After a century and a half in decline, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) believes it has the historical responsibility to reinvigorate the country and contribute to “China’s second rise.” The nationalist discourse in China was dominated by the Chinese government for a long time, and the essential idea remains: supporting the CCP is loving the country (ài dǎng jiùshì àiguó). However, a new interpretation of “China First” is now arising among popular nationalists, which indicates the growing conflict between the Party and the people. As Beijing’s ambition to rewrite the world order with the Kremlin poses a clear threat to the West, the neo-nationalist sentiment consists of great potential to break the China-Russia alliance.
The United States has been using sanctions to break the Russia-China coalition, but they have also further deteriorated the US-China relationship. While the Biden Administration is consulting with its G7 allies about imposing sanctions in new realms, the extended export control power of the Commerce Department remains centered on chips, AIs, and aerospace. Blacklisting Chinese entities is not only a weapon for the trade war but also pressures the CCP to reduce its support for Russia. However, these sanctions had the opposite effect and brought Russia and China closer. Under the global economic recession, the trade between China and Russia rose 29.3% in 2022 to a new record high of $190.3 billion, according to China’s customs figures.
Washington needs new measures. The economic measures implemented by the US and its European allies are not complete failures. Sanctions accelerated the development of a strong force within China’s citizenry. The rising political polarity in Chinese society has the potential to destroy its alliance with Russia. However, for the Chinese people, it is more than choosing a side between the US and Russia. Neo-popular nationalist sentiment thrived as a realistic approach to urgent problems impeding Chinese development.
A distinction can be drawn between Chinese neo-nationalism and “state-controlled nationalism.” The CCP foments state-controlled nationalism to legitimize its rule while the cohesive force of communist ideologies is diminishing. For a long time, the government dominated the nationalist discourses. Western analysts stereotypically believed that nationalism under the government’s guidance is centered on Taiwan’s integration, Anti-Americanism, Anti-Japanese, fighting hegemonic power, promoting China’s self-assertion, and cracking down on Western dominance. One example is the nationwide protests against the Japanese government’s purchase of the Diaoyu Islands (or Senkaku Islands) in 2011. The alliance with Russia, explained by the government under this context, is indispensable for confronting the Western hegemon. The Party intends to further unite other countries with its global market dominance and the generous, assistance-like projects to address economic sanctions from the West and stress China’s role as the new world leader. The people have increasingly questioned government spending from the Belt and Road Initiatives and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s investments to contracts of crude oil. They have contested the worthiness of these magnificent projects abroad, especially when 25% of the Chinese population earns less than $6.85 per day, according to the World Bank.
No matter how the CCP polishes these “win-win” relationships, people with neo-nationalist sentiment constantly believe the payoff is incomparable to the dedication. They believe that China no longer needs to buy recognition and acknowledgment from other countries. Contemporary Chinese nationalism is no longer a product of top-down Party propaganda but a bottom-up or mass movement. Popular nationalists are not puppets in the hands of Communist elites and now regularly speak of the “motherland” (zǔguó) and the “Chinese race” (zhōnghuá mínzú) without reference to the Party. The neo-nationalist sentiment has created a backlash against the government’s decisions with the growing conflicts between the Party and the people. Despite the monumental success of recent protests against the “zero-COVID” policy, the effectiveness of neo-nationalist appeals on political issues remains uncertain.
Neo-nationalists encourage the government to focus on the country’s domestic economies and national defense development, believing it should be more discreet in undertaking external affairs. Meanwhile, neo-nationalists are convinced that the CCP is often immersed in flattery from other regimes or controversies on the responsibilities of a global superpower, and as a result, it fails to make the best decision for its people. Neo-nationalists are less attracted to such grand narratives and consider every country a competitor. The appeal for restricted technology and economic assistance to Russia thrived from the concern that Russia, like North Korea, will soon become another burden for China. While this claim was initially favored by younger generations, it is now gaining popularity among the most rigid Communist party members, including retired government officials and professors from public universities.
