Ghulam Ali * 


China’s defeat in the Opium Wars, 1839-1842 and 1856-1860, at the hands of the British colonial power, became a turning point in the modern Chinese history. It was the first time that China’s territorial sovereignty was compromised by its rulers who signed what is known as “unequal” the Treaty of Nanking (Treaty of Nanjing).  In the subsequent decades, the declining Qing Dynasty, after every defeat at the hands of colonial powers, further surrendered China’s territory and sovereignty. These developments generated unprecedented level of nationalistic sentiments among the Chinese people against the centuries-old dynastic rule which they held responsible for China’s backwardness as well as the humiliating defeats it suffered against the foreign invaders. Since then, the feelings of nationalism have thrived unabated in China and have been aptly capitalised by successive Chinese leaders for domestic and external policies. The nature of nationalism changed under different circumstances, the ultimate objective, however, remained the same: “to seek and preserve China’s national independence.”1 

A survey of mainstream literature on Chinese nationalism can be stated as the struggle of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to unify the motherland to ward off the impact of the “century of humiliation”, to protect its national sovereignty, territorial integrity, to accelerate the economic development of the country, to raise the living standard of its people, build a strong nation and play an increasingly active role in the world politics to influence its course of actions on the lines more suited to China’s interests. This would legitimise the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) rule in the country.2 

This paper is an attempt to study the changing role of nationalism in foreign and domestic policies of China. It begins with defining the term nationalism and then takes a look at Chinese nationalism. The paper traces the root of Chinese nationalism and examines how Chinese leaders have successfully capitalised on nationalism in addressing the internal and external challenges facing China.   

Defining Nationalism 

Nationalism is a political creed which is associated with the modern nation-state system.3 The word ‘nation’ is generally referred to a collection of people who feel that they belong together and constitute a community, ideally, in the form of a nation-state. Thus, nationalism can be defined as the “sentiments of love, identification, loyalty, and commitment for the people who constitute one’s national group.”4  According to Peter Marris, nationalism is “the process whereby a group or community that shares – or at least is convinced that it shares – a common history, culture, language and territory is persuaded to assert its own affairs, usually through the creation of an independent state.”5 It becomes clear from these definitions that relationship between a nation and a state is one of symbiosis. In this way, a group of people constituting a nation can best secure its interests, if it has its own state, territory and government. The state would protect them from the external aggressors on the one hand and provide them equal opportunities to succeed in life. 6 The Wikipedia has defined ‘Chinese nationalism’ as cultural, historiographical, and political theories, movements and beliefs that assert the idea of a cohesive, unified Chinese people and culture under a unified country known as China. 7 

Emergence of Nationalism in China 

Most scholars agree that the origin and the development of Chinese nationalism is largely associated with the formation and development of the modern Chinese state.8 According to Suisheng Zhao,  

Before the nineteenth century, when China was still an empire, nationalism did not exist. The Chinese political elite began to embrace modern nationalist doctrine for China’s defence and regeneration only after China’s disastrous defeat by British troops in the 1839-42 Opium War, which led not only to the eventual disintegration of the Chinese empire but also to the loss of national sovereignty to imperialist powers. Since that time, the nationalist quest to blot out the humiliation China suffered at the hands of imperialists has been a recurring theme in Chinese politics. Almost all powerful Chinese leaders, from the early twentieth century through today, have shared a deep bitterness at this humiliation and have been determined to restore China’s pride and prestige, as well as its rightful place in the world. 9  

They realised the potential of nationalistic feelings among the Chinese people and deliberately revived it in the memory of the people. As William A. Callahan noted, “There are textbooks, novels, museums, songs, and parks devoted to commemorating national humiliation in China.” 10 

