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Global Viewpoint

'Soft' nationalism is good for China

Chinese-style soft nationalism takes pride in Confucian values and should be the way of the future. But can it spread from Nanjing to the rest of China? There are reasons to be optimistic.

By Daniel A. Bell / February 4, 2013

Paramilitary recruits march during a training session at a military base in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province in China on March 6, 2012. Op-ed contributor Daniel A. Bell writes: 'Most Chinese intellectuals and political reformers recognize the need for a softer form of nationalism. The revival of Confucian morality in China’s educational system certainly helps.'

China Daily/Reuters/File



Chinese nationalism is bad; or so it seems to the rest of the world. For most of the 20th century, China viewed itself as a victim of foreign bullying, and Chinese leaders drew on the emotion of resentment in order to strengthen the state. Now that China is becoming more powerful, it’s China’s turn to bully others. Naturally, other countries are worried.

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But there are two forms of nationalism in China. The “hard” form often reported by the foreign media tends to be centered in Beijing’s military circles and the upper echelons of the party. China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, visited the National Museum of China that highlights the Opium Wars and the subsequent “century of humiliation” of China. He then issued a call to realize “the cause of national rejuvenation” that seemed to coincide with increased assertiveness of territorial claims over contested islands.

To be fair, hard nationalism is not necessarily bad. The moral point of building up state power is to secure political stability so people can lead decent lives without worrying about material deprivation and physical insecurity. Hence, it made sense to build up state power when China was poor and routinely bullied by foreign powers.

The problem, of course, is that China is now a major economic power with relatively secure territorial boundaries. Hence, hard nationalism is harder to justify now. It seems designed not just to remind China of its humiliation at the hands of outside powers, but also to make people forget about China’s more recent humiliation at the hands of its own rulers.

Since few believe in Marxism anymore, the Chinese “Communist” Party seeks legitimacy by invoking a form of nationalism that assumes an antagonistic and competitive relationship with the rest of the world. In other words, hard nationalism is often put to use to make people serve the government, not the other way around.

But there is another form of nationalism – let’s call it “soft” nationalism – that makes moral sense in contemporary China. Soft nationalism is centered in China’s ancient capital of Nanjing. On a recent Sino-American media exchange in Nanjing co-organized by Jiaotong University and Emory University, a Nanjing-based scholar told us that Nanjing has been the meeting point between the “Confucian” north and the more commercially minded south, and more recently between Confucian and Western culture.

Nanjing was a dynastic capital 10 times during its 2,500-year history. It last served as China’s capital under the KMT (Kuomindang), the Chinese Nationalist Party, founded in 1912. What was once viewed as a “feudal” and reactionary period is now depicted more favorably. The ceiling of founding father Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum is painted with the KMT emblem, and the nearby museum depicts KMT history in a more balanced way.

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