries.47 The official media negatively framed the West so as to blame domestic instability on foreign connivance and to discredit domestic dissidents said to be blindly worshipping Western values and conspiring with foreigners to hurt China. It thus deliberately entangled national othering of both external and domestic enemies.

In general, Hu-era national identity discourse embodied two ethnocentric themes regarding the West. The first is the China Model rhetoric, through which the government sought to propagate a distinctive economic and political model that is not only separate from but also antithetical to that of the West. The core of the China Model was its socialist political system premised on Marxism and the CCP’s leadership, while Western style of democracy was treated as either a sham or a mismatch for China. Enemies in this ideological struggle were not just “anti-China forces” from without but also those Chinese from within who desired to replace the China Model with Western democracy. The second ethnocentric theme in official discourse condemned “foreign hostile forces” for aiding and abetting subversion in order to “Westernize and divide up” the country. If the first theme implied the menace of domestic others, meaning those Chinese inclined to Westernization, the second theme scapegoated both domestic enemies and their foreign supporters for China’s internal problems.

One direct target of internal othering is those engaged in ethnic resistance against the Han-dominated state. Although officially the PRC upholds the concept of Zhonghua minzu that includes all ethnic groups living in China, the Han majority dominates the definition of Chinese national identity.48 Since the reform years this Han-centered assimilationist policy, similar to that of the Republican period, has continued, but state discourse gradually abandoned the others image of ethnic minorities for the sake of ethnic harmony and, more importantly, for securing the periphery. The Hu regime particularly promoted a “unified, multiethnic Chinese historiography” emphasizing the minorities’ common roots with Han and contribution to the Chinese civilization.49 This official stance precluded straightforward maligning of the entire minority group, who were legally Chinese citizens. The state had to single out ethnic activists for harsh punishment and terrify the rest of the group. To make such “selective blaming” sound more credible, the state tried to prove that those who revolted, not like ordinary minority people, harbored vicious intentions to split up the country, and their actions were backed by foreigners who loathed a strong China. So ethnic conflict was typically attributed to Western instigation and patronization, as evident in media slander on “separatist ringleaders” like Dalai Lama and activist organizations like the World Uyghur Congress.

Another group deemed to be domestic others includes liberal intellectuals and weiquan activists. They could not easily be branded as national enemies, either. The government itself used the phrase “contradictions among the people” to describe rights disputes, not “contradictions between enemies and the people,” political language inherited from the Mao era to differentiate non-principal and principal adversaries. To criminalize those who vowed to protect the weak and deprived would run counter to Hu’s own salute to “people-centered” governance. If neither the state nor the public could be faulted for the agonizing social problems, the “backstage manipulator” had to be found from the outside. So, in the same way that ethnic activists were maligned, those who advocated human rights and democratic changes, such as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, were denounced as saboteurs on behalf of Westerners.

Overall, in today’s China, a regime-toppling color revolution engineered by the West was an overstated threat. What the party-state feared more was not “subversive activities” of Westerners, but the spread of Western values through numerous channels such as the thriving external commercial ties, massive outflow of Chinese students and tourists, and foreign cultural products flooding the country. Unless China reverses its open-door policy and exits the globalization tide, it cannot completely shut out Western influences. The government was, therefore, compelled to rely on a combination of repression and nationalist propaganda to quell domestic resistance and stifle demands for Western-style political changes.


As Breuilly says, “Nationalism is a parasitic movement and ideology, shaped by what it opposes.” 50 Those being opposed may include both foreign and domestic others who are dissatisfied with the hegemonic definition of the national self. That is why, contrary to the conventional wisdom that nation-building makes all nationals cohere, at times it “seem(s) to divide the nation on class or party lines.”51 If such internal exclusion encounters no profound objection from the existing social order and power structure, recourse to ethnocentrism is unnecessary. Otherwise, elites will likely mobilize an ideological crusade against foreigners in order to maintain control and crush internal opposition.