In one of its earliest forms during the early twentieth century, Chinese nationalism began not pragmatically, but rather as an ethnic state-seeking movement led by the Han majority to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, under which China was ruled by the Manchu minority. This kind of ethnic-based nationalism viewed the nation as a politicised ethnic group and often produced a state-seeking movement to create an ethnic nation-state. This ethnic-based nationalism disappeared after the abolition of Qing dynasty, and the creation of Republic of China in 1911. The subsequent Chinese ruler, Kuomintang (KMT) and the CPC defined China as a multiethnic political community. 11 

From the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 until his death in 1976, Nationalism remained the dominant factor in Mao’s mind while designing domestic and foreign policies of China, since “Mao was a Chinese nationalist first and foremost.”12 Tianbiao Zhu, Chinese scholar, stated that one of the reasons of Mao’s differences with the Soviet leaders was the fact that he never wanted CPC to become puppet of the Communist Party of Soviet Union – this was due to his strong sense of Chinese nationalism. “Mao’s concept of revolution reflected his generation’s emotional commitment to China’s national liberation as well as of its longing for China to take a central position in world politics.”13  It is a less known fact that China’s “leaning to one side” principle was not a natural outcome of ideological similarity between China and the Soviet Union. This was a strategic decision, which was not based on shared ideology, but on the consideration of how to make China economically and politically strong.14  Even China’s decision to enter the Korean War in 1950 was not an ideological commitment, but determined by a national security consideration induced by the rapid advancement of American and South Korean troops into North Korea. 15  

Similarly, China’s distancing from the Soviet Union – a trend, which began in the late 1950s and fostered in the early 1960s – was motivated, among other factors, by Mao’s concern at the increasing Soviet influence on China’s economic model and “unreasonable Soviet demands.”16 The demands included: stationing of Soviet Forces in Dairen and Port Arthur in Manchuria; the establishment of a joint pacific fleet under the Soviet command: and of a powerful longwave radio station for naval communication in China under Soviet Control. Mao had concluded that the Soviet involvement in China’s economic programme was inconsistent with the goal of China’s nationalism. Thus, despite the fact that China needed the continued supply of Soviet economic and technical assistance to boost its national development, China preferred the path of self-sufficiency and reverted to isolationism. The split in Sino-Soviet relations led China to introduce great transformation in its domestic and foreign policy. Subsequently, Mao started emphasising upon “self-reliance” and anti-Soviet policies. His decision for initiating Great Leap Forward (1958-60) 17 and Cultural Revolution (1966-76) were also motivated by this thought. 18  

After already having troubled relations with the US and having a newly emerged hostility with the USSR, developing relations with the Third World countries became a key feature in Chinese foreign policy in the early 1960s. This shift could hardly improve China’s economic sector, but Chinese leaders believed that establishing relations with the Third World countries would serve the goal of promoting and preserving national indepen-dence, improve its image in the international community and its efforts to break its internal isolation. To foster ties with the developing countries, Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, embarked on a state visit of the several newly independent African countries in 1963. China also accelerated its economic assistance to the Third World countries despite the fact that its own economy was quite poor during that period. According to some statistics, by 1980, under this policy, China had given aid to more than 70 countries on five continents, which totalled US$9 billion.19 This aid programme was much beyond China’s capacity.20 However, China received the reciprocal support from the Third World countries. As a result of the powerful campaign by the Third World, China got UN seat in the Security Council in September 1971, which was a great political and diplomatic success for China.21   

China continued the practice of self-sufficiency and isolation policy for about 20 years, with a view to gain economic independence, an important step required to make China a great power, which was the ultimate goal of its nationalistic strategy. However, the country could not get meaningful outcome. The post-Mao leadership, under Deng Xiaoping, abandoned this policy and adopted an entirely new path for China. Under the new leadership in the late 1970s, China introduced drastic reforms both internally and externally.22 These reforms, among other things, called for loyalty to the nation rather than class struggle and socialist egalitarianism that meant loyalty to the CPC. One of the reasons of emphasis on nationalist elements of CPC ideology was the need to suppress popular call for political reforms that had accompanied the departure from socialist egalitarianism. Deng crushed calls for democracy during the “Beijing spring” in 1979 which was a clear message that reforms never equated democracy. 23 

