The Facets Of Chinese Nationalism

By Yang Jianli
Monday, May 5, 2008

Frequently the past few months, I have been asked about the wisdom of using the Olympics as an opportunity to push China to improve its human rights record. Underlying these questions is a sense that international pressure may have played into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party by triggering nationalist emotions and rallying indignant Chinese people behind the regime.

This concern is understandable. It is critical, however, that people distinguish among the four types of nationalism in China today to determine how best to pressure the regime to make improvements.

First there is pragmatic nationalism. In everything but name, communism is dead in China. The Communist Party's pragmatic nationalism is one of the two lifelines to which it clings; the other is rapid economic growth. China's leaders understand that continued prosperity is the key to their continued rule. They have engaged in a delicate balancing act of fanning nationalist emotion to promote loyalty among the populace while at the same time tightly controlling this emotion to limit its potential damage to China's standing in the global economy. This pragmatic nationalism is a doctrine driven by national interest, not ideology.

The same is true of "vassal nationalism." The majority of vassal nationalists are China's elites, and they move in lock step with pragmatic nationalism as dictated by the government. They become angry and indignant at the right time and place, when and where the party thinks they should. But this fury can pass like the weather; vassal nationalists seem to overcome their emotions the moment the party hints that they ought to. For example, many Chinese who don't normally feel uneasy about the country's state-controlled media, or the regime's tireless policing of the Internet, vehemently protested some "unsatisfactory" reports on Tibet by Western media outlets in recent weeks. This inconsistency is the hallmark of vassal nationalism.

The third type is popular nationalism, which pursues China's unity, strength, prosperity and dignity. This type of nationalism sometimes, but not always, values human rights and democracy at its core. These Chinese nationalists can be quite reasonable, accurate, righteous and pro-democracy when it comes to local politics; their judgment is based on their own experiences. But they can be illogical, inconsistent or emotional regarding foreign relations -- especially on Taiwan -- or minorities, because they rely on state-run media for information about these issues.

The fourth kind of nationalism in China could be called human rights patriotism. People who espouse this type of nationalism include the recently sentenced human rights activist Hu Jia, land rights advocate Yang Chunlin and the blind Chinese rights activist Chen Guangcheng. This type of patriotism holds human rights as its core value and democracy as its goal; pursues Chinese glory by seeking to gain dignity for each compatriot; promotes strength and prosperity by striving to liberate people's minds, ideas and potential; and aims to safeguard the country's integrity through recognition of the integrity of each individual and ethnic group. The Dalai Lama, having long taken the middle-road approach through nonviolent means, is a human rights patriot even from the perspective of the greater China. So is Taiwan's elected president, Ma Yingjeou.

So how does this influence what we should do before the Summer Games?

The worst option would be to fall silent; this would only embolden the regime. More than that, popular nationalists, with strength and prosperity foremost in their minds, might well align more closely with the Communist Party. Given China's strengthened dictatorship, rapid economic growth and ever-expanding military forces, they do not really have a choice.

Since I left prison last year, I have advocated conditional participation in the Olympics. Participation must be predicated on some minimum standard of human rights. Applying this pressure will help enlarge the public space for discourse for human rights patriots in China.

The international community should help by forming a broad coalition of human rights patriots to support the concerted peaceful protest activities inside and outside of China. Continued pressure on the regime to renounce its strategy of violent repression and to instead enter into a dialogue with the coalition of human rights patriots should be applied.

If all of this were to happen, the pragmatic nationalists would probably cede some ground -- they understand the language of pressure -- and then we could support the Beijing Olympics as a great celebration of the beginning of a real democratic transition in China. Far from being impossible, this goal is attainable. Its success depends upon our persistent efforts.

Yang Jianli was released in April 2007 after completing a five-year prison term in China, where he was sentenced for attempting to observe labor unrest in 2002. He is the founder of Initiatives for China.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company