Niall Ferguson Warned about “Shrill Nationalism” in the Documentary “China: Triumph and Turmoil”

In the documentary China: Triumph and Turmoil, just aired in UK on Channel 4, Niall Ferguson stated that the Internet and China’s integration into global economy didn’t really spread democratic values in China, instead, they facilitated a growing “unofficial nationalism”, particularly among young Chinese.

Ferguson says, “It is one of our comforting and enduring myths that as China becomes more modern and sophisticated, more like us, it will come to adopt our values. I’m not sure it’s going to be like that. [Chinese students during the Lhasa riots in 2008] were very hostile to the criticism of the Chinese government. The key insight for me is that rather than pro-democracy feelings increasing as China grows economically, it is a radical, shrill nationalism that is emerging. There is an enthusiastic embrace of the economic benefits of the market but resentment of Western cultural hegemony. The attitude is: if we make it economically, we don’t have to kowtow to you culturally.”

There is plenty of China-phobia in the West right now and Ferguson’s discussion played right into it. In another interview, he even talked about the troubling parallel between today’s China and Germany before WWI, on the ground that both had “rapid economic growth, self-confidence and increasingly a rather shrill nationalism”.

I have been studying nationalism in China for years, and like Ferguson, I found the nationalist sentiment among young people very unnerving. But Ferguson certainly exaggerated the power and social influence of radical nationalists in China, maybe just to make his documentary more sensational.

Yes it is true that there are some young people who are forming online communities that circulate xenophobic discourses, some even organized hacker attacks, but there are also many Chinese NGOs and individuals who are using the Internet to initiate cross-cultural dialogues.

It is also true that the government is relying on nationalism as a main source of legitimacy, but some top leaders are aware of the danger that radical nationalism could destabilize Chinese society and ruin China’s relationship with the International community. That is why one of the most influential nationalist website, Utopia/乌有之乡, was shut down recently for its speeches that defend the Culture Revolution and criticize the government for being too soft in China’s disputes with Asian neighbors over resources in South China Sea.

Also, the power elites are too invested in the current system of state capitalism, which is dependent on the global market, that it will not risk a show-down with the West. Many of our leaders, including the recently indicted Bo Xilai, have been storing their wealth in the US, and their family members are already US citizens. Are there such things in Germany a hundred years ago?

Many of the nationalist young Chinese, despite their resistance to so called Western values, fully embraced individualism and consumerism. I interviewed some leaders in the nationalist community, and I noticed that they are very fond of iPhones and LV bags, and they are even hoping to use the money they made from publishing nationalistic books to emigrate to the West.

However, nationalism has indeed become the main obstacle for domestic reform. It has worked well as a justification for the current status quo and local injustice. For example, nationalism has been used to justify internet censorship on the ground of national sovereignty in the cyberspace; and it was used to defuse media exposure of social problems, with investigative journalists being labeled “traitors” and “guides of Western imperialists”.

Overall, I believe Chinese nationalism is a bigger threat to the democratization of China than to global stability. Few nationalists in China are actually shouting “let’s conquer the world”, but many are telling the repressed in China that “you don’t need those Western values such as democracy, freedom of speech, equality or human rights.


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