In recent years Chinese nationalism has become much more prominent in the international world, sometimes taking on a life of its own. It not only affects international relations but also foreign businesses in China. Not only does the Chinese government pursue a nationalistic agenda at the governmental level, but Chinese citizens and consumers have also more and more frequently advocated their country’s standing and reputation in the world. This can have a negative impact on foreign businesses as anything deemed offensive to the Chinese nation, people, culture, or history can quickly lead to dissension among consumers, outrage through social media platforms, and pressure from the Chinese government. In this article we examine some of the key issues that determine the Chinese stance on nationalism, the way nationalism manifests itself in the Chinese market, as well as how Western businesses can handle this very sensitive issue.
China’s National “Face”: Historical Pride and Shame
China’s 5,000 years of cultural and dynastic history are a point of pride among the Chinese. For a millennia China was the epitome of Asia’s (and in some cases, the civilized world) scientific, cultural, and political achievement and such thinking plays a large role in Chinese thinking today. Chinese culture has long placed a strong emphasis on respect and tradition, tending to look to the past for example as opposed to dreaming of new future possibilities. So when the Chinese look to past dynasties to define ideas on art, politics, etiquette, and culture in general, they also remember their own mistakes and perceived slights and wrongs perpetrated against them with clarity unknown to many Westerners.
“Patriotism in China has a contradictory mentality. As a people we love our country very much, but we also don’t know how to demonstrate our patriotism. When the interests of our country are infringed upon, we then become angry and emotionally patriotic. But during the course of our everyday lives we rarely do anything actively for our country. So it seems that to me that the idea of patriotism among ordinary Chinese people is not put into practice much, and therefore our country needs real and genuine leaders to guide us in this respect.”
-Sarah Zhao (White-collar Worker, Shanghai)
Historically, the Chinese also possess a certain mindset for revenge against parties that have wronged them. Until such a time that the wrong is righted and the guilty party punished, the person responsible for righting the wrong (be it son, brother, politician, or citizen) will usually feel a strong sense of shame and humiliation. From the standpoint of Chinese nationalism, as the Chinese nation moves forward into the modern world, it is mentally unable to do so without also remembering how far it has fallen, and the countries that have done it wrong. Thus, Chinese nationalism in the 21st century today contains a unique dualism, with elements of both pride and shame. And while most Chinese go about their lives without many overt displays of nationalism (e.g. loud protests), it should not be assumed that this means the average Chinese does not care about their country’s “Face.”
Key Influences of Chinese Nationalism
One of the more prominent issues affecting Chinese nationalism is with regard to Japan and its invasion and occupation of China before and during World War Two. To all Chinese this era is represented by Japanese soldiers murdering the Chinese, raping women, burning villages, and almost any other heinous act imaginable. The Japanese occupation is akin to a brand seared onto the Chinese consciousness and the result is an extreme sensitivity surrounding this history for the average Chinese citizen. While many Chinese (especially the younger ones) are not automatically biased against Japanese individuals, whenever there is a nationalistic reaction to the Japanese (whether individual, company, or government), the results can be sudden and explosive.
Matters are not helped by the fact that the Japanese government seems un-attuned to these Chinese sensitivities: Japanese leaders routinely visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo where Japanese war dead (including those convicted of war crimes) are buried; some Japanese textbooks have been whitewashed, largely glossing over or changing Japan’s recorded history during World War Two. The Chinese also continue to protest that Japan never formally apologized (or did enough to repent) for its role during World War Two. With both sides seemingly unwilling to compromise, the Japanese element will likely continue to be a sore topic within Chinese nationalism for years to come.
National unity is also a strong influence prevalent in Chinese nationalism today, with the key theme being that all of Chinese territory should remain forever united (e.g., Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other internal territories). This sometimes ferocious attitude toward preserving Chinese territorial unity has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when many territorial concessions were forced upon the Chinese government due to lost wars and the increasingly dysfunctional and ineffective Qing dynasty government of the era. The many Western powers began to carve out colonies for themselves, with the result being that China possessed little at home and even less internationally. The Chinese were looked down upon, even within China, and they were branded the “sick man of Asia.”
