The ideological framing of political discourse in mainland China and its effects on popular nationalistic sentiments

Text: Martine Asker, Master’s student in Political Science with a bachelor’s degree in China Studies

The state led nationalistic discourse has greatly shaped the popular nationalistic attitudes in China today, however there is reason to believe that this influence goes both ways. Could nationalism be a double-edged sword for a state like China?

The power of language and ideology

According to the teachings of discourse theory, everything we ever think or say is shaped by an official discourse which underlies all social practices and structures of power in the society we live in. Dunn and Neumann (2019) explain in Undertaking Discourse Analysis that “language is what makes reality ‘real’ in the sense of being understood and acted upon by humans”. Discourse basically translates to language, words or speech, and is embedded in all institutions and levels of society. According to one of the most famous theorists on discourse theory, Norman Fairclough, discourse must be viewed in a dialectic relation to power, meaning that power often is expressed through the discourse constructed by the political elite of a state, but also that the political discourse among the citizens has a reverse effect on the state.

Within discourse theory, ideology is often viewed as an important tool in maintaining power relations in a society and is a fundamental part of the political discourse. Ideology could be expressed unconsciously in that it is often deeply internalized in our basic beliefs, and an automated part of the society we live in through what is viewed as right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable. But it could also be used consciously by political actors, in order to explain or justify a happening or a policy change, or more generally as an effort to shape the beliefs of such rights and wrongs in a favorable manner.

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Discourse shaped by a bitter history of humiliation and war

In order to fully grasp the reality of nationalistic sentiments in China today, we need to take a look at the history. Those with an interest in China have most likely heard about the “century of humiliation”, referring to the time period between year 1839 to 1949. “The century of humiliation” encompasses a series of national tragedies such as the Opium War (1839-1942), Western colonization of important coastal cities, and the fall of the last dynasty. The last dynasty, Qing (1644 -1911) was led by the Manchu people, and was the longest lasting dynasty led by a group of people that was not Han Chinese, and originally viewed as outsiders. Nationalistic sentiments became the unifying driving force and ultimate reason for the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, followed by the establishment of the Chinese Republic. Shortly after, in 1937, the Japanese invaded China and large areas were occupied and controlled by the Japanese until 1945. These are all tragic happenings of China’s history, which have left deep scars in the country’s national self-esteem, and to this day remains as a great reason for China’s skeptical attitude towards Japan and the West. Anti-Japanese sentiments grew strong during this period, fueling even stronger nationalistic emotions amongst the Chinese people. Nationalism became a fundamental part of the political discourse also after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) beat the Nationalist Party and came to power in 1949, establishing the People’s Republic of China. Scholars have commented that the CCP was able to defeat the Nationalist Party as a result of their ability to appeal to the strong nationalistic feelings of the people, and that during the first three decades of the communist rule, nationalism and Marxist ideology went hand in hand.

“Chinese nationalism needs to be understood as an ideological stream which involves both the state and the people.”

State-led ideological education and discourse framing

Marxism and communism in its pure form is no longer practiced in the same way in China today. After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Deng Xiaoping implemented a chain of reforms in order to boost the economic growth of China, as well as opening China to the outside world. From the 1970’s, Marxism was substituted with economic pragmatism and impulses from the west. However, nationalism still functioned as a unifying driving force, which during this period fueled popular protests asking for democratic reform and cultural openness. This way of portraying nationalistic attitudes did not comply with the “correct” way to be patriotic according to the CCP, and as we know, the demonstrations resulted in heavy state led repression.

As a reaction to the protest movements of this period, the CCP started a national campaign promoting “correct” nationalistic attitudes and anti-Western sentiments. It became compulsory for all universities to engage new students in compulsory military training and establish a class called «Patriotic Education» (爱国主义教育). Universities also had to control and rewrite the syllabus for all other classes, ensuring that the teaching was not influenced by Western agendas. The new official discourse further highlighted the Party as the central protector of national interests, national stability, and the only actor who can lead a strong China.

“In order to keep the legitimacy of their rule, it is of outmost importance for the CCP to ensure that the popular nationalistic sentiments are directly connected to the party state.”

“The dream of a powerful China”: Nationalism in mainland China today

Chinese nationalism needs to be understood as an ideological stream which involves both the state and the people. China scholar Zhao Suisheng explains that nationalism in today’s China operates on two levels: nationalistic attitudes and discourse through the state and political elites, and strong expressions of popular nationalistic sentiments amongst the people. In relation to the happenings of the past and Chinas position in the international society today, popular nationalistic sentiments in China today are strongly driven by dream of a strong and powerful China (强国梦). In order to keep the legitimacy of their rule, it is of outmost importance for the CCP to ensure that the popular nationalistic sentiments are directly connected to the party state. By ensuring this, official discourse is very much focused on Chinas position in the international sphere, and about the CCP making sure that China will be back to its former glory. Additionally, the party seems to be more careful about repressing spontaneous expressions of public opinion online or public protests driven by nationalistic sentiments, such as for example anti-Japanese protests.

Popular nationalism: a double-edged sword?

Hansen et al. (2018) writes that nationalism is perhaps the CCP’s most important tool in the effort of maintaining a collective mindset after the decline of communistic ideals. Especially when faced with strong criticism from other countries concerning political or civil rights, or human rights questions, the CCP presents this as a battle between nations in the international sphere. Such criticism and pressure from foreign countries should not be viewed as anything other than an attempt to diminish China’s interests. This discourse in addition to consistent ideological prepping, seems to be fueling the already nationalistic sentiments in the public which supports the dream of a powerful China. This seems all good for the CCP, however, the party state is faced with a constant challenge in that they cannot appear weak faced with criticism of foreign powers who wish to sabotage China’s path back to glory. Not doing so might just result in disappointing the public, leading to a loss of support and legitimacy.

As we see, a strong public opinion driven by nationalistic emotion might just be a double-edged sword for an autocratic state such as China. For now, the CCP has managed to shape the political discourse ensuring a key position in the nationalistic agenda, but the power of the influence of discourse still goes both ways. In the 1980s, the world witnessed how the popular nationalistic attitudes eventually resulted in widespread protests for reform and change influenced by Western ideas. Back then, the state barely managed to get a grip of the situation and turn the nationalistic discourse in their favor, but would the outcome be the same if the people started to mobilize in the 2020s?

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