Sumantra noted a research paper by Harvard’s Alastair Iain Johnston in the journal International Security that raises doubts about the narrative that China is becoming increasingly nationalistic.

One section of the paper highlights differences between attitudes of the youth and those of their elders.

Johnston wrote:

Moreover, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the data do not show that China’s youth express higher levels of nationalism than older generations. Indeed, it is China’s older generations that are more nationalistic than its youth. These findings—with due regard for caveats about representativeness— suggest that rising popular nationalism may not be a critically important vari- able constraining Chinese foreign policy.

Sometimes the claim is made that rising nationalism exists because it is assumed, though not shown, that official government policies such as the Patriotic Education Campaign, launched in the early 1990s, are having their intended effect.

As Johnston’s numbers suggest, China’s youth are in fact noticeably less likely than their parents to answer yes to questions of patriotism and nationalism like, “I would prefer to be a citizen of China,” “China is a better country than most,” and “You should support your country even when it is wrong.”

china better

This makes sense for multiple reasons: 1.) Everywhere, young people are more likely than older people to believe in liberal values, among them skepticism of ultra-patriotic attitudes. 2.) Chinese since Opening & Reform began in 1978 have much more access to Western media through tourism, more open media (compared with the Mao era), the internet, and a large number who studied abroad in the West. 3.) The young Chinese are also more distant from the defining struggles of China’s national narrative–the Sino-Japanese War and World War II (or the “World Anti-Fascist War,” as it is officially known in China), the Chinese Civil War, and the Korean War.

Although China is an objectively better country in which to live than it was during Mao’s time, some of the very facts that make it better–its safety and stability and its greater level of freedom–also result in there being less impetus for citizens to cling to nationalist narratives and more information available that makes them skeptical of one-party rule.

Thus China’s patriotic education campaign and Xi Jinping’s recent emphasis on celebrating the anniversary of Japanese surrender. Rather than illustrating rising nationalism, the fact that the government felt it needed to implement these programs shows the government fears nationalism is waning. (Johnston’s paper didn’t address claims that the government is trying to stoke nationalism; rather it focused on whether nationalism is rising among the public.)

But overly serious and transparently propagandistic moral and educational crusades don’t work very well on skeptical youth, who would rather watch a Hollywood superhero movie than sit in class playing on their phones. Just like how American youth laugh at the silly anti-drug videos shown in middle school health class, most Chinese students in middle school and college (where they must take politics classes) don’t take political education too seriously.


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