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The Paradox Of Nationalism In A Rising China

Raising the flag in Beijing
Raising the flag in Beijing
Wu Jianmin*


BEIJING — After 30 years of domestic reform and opening up to the world, China is a changed country. Society has progressed, but also diversified, resulting in a true plurality of opinions about various issues. With a wink to earlier liberalizations in China, included Mao Zedong's aborted call to let "100 schools of thought contend," some have characterized this moment as "the Third Contending Era."

However, during this period of lively debate, an alarming brand of nationalism seems to now be on the rise. In a way, perhaps, it was inevitable. When a country's power expands, very often a narrow kind of nationalism will spread. China of today is no exception.

How can we better understand China's current rise of nationalism?

First and foremost, it is an expression of a sense of victimization of China in the sphere of international cooperation. Often we read discourses on the Internet or in the press about how China's opening up has allowed foreigners to cash in, while we ourselves make only hard-earned money. In brief, Chinese people are not winners but losers in the global game of competition.

Though there may be some truth to this, we have to look at it in a comprehensive way. After being closed for decades, China needed to develop step by step. We had scarce access to technology, funding or modern managerial practices. What we had was abundant labor and a market, though the market capacity at the beginning was also nothing like it is now.

Unless there was an incentive for profits, foreign investors wouldn't come. So China's economic development started off this way. But rather suddenly, it all began to scale, until China became the world's second largest economy in 2010.

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Boom times in Chongqing — Photo: Baetho

Reform and opening up brought benefits to the Chinese people. In 1955, China's global share of GDP was 4.7%. By 1978, this had fallen to 1%, before beginning its rapid ascent to current levels. Before the opening up of recent decades, China was regularly running low on commodities, and more and more goods were distributed by issuing ration tickets. It is impossible to compare China's economy and market supply now with then. So international cooperation has allowed both China and its partners to benefit. Calling China a victim is therefore ultimately not true.

A militaristic mindset

A second reflection of nationalist sentiment is in the inherent critique of Deng Xiaoping's idea to "put aside disputes and seek mutual development." This thrust of nationalism advocates the use of military force.

As China's rise has gained momentum, mistrust has deepened between China and both the United States and Japan, as well as other countries. This has prompted these other countries to strengthen their defense measures towards China. The most notable result is the ongoing tension around the South China Sea territorial disputes.

Deng Xiaoping was a man of great wisdom. It's no accident he proposed the above-mentioned approach, which helped resolve the issues of Hong Kong and Macao's return to China and gained recognition and praise from the international community. Since Deng died, the evolution of international affairs has further confirmed that Deng's approach was correct.

The pursuit of peace, development and cooperation has become an irresistible trend of our times. In this first decade of the 21st century, China's development follows this trend. Deng's ideas, anchored by his "One Country, Two Systems" approach, can help make for better long-term relations with China's neighbors, and more prosperity at home.

The focus of international relations at the outset of this century sees a shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The force driving this change is Asia's rise. And as the continent hosts the world's fastest growing economy, we see more and more Asian countries opening up to each other, rather than isolating themselves. It is the path of cooperation rather than confrontation. Keeping momentum in this direction is in the common interest of all Asian people, and the world as a whole.

The third tendency of the current nationalism is blindly rejecting multinational corporations. Back in the 1974, China led a group of developing countries that referred to transnational companies as "the tool of neo-colonialism." But in more recent times, progress in China has been closely linked to the arrival of multinationals, which brought along advanced concepts, technology and management, helping to propel both the economy and society. But after years of China welcoming these multinationals, certain parts of society have begun to reject them.

Globalization is the engine that pushes forward mankind's progress — and multinational corporations are the fuel for globalization. Rejecting transnational companies means foregoing improvements to productivity and economic growth. Instead of rejecting multinationals, China should instead be focused on building some of its own.

Today, the relationship between China and the world continues to evolve. But what is clear is that China's development is inseparable from its relationship with the rest of the world. It is also true that the world's prosperity and stability are linked to a prosperous and stable China.

*Wu Jianmin is China's former Ambassador to France.

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