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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Globalization and Nationalism in China


By Ying Chen


During a keynote speech at the end of the First Session of the 12th National People’s Congress, the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping outlined and reiterated nine times the idea of the “Chinese Dream” (Ifeng, 2013; Whiteman, 2013). In relation to previous calls for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, the Chinese Dream distinguishes itself as being masked by an even stronger nationalist color. Drawing attention to “a unity of purpose,” it not only aims at fostering the nostalgia of China’s glorious past, but also stresses the link between individual fate and national destiny (Moses, 2013).

Upon noticing the advancement of the Chinese Dream, this paper seeks to echo a growing concern about nationalism in China. On the one hand, nationalism and patriotism have always been among the favorite parlances of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for the sake of social stability and solidarity. On the other hand, intensified globalization has accentuated the need to face up to the issue of national identity so as to cope with the substantive information and material exchange on a global scale. What is the current situation of nationalism in China? Whether globalization is an opportunity or an obstacle of the government’s efforts to construct a national identity? How does the government respond to the challenges and utilize the opportunities? In search of the answers to these questions, this paper first delves into the impact of globalization on the evolution of the Chinese nationalism, and then analyzes the government polices corresponding to the globalizing trends. As the analysis in this paper shows, globalization is translated into both obstacles and opportunity for the development of nationalism in China. Since nationalism is essential to the one-party state, it has responded to globalization by seeking novel forms of nationalist expression.

The study of nationalism and globalization is of particular significance in contemporary China. For one thing, the CCP is believed to establish and rely on the nationalist program (Bisley, 2007). In other words, whether nationalism can be managed appropriately in the face of globalization is imperative to survival and success of the party-state. Moreover, the nation-state still dominates the international system as a form of collective identity, so that understanding of national identity vis- à-vis the globalizing undercurrents has vital importance for both the policymakers and the ordinary Chinese citizens.

Before elaborating on the interplay between nationalism and globalization, the two concepts need to be defined properly. Nationalism, according to its modern definition, consists of two dimensions, one cultural and another political. The cultural version of nationalism underscores the presence of common history, traditions, living habits and other cultural elements, and points at a major task to advance and preserve cultural communities (Bisley, 2007: 167). By contrast, the latter refers to a sense of identity on the basis of “a common political consensus and a common political destiny” (Chang, 2000: 226), and associates nationalism with the function and requirement of the modern statehood. Putting it concisely, nationalism links the cultural idea of nation with the political notion of state, thereby playing a decisive role in determining the fate of the nation-state. Furthermore, the national identity constructed by nationalism shapes the way people conceive themselves, their community and the world (Bisley, 2007). In doing so, it acts as a mediating force between the international system and the nation-state.

As for globalization, this phenomenon is often associated with growing interdependence through “the interpenetration of economic, political and cultural relationship” across national borders (Özkirimli, 2005: 127), which is aided by the development of information technology, mass media and global transportation. As all parts of the world become increasingly inter-connected, globalization represents a diminishing importance of time and space (Harvey, 1989; Giddens, 1990).

Those definitions in themselves are indicative of the incompatible goals of nationalism and globalization (Chang, 2000; Greenfeld, 2011). While nationalism strives to make nation coterminous with state, globalization reduces state capacity, posing threats to the nation-state linkage from above (Hall, 2000; Özkirimli, 2005). While nationalism functions to form collective identity, globalization offers an alternative way of organizing the process of identification; global flows of information contribute to the formation of a community of sentiments beyond territorial boundaries, and the transnational space created by globalization renders self-perception more fluid and less certain (Bisley, 2007). At the same time, globalization fuels a movement down below, sparking the formation of sub-national identities (Bell, 1987; Barber, 1995). This is revealed by the incidents of ethnic and nationalist-driven conflicts in Balkans, India and the Horn of Africa (Bisley, 2007). Such contradictory terms have led to a widespread concern that globalization would make nation-state obsolete in the international arena.

However, others believe that the interaction between nationalism and globalization is far more complicated than it might first appear. For some, because globalization weakens the link between state and society, new space is created for the state to remold the relationship (Smith, 1995). For others, globalization draws nation-state into a global competition, revealing national differences as a stark reality and exposing them to a sense of external threat (Chang, 2000; Starr, 2001; Rozman, 2002; Greenfeld, 2011). In the same vein, as the globalization of culture is regarded to be synonymous with homogenization and even Americanization – a process emphasizing the dominance and one-way diffusion of a particular form of culture – some people contend that it possibly ignites resistance and resentment towards the foreign intrusion, stimulating nationalistic appeals (Conversi, n. d.; Lieber and Weisberg, 2002). In a word, nationalism can be intensified in response to globalization (Kaldor, 2004). What explains the different effects of globalization? As Bisley (2007) argues, the adaptability of political institutions provides a meaningful clue. Rather than giving way to globalization, many episodes in the real world show how nationalism can alter its way of expression and produce new manifestations. In other words, globalization must be understood in the local context.