Under the current Xi Jinping administration, domestic disunity has only become worse, due to an economic slowdown unprecedented in a quarter century; centrifugal tendencies in frontier regions; and exacerbation of popular discontent with social injustice. In response, even more heavy-handed weiwen measures are being practiced than before, and official propaganda bashing the West has carried on. In the so-called No. 9 Document, internally circulated in 2013, Western democracy and civic values top the Seven Dangers outside the “mainstream ideology” that must be eradicated.52 In 2016, a Swedish human rights activist and his Chinese co-workers were forced to confess on Chinese TV that “Western anti-China forces” used them to attain the goals of “fanning anti-government and anti-Party sentiment, and deceiving people to disrupt state and social order, thus, changing the social system of China.”53 Furthermore, to quell ethnic separatism, the party-state has in recent years, in the name of an ambitious counter-terror campaign, departed from the “selective blaming” approach by expanding the scope of attack to a bigger part of the minority population. Statistics show that as high as 21% of China’s total arrests for criminal charges in 2017 were made in Xinjiang.54 Additionally, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs are believed to have been put in so-called “reeducation camps” against their will to undergo “thought transformation” and “career training.” Confronted with intense Western criticism of its violation of human rights in Xinjiang, China’s state media retort that the Westerners are being “arrogant and peremptory,” harbor “malicious intent” toward China, and purposely want China to fail.55

Hence, by encouraging nationalistic sentiment against foreign countries and the Western democratic values that they stand for, Beijing is trying to mask serious domestic socioeconomic problems and deflect public resentment about its own policy failures. The point is not only to malign democracy-promoting foreign media and NGOs, but also to justify political persecution of China’s liberal and ethnic activists who dared to resist the illiberal state. Consequently, instead of offering the world a better model of democracy than that in the West as Xi has promised, pushed by a crescendo of egocentric national identity, China is sliding deeper and deeper into what David Shambaugh calls “hard authoritarianism.”56

1. Su Changhe, “Queli minzhu zhengzhi de Zhongguo zuobiao,” April 1, 2014,

2. Han Zhen, “Zhongguo caishi dangjin shijie zuidade minzhu guojia,” November 15, 2017,

3. Fang Ning, ‘Woguo shehuizhuyi minzhu zhengzhi de teyou xingshi he dute youshi,” November 25, 2018,

4. Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 79.

5. Carl Friedrich, “Nation-Building?” in Karl Deutsch and William Foltz, eds., Nation-Building (New York: Atherton Press, 1963), 32.

6. Sun Zhongshan quanji (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1982) vol. 9, 185.

7. Yu Yi, “Minzu zhuyi lun,” Zhang Zhan & Wang Renzhi, Xinhai geming qian shinianjian shilun xuanji (Sanlian shudian 1960-1977), 1.2: 486.

8. Yan Fu, “Lun Nanchang jiaoan,” Ibid., 163.

9. Liang Qichao, “Guojia sixiang bianqian yitong lun,” Zhang Zhan & Wang, Xinhai geming, vol 1, no. 1, 32.

10. Sun Zhongshan quanji vol. 1, 288.

11. Liang Qichao, “Lishi shang Zhongguo minzu zhi guancha,” Yinbingshi zhuanji 41, 1-13. 

12. Sun Zhongshan quanji, vol. 1, 324-25.

13. Feng Ziyou, “Minsheng zhuyi yu Zhongguo zhengzhi geming zhi qiantu,” in Zhang and Wang, Xinhai geming 2, no. 1, 423.

14. James Leibold, “Positioning ‘Minzu’ within Sun Yat-sen’s Discourse of Minzu zhuyi,” Journal of Asian History 38, no. 2 (2004), 176.

15. Liu Chengyu, “Xianzhongli jiude lu,” Guoshiguan guankan 1 (December 1947), 46.

16. Wang Chunxia, Paiman yu minzuzhuyi. (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2005), 269.

17. Yang Haiqing, et al, eds., Xinhai geming xijian shiliao huibian (Beijing: Zhonghua quanguo tushuguan wenxian suowei fuzhi zhongxin, 1997), 630.

18. Zhongguo Guomindang zhongyang weiyuanhui dangshi weiyuanhui, ed., Guofu quanji (Taipei: Zhongyang wenwu gongyingshe, 1961) vol. 2, 20.

