Is China in danger of losing control of its rising nationalism?
- After years of Beijing’s encouragement of patriotic sentiment, online protests against international brands are no surprise
- But there is a risk that it may go off track, with domestic nationalism potentially having an impact on foreign policy
About eight years ago, my colleagues and I were baffled when anti-Japanese protests in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Qingdao turned into violent clashes with police as Japanese restaurants and cars were vandalised.
Since then, although Beijing has continued to cultivate nationalism in schools and the media, its expression has been strictly restricted to the online community.
The Chinese government might be right in saying it had no organising role in the subsequent social media boycott of international brands which shun Xinjiang cotton – the fuel was already there and it only took a spark to ignite a fire.
But offline, protests are not allowed. A video posted by Fang Shimin, a Chinese influencer, showed a woman holding a protest sign outside an H&M store being stopped by security guards.
The Communist Party has been reinforcing a sense of national unity and garnering support for its rule by fostering nationalism. While it allows such sentiment to exert pressure on foreign parties, it always makes sure not to let the situation get out of its control.
But, as nationalism grows, the risk that it may go off track remains. It could also force Beijing to stick with its hardline approach in handling disputes with other countries, making deals through compromises more difficult.
Another caveat is how other countries perceive China. As the US is busy engaging allies in building a united front against China, will the nationalist rhetoric by mainland netizens – and the salvoes by wolf warrior diplomats – drive countries further into the arms of the US?