Given the complex interplay between nationalism and globalization, the Chinese experience of globalization has been even more entangled. The uniqueness of China lies in the continuous presence of the elements of globalism and even cosmopolitanism (expressed in the ideas like “tian xia”) in the Chinese understanding of nationalism, which is consolidated by her sophisticated and self-sufficient civilization (Chang, 2000). The regime of People’s Republic of China inherited this, especially during the first few years when deep communist commitment emphasized the connection with the Communist Internationale and the need to unify the proletariats internationally in the battle against the international bourgeoisie. Notably, while cultural supremacy yielded a strong cultural nationalism in feudal China, development in the political dimension lacked comparable momentum because of the subsequent ebbs and flows of dynasties as well as the absence of a sense of delimited territory (Chang, 2000).

In addition, the local context confining the impact of globalization is also characterized by geographical vastness and regional differences, the coexistence of 56 ethnic groups, and the twists and turns in history (the Great Cultural Revolution, for example, severely devastated cultural heritages in China and almost eradicated the cultural roots of the Chinese national identity).

It is under such circumstances that globalization unfolds a drastically different future for China. Two periods of intensive foreign contacts are of particular importance. Firstly, foreign intruders into the country during the second half of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century awoke the Chinese and aroused a keen sense of safeguarding national borders and dignity against foreign forces. Secondly, starting from the 1970s, the “open door” policy has exposed China to a global competition, whereas the restored or newly gained seats in the international organizations made Chinese people aware of the norms and rules of game for the nation-states in the international system (Chang, 2000). Consequently, globalization contributed to the formation of the Chinese in national identity, particularly in the political dimension, by unveiling the difference (or even contradiction) between China and the rest.

However, its influence on the subsequent process seems to have a mixed result.

For one thing, globalization weakens state control on a wide variety of activities in addition to the economic ones. Benefiting from the increased international contact, ethnic separatism constantly challenges nationalism especially in the border regions. Moreover, economic globalization brings varied development opportunities to different parts of China. As Wan, Lu and Chen (2012) record, globalized trade exacerbates regional inequality. A corollary is that there can be substantive regional difference in terms of the specific nationalist appeal and the extent of development of national identity. In addition, economic globalization is accompanied by the transnational flow of cultural elements. One of the direct results is that cultural supremacy underlying in traditional Chinese nationalism has now given way to the belief that the Western model is worth learning and even superior at least in some sense.

Another implication of cultural globalization is marked by the inflow of Western ideas such as democracy and human rights. If we say globalization provides unremitting impetus to search for a proper expression of nationalism, on the other hand, it allows the Chinese people to see the West as a reference as they rethink state-nation relations. That is, globalization helps a bottom-up evaluation vis-à-vis the top-down, official efforts of nation-building. Such an influence reflects how the elements of globalism innate to the Chinese nationalism interact with the imported globalizing trends. During the process of hybridization and reconciliation of the old and new, of the local and global, the Chinese nation has demonstrated the ability to use Western ideas for Chinese purpose (xi-ti zhong-yong) in lieu of merely regarding “Chinese values as the core, Western values for usefulness” (zhong-ti xi-yong) (Yu, 2008: 76).

To sum up, globalization presents both obstacles and opportunities, both threat and encouragement, to the contemporary development of the Chinese nationalism.


Recalling the insufficient development in the political dimension of nationalism, nationalist education, in one form or another, has been a must for rulers throughout the Chinese history. In fact, the authoritarian regime has always rested on a nationalist program (Bisley, 2007). Yet the need becomes more acute at the current stage of development. Part of the reason is that significant economic takeoff comes at the expense of sundry domestic problems. Meanwhile, globalization can mitigate the CCP’s legitimacy, through either posing direct supranational challenges or, indirectly, assisting subnational centrifugal force (Chang, 2000). One might peek at the severity of the issue from an estimated 10 percent growth rate of the emigrating mainlanders (Anon., 2009). Since the elite stratum takes up a considerable portion of migrating population, it points at the questions like whether the Chinese national identity has become unattractive and whether the current nationalist program has failed.

In the shadow of globalization, the Chinese government has reacted actively and searched for the ways to abate threats and to utilize opportunities.

