China's communists find refuge in nationalism
With public opinion less willing to tolerate corruption, the ruling party is cultivating patriotism. -AFP
BEIJING - China's one-party state has survived as other communist regimes crumbled by embracing capitalism to deliver new wealth - but is turning increasingly to nationalism in place of a coherent ruling ideology.
The Communist Party congress that begins in Beijing this week to proclaim Xi Jinping as its new leader takes place in a city replete with luxury sports cars and hotels, and a country with a growing consumerist middle class.
The party still pays lip-service to Marxist-Leninist rhetoric and trains its cadres in Maoist philosophy - and also in business management and high finance, injecting a gaping contradiction into China's ideological mindset.
But any talk of political reform to resolve that contradiction is in abeyance. And with public opinion ever less willing to tolerate corruption, and factory workers and migrants increasingly restive, the party is also cultivating patriotism - to the alarm of its neighbours and Washington.
"Faith in socialism has become problematic, so the Chinese authorities are seeking other sources of legitimacy, and of course nationalism is a dream substitute," said Jean-Philippe Beja, a political scientist at France's National Centre for Scientific Research.
"The Communist Party can boast of having fulfilled the dreams of all the country's leaders since the Opium War (from 1839): giving China its rightful place in the world," he said.
"To maintain that, they must assert themselves against their neighbours, beginning with Japan."
This year Japan, China's perennial bogeyman, has found itself under verbal fire over five uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing - and Taipei.
Chinese authorities facilitated mass anti-Japanese protests across the country that spiralled into rioting in some areas and serious production losses at factories in China owned by the likes of Toyota and Sony.
Winston Lord, a former US ambassador to China who accompanied Richard Nixon when he became the first US president to visit Beijing in 1972, warned of China's communists resorting to xenophobia if the Xi regime feels threatened.
"If they don't make changes in their economic and political system in the next decade, I think you could see real instability, which could in turn lead to a more nationalistic and aggressive foreign policy," he said in Washington last week.
The People's Liberation Army, the largest military in the world, has seen its budget grow by double-digit annual rates over the past 10 years, far exceeding even China's rocketing GDP increases over the period.
The new leadership under Xi, the son of a revolutionary general who enjoys deep ties with PLA commanders, is expected to maintain the military's rapid pace of costly modernisation.
And as the Xi era beckons, Beijing has also taken an increasingly assertive stance over its claims to almost the whole of the South China Sea, risking confrontation with a number of countries, some of them US allies.
Appeals to nationalism have always featured in Chinese communist rhetoric. Official propaganda regularly reminds readers of the era of China's "humiliation" by foreign powers, from the 19th century until 1945.
But Hong Kong was transferred from Britain to China in 1997 and Macau, Portuguese-held for centuries, followed two years later, while the regime is utterly implacable in its hold on Tibet.
It proclaims the re-integration of Taiwan, ruled separately since the defeated Nationalists fled there in 1949 at the end of China's civil war, to be a "sacred cause".
But Roderick MacFarquhar, a Harvard-based British specialist in contemporary China, warned the rise of Chinese nationalism was a "double-edged sword" for the authorities.
"It is a very dangerous weapon, as Chinese governments have known since 1919," he said, referring to a nationalist furore after China was humiliated by Japan in the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I.
Speaking at an event in Hong Kong, MacFarquhar said China's rulers need to exercise "some caution, especially vis-a-vis Japan".
"If you stoke the fires of nationalism too much, then if you cannot fulfil what the nationalists who have been aroused want you to fulfil, then their anger will turn against the government of the day."
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