Chinese Nationalism

In 1989, Chinese students and intellectuals gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to protest a lack of freedoms.  This was in the same year as the end of many Communist governments around the world.  At the time it seemed that the old order was beginning to break down and Democracy was soon to follow.  Even the bloody end to that demonstration seemed to herald the beginning of the end.  Yet here we are two decades later and China seems stronger than ever.  What has happened?

The Rise of Chinese Nationalism

While a Westerner may be inclined to assume that the people of China are particularly anxious to develop a Western style democracy, one should remember that generally democracy is a pursuit of the middle classes.  The upper-class has an incentive to maintain the status quo and the poor are generally too busy dealing with day to day issues to worry about social justice.

China is a country made up of an urban population on the coastal East and many rural poor elsewhere.  As the forces of globalization have helped China to rise as a powerful exporter, many opportunities began to come into being for the rural poor.  They began to move to the cities and take jobs in factories at wages they would have considered unheard of before.  This improvement in the quality of life could be seen as the first step in dissipating civil unrest.

Simultaneously interesting political forces have hardened this attitude.  Foreign criticism of the Chinese system, combined with a growing middle class who are happy with the status quo, lead to a sense of persecution.  Meanwhile a decadent West has fallen prey to what is perceived as its own greed and gluttony, creating a sense of national pride. 

The Future

The major challenge for the Chinese government is to continue its image as doing well by its citizens in light of the global economic meltdown.  Exporting countries are particularly exposed to the slowdown in consumption in the West.  While the worst case scenario in China may not look particularly grim to an outside observer, in a country accustomed to double digit growth rates, any slowdown may cast the government in a less pleasant light.

Ultimately the continued strength of the current Chinese regime will lie in its ability to continue to provide growth and services to its people, without appearing to make concessions to the West.  This new Chinese nationalism may turn out to be more tenuous than one might expect once the frenetic growth slows down. 

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