President Obama must understand the nationalism of China's President Xi
China's President Xi Jinping is both a nationalist and a reformer. President Obama must understand the motivations for Mr. Xi’s nationalism, so that as the two leaders meet at a summit in California today, the US-China relationship will benefit. And the world will applaud.
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It is no coincidence that Xi’s first China-US summit follows his multifarious and emphatic exemplars of nationalism. When Xi now enacts reforms, how can he be accused of bowing down to Western/American ideals, when his international actions and assertions, from safeguarding China’s sovereignty to supporting China’s armed forces, are so assured and decisive?Skip to next paragraph
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3) Legitimization of CPC rule. To perpetuate its one-party rule (which China’s top leaders truly believe is essential for the well-being of the country), the CPC has constructed a grand narrative that is founded on three critical claims: Only the CPC can continue to improve citizens’ standard of living (and ameliorate severe social and economic disparities); only the CPC can maintain a stable, unified country and construct a happy, harmonious society; and only the CPC can effect the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which stresses a firm command of “core interests” (i.e., sovereignty and territoriality) and increasing global respect.
4) Maintenance of stability through unity. China faces numerous internal tensions, especially a class-divided populace (rich-poor, urban-rural, coastal-inland) that has erupted within one generation. Moreover, an increasingly complex society can fracture along multiple fault lines. Pollution, corruption, health care, housing, migrant workers, workers’ wages, social cynicism, and changing values, among other raging issues, threaten to fragment society – and all are exacerbated by the most energetic social media on Earth. Only Chinese nationalism, which resonates intrinsically and passionately across Chinese society, can provide sufficiently strong social glue.
5) Differentiation from predecessors. Top Chinese leaders must combine historical continuity with their own distinguishing theories and practices. How shall Xi fare? Economic growth rates must decline, and even more foreboding, a host of domestic tensions (or crises) are coming his way – take public anger at corruption and pollution. Hence, another rationale for nationalism. In the past, nationalistic surges were triggered largely by external events (such as America’s accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999). Xi is making nationalism the core of his leadership; his nationalism is proactive, riding the high road of patriotism and using pride as his differentiator.
6) Personal belief. Xi has deep-seated patriotic convictions, the product of family, life, and career. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a founder of New China and a leading reformer under Deng Xiaoping. In 2006, when Xi Jinping was party secretary of Zhejiang Province, he told me about Chinese pride and patriotism as motivating China’s historic resurgence, words remarkably similar to his recent pronouncements.
So is Xi a reformer? A nationalist? The answer is that he is both, because only by being a nationalist can he be a reformer. American policy must understand Xi’s nationalism, so that when the reigning superpower meets the rising superpower, both can benefit. The world would applaud.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn, the official biographer of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, has long-time relationships with China’s leaders and the Chinese government. He is a strategic advisor to multinational corporations and the author, most recently, of “How China’s Leaders Think.”