These concerns are valid as the limits of China and Russia’s so-called “no limits” partnership have become increasingly evident. The partnership has started to affect China’s integration with the global market. Business owners in China face more obstacles in exporting and importing, and foreign patents have become harder to obtain. With the critical transition of Chinese industries from labor-intensive to technology-incentive – reaching its peak in recent years – the unsubstitutable significance of foreign technologies in the development of Chinese national industry requires the government to reconcile with the United States. People remain hopeful that dissociating with Russia will relieve sanctions on Chinese high-tech enterprises, which will contribute to the end of the US technological hegemony.
Unlike the old patriotic belief of Chinese superiority, neo-nationalists nowadays are the harshest critics of the so-called “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,” named after the Chinese patriotic movie Wolf Warrior. The new foreign minister and former ambassador to the US, Qin Gang, recently reinterpreted Wolf Warrior Diplomacy as “dancing with wolves:” China was pushed into defensive positions by Western attacks. Instead of gaining “face” for China before international societies – as a tool to win prestige and respect – the CCP’s strategy negatively influenced ordinary people abroad. For instance, at the beginning of the Ukrainian war, the government suggested that Chinese people in Ukraine should have a Chinese flag around their houses or carry it while outside. Almost immediately, a student from the National Music Academy in Kyiv was severely beaten by a Ukrainian civilian – especially with the Chinese flag.
The CCP leadership is extremely sensitive to potential threats from the public collectively. For the CCP, the neo-nationalist appeal is still under control for several reasons. First, neo-nationalists are not political activists; on the contrary, they cannot face the consequences of disobedience such as losing jobs, being detained by the police, travel restrictions, etc. Moreover, they are well aware of the “red lines” of expressing disapproval. They often conduct a vibrant discussion on the Chinese internet but are reluctant to protest in real life. It is almost impossible for nationwide movements, such as Black Lives Matter in the US, to occur in China due to authoritarian rule and the disorganization of opposition forces. Second, neo-nationalists are even more hesitant to protest against political issues than social ones. Finally, the CCP has successful experiences in managing internet public opinion.
Under strict censorship, opposing opinions still managed to bloom in various ways. People have devised different ideas to avoid the online word filter, such as using pinyin (the Romanized phonetic system of Chinese characters), homophones, screenshots, or simply leaving blank spaces between characters. The state-controlled media and nationalists who have almost “blind deference” to the Party have attempted to erode the negative impacts by questioning dissidents’ motivations. The most ubiquitous accusation on the Chinese internet, originating from the Party’s fight against counter-revolutionists, is that dissidents are “sponsored by foreign groups.” By labeling them as “acquiescent to external forces,” any opposition from the people is now a contest between nations, in which the government is the only legitimate agent to raise and address such issues. Suppose the Chinese government further suppresses the “pure dissidents” within its borders, such as the neo-nationalists and patriots who are “anti-establishment” but not “anti-system.” The potential resistance might be unprecedentedly substantial in that case since certain accusations lost the stand, and the call for releasing dissidents can be non-political: we are not against the government’s policies but only trying to support our people.
Will the Chinese government pay attention to neo-nationalists’ appeals on diplomatic issues? First, they need to be more organized and well-expressed. Even though previous circumstances proved that the influence of these appeals was relatively limited compared to their effect on domestic affairs, the United States can expect and be prepared to respond to initiatives from China – less hardline accusations, more compromises, and concessions made by the Party seeking to mitigate the semiconductor war’s consequences and consolidate economic ties. The “rational path” between nations still exists. Therefore, the US should move toward China concurrently.
Xiangyi Shi (she/her) is a first-year MA student in NYU’s International Relations department. She graduated from the University of California Davis in 2020, where she received a BA in International Relations and History. Her research interests are democratization in East Asian countries and US-China relations.