Thus as China increasingly takes a greater role in the international world, its government and citizens are understandably very sensitive to any (perhaps well-meaning) activists, protesters, or governments that might suggest that Taiwan is its own country, or that Chinese internal territories should be independent. After enduring almost 100 years of often partial occupation by foreign powers, the Chinese would for all intents and purposes rather die than give up another inch of land.
New Trends Affecting Nationalism
While nationalism and national pride have been part of China for thousands of years, there are several trends that have appeared over the last few decades that are having a profound effect on Chinese nationalism.
Television plays a large entertainment role in the life of the average Chinese citizen (i.e., the large lower class), and dramas make up a large percentage of the available shows on Chinese television. Some of the more popular shows are historical dramas, many taking place during World War Two or in the early 20th and late 19th centuries. And while many are cheaply (and sometimes badly) produced, many of these dramas showcase the horrors (real and imagined) perpetrated by Japan and other foreign powers against China. Although most Chinese likely realize that these dramas are merely entertainment, it undoubtedly keeps the horrible tragedies of the past at the forefront of the Chinese mind.
As the spending power of Chinese consumers continues to increase, a single-minded focus on cost is a thing of the past, and today the Chinese consumer more and more considers a product’s brand. In an internationalized China where global companies compete with domestic ones, a product or company’s country of origin naturally can be a part of determining its overall brand value. Japanese products have likely suffered the worst, as Chinese consumption of certain Japanese goods routinely dips during spats between the Japanese and Chinese governments. Recently in 2013, Apple was lambasted by a Chinese government TV broadcast for providing Chinese consumers with second-rate service options when compared to consumers in Western countries, with outrage following on Chinese social media. A quick PR response from Apple may have effectively dealt with the problem, but there is no denying that the Chinese consumers are savvy shoppers, and if they feel they are treated with no respect, they will not buy.
Social media is also playing a large role in fostering grassroots nationalism among Chinese citizens. The Chinese are much more guarded with respect to social media and personal information being available online. Due to the fact that China is ruled by an autocratic government with absolute power, the Chinese are also understandably very guarded about offering criticisms (officially anyway) that can be traced back to them. Social media offers the perfect outlet for Chinese citizens to discuss interests and grievances (nationalism included), and through the power of the World Wide Web a small disturbance can grow to a huge storm overnight.
Advice for Westerners
For Western business people new to China, there are several simple yet important tips that can prevent blunders and mistakes relating to Chinese nationalism. First, do your homework and study up on Chinese history, including the last few centuries in which China was subjugated by Western countries. Understanding Chinese history is a sure-fire way to be aware of Chinese sensitivities and sore spots. And developing a degree of cultural empathy with your Chinese customers and staff can only result in a better understanding of the market and more effective leadership skills.
Second, accept that in China there are certain things that are best not said, no matter what your personal beliefs may be. Don’t talk about anything related to independence of any Chinese territories; the Chinese will almost certainly not be swayed by your arguments, and any arguments you give are likely to be viewed as “Western arrogance” or “Westerners trying to meddle in China’s internal affairs.” Additionally, don’t talk about politics; it will not ingratiate you or your business with the Chinese authorities, and most Chinese people simply don’t actively care about politics. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the many protests you see in the news have anything to do with democracy or political change on a national level. Most don’t, and instead are local issues focused on companies, and local governments. These topics will likely result in increased attention by government censors and potentially have a negative effect on your business.
Third, keep your finger on the pulse of the Chinese government, national as well as local. The Chinese government takes an active hand in the development of the Chinese market through its support of Chinese state- owned companies as well as specific policy initiatives. By following Chinese governmental policies and announcements one can be forewarned as to which countries (or companies) may become a target of China’s propaganda machine, and prepare accordingly.
UPDATE: a new round of tensions have been touched off with the creation of the Chinese air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. Despite the rise of tensions China has ignored pressure from the US and Japan to rescind the zone, all of which has led to many nationalistic sentiments being displayed over Chinese social media.
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