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Seriously Hooked on Nationalism

Today was one of those perfect Beijing fall days, sunny, reasonably clear air and just the right temperature for a day-long hike of the Great Wall at Jinshanling….or for burning and pillaging your local Chinese-owned and operated Japanese restaurant. Whatever.

In fact combining the best of both fun activities, three separate groups of young Chinese marched along the wall today waving flags demanding the protection of the Diaoyu Islands from the dastardly Japanese.   One group was in yellow and waved a yellow flag.  Another was in red and held a red flag.  A third group split the difference and went with an all-orange look that confused a few Dutch hikers into thinking a football match was about to break out at the next guard tower.

On their way up, each group stopped to pay homage to a statue of Ming general Qi Jiguang.  General Qi is something of a patron saint around Jinshanling. He’s credited with organizing the construction of this section of the wall in the mid-16th century, but before that, Qi Jiguang was best known for his battles against Japanese ‘pirates’ along China’s coast.  Now he is the patron saint of seriously deluded Chinese nationalists out for blood over a chain of rocks inhabited by a herd of confused goats and an endangered species of mole.  Seriously.

Yes, I know thar’s oil and gas under them thar rocks, but the real concern is that the current storm of violent knucklehead patriotism no longer has anything to do with national interests and has become all about national pride and transition politics.

China’s leadership swap is in a few weeks and it’s fair to say that things have not gone according to plan.  A little bumptious distraction like, say, everybody hating on Japan for a week or two might seem like the perfect remedy.

But basically it’s just the Party self-medicating.

Sure, it’s taken a few hard knocks.  Felt a little off its game.  Maybe had its self-esteem dinged a bit.  So it tries some nationalism.  Not too much.  Maybe one of those ‘designer nationalisms,’ like a boycott of a Gucci store.  But that’s not enough. No, pretty soon you get hooked up with the bigger taste.  A little squabble off the Philippines.  But what to do when Manilla no longer thrills ya? Shoot a little Vietnamese fishing boat action.  Yeah, that’s the stuff.  Now, I’m feeling pumped.   But you know how that Vietnamese shit can hurt you.  After all, you tried it back in ’79 and it left you naked and greasy on a couch in Belushi’s apartment.  No more of that shit.  So you go to a classic.  Yeah, Japan.  Right where I left you.  Foreign devil smooth every time.  What’s that, just one more? Yeah, okay.  I was going to quit on Sunday, but hey…I can skip work Monday.  What? Tuesday’s a holiday? Mukden Incident? I’ll protest to that…

And before The Party can say “Remember May Fourth?” they’re in a meeting getting a hug from Lindsay Lohan’s AA sponsor.

This is the worst kind of dispute because everybody’s right and nobody’s right.  Japan and China have more than their share of nationalist nitwits, but nobody actually lives on these rocks and it’s not like you can go and ask the goats what they’re feeling.  (Apparently the moles tried to hold a referendum back in ’98 but backed down after Beijing threatened to bombard the island with missiles and large snakes.)

Frankly, every time I hear the phrase “history says…” I want to try and remove my own corneas with a shrimp fork.  History “says” a lot of things. For example,  China has never ever invaded another country.  The PLA did not invade Tibet in 1951 because Tibet has been part of China since at least the time of the Yuan which was not a Mongolian Empire but a Chinese Dynasty.   And China didn’t try to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281 because that was Kublai Khan who was, you know, a Mongol and not Chinese.

History is especially tricky when you take relatively recent concepts and constructions like the nation state and national sovereignty and apply them retroactively.

Of more contemporary concern though is the way the CCP, through the educational system and the official media, has made defending China’s ‘national sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ such an important and highly visible pillar of their legitimacy.  That leaves precious little room for negotiation or compromise in situations like the current stand-off with Japan.

The 20th century is littered with examples of anti-foreign, especially anti-Japan, demonstrations which went unexpectedly off-script and subsequently turned against the Chinese government.  Jeremy Goldkorn this afternoon tweeted that the demonstrators embrace of Mao was disturbing to this administration because it made Hu Jintao and the rest of the hair-dye shoe-lift brigade look like wimps.  The Helmsman would never have allowed Japan to take our rocks and goats, dammit.

If Hu is planning to use the instability as a pretext to retain some measure of control past 2013, he can’t be constantly graded on the same curve as The Chairman.

Perhaps even more troubling is that according to several sources Hu has never been tight with the brass. In a New York Times article posted Saturday, Ian Johnson speculated that the sabre rattling could well be a move by an increasingly rambunctious PLA to increase their profile and test some of the new high-tech weapons they’ve been working on the last few years.

As Charlie Custer wrote today, it’s hard to envision any of this happening without the tacit, and likely active, support of the government.  Playing to the mob and turning it loose has never been a winning strategy.  Hopefully the Chinese government sees that before it is forced to decide between compromising and thus potentially undermining its own legitimacy or a military adventure which would destabilize the region and undo decades of “Peaceful Rise” rhetoric.

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