On the cultural front, emphasis is placed on resuming the sense of supremacy of the Chinese culture. Apart from the rehabilitation of the historical link with China’s rich cultural past, the adjustment comes in the form of giving prominence to the Chinese way of thinking. In this regard, Confucianism emerges as an outstanding candidate, a desirable part of national identity to ease the tension between globalization and nationalism (Rozman, 2002). Therefore, in recent years the world has witnessed a Confucian resurgence in the Chinese society (Wang, 2002; Guo, 2004; Wu, 2010). Further, it even has an expression in the Chinese foreign policy as the government seeks to enhance its soft power and bring about a “harmonious world” (Ding, 2008). Globalization aids this pursuit, by, for example, facilitating the exchange of scholarly ideas and the establishment of Confucian academies overseas. To some extent, the elements of globalism are in play again, as manifested in the world vision that guides the state policy. On the other hand, such an attempt is indeed a postmodern reaction and response to the global postcolonial cultural movement (Wang, 2002). In this way, cultural globalization might be slowed down (Wang, 2002), or even utilized to export the Chinese thinking and gain international prestige, which may in turn generalize positive repercussions domestically.

As for the political dimension, the CCP has been persistent in advocating nationalism and patriotism as integral to a broader governing strategy. While this is often associated with anti-Japanese/Western sentiments, it warrants note that the role of the CCP in fighting against external threats is also highlighted, serving for the consolidation of its legitimacy. Education on history functions as a primary method (Moloughney, 2001). In addition, the authoritarian regime has been especially tolerant of the nationalist activities; for instance, the massive and violent anti-Japanese protests in 2012 during the dispute over sovereignty in the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. By the same token, there have been high-profiled official actions, such as displaying cutting-edge armaments and sending marine surveillance vessels into the disputed waters. These actions not only serve diplomatic purpose, but also demonstrate to the domestic audience the willingness and capability of the state to safeguard the territorial integrity and national interests, both indispensable to modern nationalism.

The CCP has also devised innovative approaches to solidify its own nationalist program. The Chinese Dream, proposed by the fifth generation of the Chinese leadership as a new governing idea, actually signifies a redirection of the Party’s attention from national success (China’s Dream) to personal actualization (the dream of the Chinese people), according to the official interpretation (Wang, 2013). In this manner, the CCP envisions that the state-nations linkage as well as the sense of belonging can be strengthened.


This paper probes into the interplay of globalization and the Chinese nationalism. Whereas nationalism is closely associated with the foundation and legitimacy of the party-state, globalization has introduced a mixed result on the formation of national identity and the state-nation cohesion. Because globalization mainly effects from above, its influence on nationalism is confined by the local conditions. Historical traits, geographical immensity, regional disparity, and ethnic diversity all leave room for the downside of globalization, adding difficulty to an official attempt to scale up nationalism in a healthy way. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that global forces have played an indispensable role in the formation and adjustment of the Chinese nationalism. The outside world, especially the more developed countries, is now used as a reference to reexamine state-society relationship, not to mention the importance of the sense of otherness in constructing a collective identity.

Notably, the sense of globalism intrinsic to Chinese nationalism has a subtle engagement with the extrinsically-originated globalization process. Throughout the years, the vision of “tian xia” has passed down to the next generations. Globalist sentiments reduce the sense of agony coming along with globalization. In this vein, the societal members are less reluctant to embrace the Western ideas and values, whilst the ruling party has incorporated the idea into its diplomatic outlook.

As globalization heightens the potential of subnational and supranational challenges, efforts have been devoted to fortifying both the cultural and political dimensions of nationalism. On one hand, the Chinese government seeks to reassert cultural supremacy of the nation by advocating the Chinese way of thinking, which fuels the resurgence Confucianism at home and abroad. On the other hand, the CCP has been trying to live up with a more aggressive ambition in fostering political nationalism among the Chinese citizens, by responding actively to external threats and emphasizing the interdependence between individuals and the state. While China goes further on the road of economic globalization, transformation in the cultural sphere seems to occur at a slower pace. This, to some degree, reflects the resilience of the local institutions and their reverse influence on the globalization process.

In the light of research findings detailed by this paper, globalization seldom acts unidirectionally and replicates practices and ideas into the recipient country. As a matter of fact, there is always leeway for the nation-state to react to seemingly irreversible globalizing trends, as long as the society and the political institutions are both adaptable and flexible enough. In other words, the nation-states are not necessarily in crisis.

It is noteworthy that due to objective constraints, this paper chooses not to elaborate on the normative issues regarding globalization and nationalism. What forms of nationalism can all be at service of the steady and sustainable rise of China in a globalized era? Also, the influence of the adaptive actions on the institutions themselves is worth researching. Will the change of Chinese national identity in a globalized world generate momentum for the democratization of the state? These kinds of questions of these kinds can be a good start of the follow-up studies.


Born and raised in Mainland China, International Affairs Forum Student Writing Competition Semi-Finalist Ying Chen received higher education in Hong Kong and the UK, and recently graduated from MA International Affairs program at the George Washington University, with a concentration on international security studies. With an interest in state fragility, conflict/crisis management, conflict-sensitive development and China’s role in international conflicts, she worked at various research institutes in the US and China, including the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the International Crisis Group and Saferworld. She currently interns at the United Nations Operations and Crisis Centre in New York City.


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