Chinese Identity Politics

I’ve been reading this book called “China’s New Nationalism” by Peter Hays Gries and I think it brilliantly spearheads everything that I think missing in the analysis of modern China and the dilemma of studying Chinese Foreign Policy from a Western perspective. I’ve never been a constructivist, but I do find constructivist thinking useful and have long wished it to be integrated into the study of Chinese politics, apart from the usual realist and liberal ways of thinkings projected onto it already by American discourses.

I love how it debunks several American mythologies that have influenced the way that Westerners think about China, especially in a threatening way. The American media always assumes that popular outbursts of Anti-American sentiment (ex: the Belgrade bombing and spy plane crash incident) are products of Chinese Communist Party propaganda and not genuine anger from the Chinese nationalists. China’s abrasive response to criticism on its human rights record and other backwards ways of thinking are met with such sensitivity because of the notion of face, that is saving one’s reputation and honour. China loses its sense of moral superiority and legitimacy in such critique, similar to the way that American exceptionalism was injured when mass critique erupted due to the 2003 decision to go to war in Iraq. When studying Chinese foreign policy, one must look at how the Chinese perceive themselves, in terms of national memory and power relations (ex: Confucianism, gendered discourses on former Japanese rule). Since both China and the US project their fears and fantasies onto each other in their foreign relations, Gries argues that such identity politics must be confronted and acknowledged in order to prevent a potentially more hostile international environment with China’s rise.

More importantly, Gries seems to think there is room for the rise of civil society, since China’s new nationalists are open to new, participatory methods of political engagement. Many of the youth are aware of their revolutionary past and regret not having had the same chance to sacrifice much for the welfare of the country (similar to the American patriotism attached to military service). They have also distanced themselves from the 1989 movement and found alternative methods of expression through the Internet and nationalist outcries at key historical moments (as mentioned above). My own research about the rise of Chinese NGOs seems to confirm this, as civil society actors find loopholes in the CCP regulations to build autonomy from the state. In the next few years, Chinese NGOs will become interwoven with global civil society, further opening up China to the world in the fields of environmental protection, womens’ rights, and public health issues.

Many of my colleagues have asked me time and again whether I think China will become a threat to world peace and stability in the future. My short answer is no. Among a myriad of explications, I believe that Gries’ book as a part of the discourse is in itself a reason that demonstrates how the perception of China as a threat can be neutralized. The growth of China experts who can understand the Great Dragon from a Western and non-Western perspective and who can be consulted extensively on identity politics by our current foreign policy makers will hopefully construct the reality that the US and China are both stakeholders in ensuring the current tenets of the liberal international order. In hoping to be part of those ranks someday, I hope to contribute to such intercultural understanding in order to guarantee peace.

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