Think Tank (5/2021)
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Chinese Nationalism: How Its Past is Shaping Its Future
14 Sep 2021

The Communist Party of China (CPC), under Mao Zedong, was opposed to Confucius, whose teachings were deemed the source of China’s backwardness and condemned.

Decades later in the 21st century, a New Year ceremony commemorating his birth was broadcast on state television. This incident was an example of the rediscovery of traditional Chinese philosophy, with the thinking of Confucius particularly important in China’s reinvention of itself.

The reinterpretation of history was one of many examples cited by Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, University of Oxford, in his examination of how China is revising the past to forge a unified national identity and defend its legitimacy in a world cautious of the rising superpower. Prof Mitter was speaking at the Ngee Ann Kongsi-RSIS Distinguished Public Lecture held on 14 September 2021.

Prof Mitter observed that the origins of Chinese nationalism lie in a range of different strands of thought. Other than the rediscovery of traditional Chinese philosophy, another important element is the experience of modern warfare, from the humiliations of the Opium Wars to the horrors but eventual victory in World War II.  Prof Mitter pointed out that China’s national identity is closely tied to victory over Japan in World War II. He observed that the CPC has begun to bring in the contributions of the Kuomintang during the war, an impossible gesture during Mao Zedong’s rule, and it does so to convey the nationalist message that all of China together, including its non-communist forces, fought back against other powers in WWII.

Also crucial, but underexamined, is the rethinking of China’s Marxist tradition, which has been nationalist as much as it has been radical.  By examining these strands from China’s past that shape nationalist thinking in China, we can understand the phenomena that shape China’s contemporary nationalism.  These include a new sense that China should play a powerful role in the world, the desire to create a powerful party-state-based identity at home which accepts no opposition, and the combination of ideas of a glorious past with a technologically-driven, highly modern future.

Prof Mitter observed that only by understanding China’s past, can we interpret its nationalist future.

Catch it here on the RSISVideoCast YouTube channel:

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