19. Chen Tianxi, ed., Dai Jitao wencun zaixubian (Taipei: Taiwan shangwu yingshuguan, 1968), 430.

20. Sun Zhongshan quanji, vol. 7, 6.

21. Sun Zhongshan quanji, vol.9, 114-29.

22. Zhongguo Guomindang dangshi shiliao bianzuan weiyuanhui, ed., Geming wenxian (Taipei: 1978), vol. 69, 109-110

23. Li Liangyu, “Cong Xinhai dao Wusi: Minzuzhuyi de lishi kaoca,” in Liu Qingfeng, ed., Minzuzhuyi yu Zhongguo xiandaihua(Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1994), 356-57.

24. Sun Zhongshan quanji, vol. 2, 2.

25. Ibid., vol. 5, 187-88.

26. Ibid., vol. 5, 394, 473-75.

27. John Fitzgerald, Awakening China: Politics, Culture and Class in the Nationalist Revolution (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 180.

28. Magnus Fiskesjo, “Rescuing the Empire: Chinese Nation-Building in the Twentieth Century,” European Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 1 (2006).

29. Jianguo yilai zhongyao wenxian xuanbian (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian, 1992), vol. 1, 436-40.

30. United States Department of State, The Hate America Campaign in Communist China. (Washington, DC: 1953), 9.

31. Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 59.

32. Quoted in Yang Kuisong, “Reconsidering the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries,”
The China Quarterly 193 (2008), 105.

33. Ibid., 120.

34. Zhongguo gongchandang xuanchuan gongzuo wenxian xuanbian: 1915-1992 (Beijing: Xuexi, 1996) vol. 3, 291-93.

35. Ibid., 335-38.

36. Clive Emsley, “Nationalist Rhetoric and Nationalist Sentiment in Revolutionary France,” in Otto Dann and John Dinwiddy, eds., Nationalism in the Age of the French Revolution (London: Hambledon Press, 1988), 44; Mona Ozouf, “War and Terror in French Revolutionary Discourse (1792-1794),” Journal of Modern History 56, no. 4 (December 1984), 596.

37. Michael Schoenhals, “Demonising Discourse in Mao Zedong’s China: People vs Non-People,” Totalitarian Movements & Political Religions 8, nos. 3/4 (2007), 465-82.< 38. Timothy Tackett, “Conspiracy Obsession in A Time of Revolution: French Elites and the Origins of the Terror, 1789-1792,” American Historical Review 105, no. 3 (June 2000), 707.

39. Richard Baum, Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), 91.

40. Michel Oksenberg, “China’s Confident Nationalism,” Foreign Affairs 87, no. 3 (1987).

41. Merle Goldman, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China: Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1994).

42. Allen Whiting, “Chinese Nationalism and Foreign Policy after Deng,” The China Quarterly 142 (June 1995).

43. Deng Xiaoping wenxuan (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1993), vol. 3, 379.

44. David Lampton, “The United States and China in the Age of Obama: Looking Each Other Straight in the Eyes,” Journal of Contemporary China 18, no. 62 (2009), 703.

45. Jeanne L. Wilson, “Coloured Revolutions: The View from Moscow and Beijing,” Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 25, nos. 2–3 (2009).

46. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. by P. Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

47. Karrie J. Koesel and Valerie J. Bunce, “Diffusion-Proofing: Russian and Chinese Responses to Waves of Popular Mobilizations against Authoritarian Rulers,” Perspectives on Politics 11, no. 3 (2013).

48. Eelena Barabantseva, “From the Language of Class to the Rhetoric of Development: Discourses of ‘Nationality’ and ‘Ethnicity’ in China,” Journal of Contemporary China 17, no. 56 (August 2008); Fiskesjo, “Rescuing the Empire.”

49. Nimrod Baranovitch, “Others No More: The Changing Representation of Non-Han Peoples in Chinese History Textbooks, 1951–2003,” Journal of Asian Studies 69, no.  1 (February 2010), 102.

50. John Breuilly, Nationalism and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 396.

51. Ibid., 278.

52. “Notice on the Situation in the Ideological Field at Present,”

53. The Guardian, January 19, 2016.

54. “Criminal Arrests in Xinjiang Account for 21% of China’s Total in 2017,” Chinese Human Rights Defenders, July 25, 2018,

55. “Xinjiang zhili de mubiao he shijian doushi Zhengyi,” October 17, 2018,

56. David Shambaugh, China’s Future (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016).