Despite all cautious measures, the reforms and opening up gave rise to liberalism in China. Those who had suffered at the hands of communists under Mao got an opportunity to play a greater role in contemporary China. This school of thought which was named as “liberal nationalists” supported China in its battle against foreign imperialism. However, it did not necessarily support the Communist Party. Instead, it pressed for greater public participation in the political process and challenged the authoritarian rule of the CPC. 24 The CPC was cognizant of the fact that the risk of agitation and mass movements may erupt in the wake of reforms. To avert such trends, it focused on the economic development and raised slogans like “get rich is glorious” (zifu guangrong). Under this policy, people were urged to consume, seize business opportunities, become entrepreneurs, and to compete openly with one another.25 The liberal nationalism burst into massive anti-government demonstrations in Tiananmen Squire in June 1989, which were quelled by the regime with an iron hand.  

Pragmatic Nationalism 

The events of Tiananmen Square and later the collapse of the communism system in the Soviet Union, posed new challenges to the CPC to restore its legitimacy and build broad-based national support. To address these emerging challenges, Chinese leadership gave a new twist to nationalism which emerged as ‘pragmatic nationalism.’ The concept of pragmatic nationalism identified China closely with CPC, rendering the two indistinguishable. The Chinese leadership pressed people for loyalty and love with state making it state-centric. The successive Chinese leaders, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao followed this line. 26  

Responding to the events of June 1989, China stated that “this storm was bound to come sooner or later. This was determined by the major international climate and China’s own minor climate.” 27 The CPC stated that external factor had played much greater role in creating turmoil in China than the internal one. This gave rise to the “leftists” within Communist Party who slashed reforms and open door policies as well as China’s dependence on the world economy. It also evoked the themes of China’s humiliation and reaffirmed self-reliance. Allen S. Whitting, a Chinese Scholar, stated, “For a country to shake off foreign enslavement and become independent and self-reliant is the premise for its development….Although China was a big country before the liberation, it was slavishly dependent on others and could only be bullied by them.”28  

In the wake of the June 1989 events, Chinese leadership took a series of assertive measures to strengthen ‘pragmatic nationalism.’ China launched a “patriotic education campaign” deploying emotive memories of the “hundred years of humiliation” that began with the Opium War. Special emphasis was given to recall the war against Japan and the civil war with the Nationalists (KMT). It also reminded the people that the CPC was the party of national salvation.29 Newspapers run by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in particular started emphasising upon the revival of nationalism. Attributing China’s past defeats to the “lack of vigilance” as well as inferior weapons, Allen Whitting, whose story was published in one such news-paper, stated that “once people lose their sense of country, of national defence, and of nation, total collapse of the spirit will inevitably follow.” He further stated that national identity suffered as the spiritual infiltration of hostile forces produced a slavish conquered people. Therefore, Chinese people should foster the most precious national spirit of the Chinese nation, resurrect the spirit of patriotism, and revive the will to build the nation.30 

The ultimate collapse of communism in the Soviet Union in 1990 also brought a new challenge to the CPC posing a threat to its legitimacy. Many in China, as well as in the world, believed that communism was no longer sufficiently strong to serve as the sole ideological basis for the Chinese Communist rule, or even for holding China together.31 The Chinese leadership required a policy to address this situation. It wanted to send the world a message that the case of China was different from the Soviet Union. At home, it wanted to keep a hold on state affairs and wanted to inject new patriotic sentiments among the Chinese people. Deng Xiaoping responded to this situation and stated that disintegration of the Soviet Union was due to Mikhail Gorbachev’s “betrayal” and emphasised upon Chinese people to adopt patriotic approach to cope with the new situation. He stated, “Under the present international situation all enemy attention will be concentrated on China. They will use every pretext to cause trouble, create difficulties and pressures for us … The next three to five years will be extremely difficult for our Party and our country.”32 The CPC’s policy in the wake of Tiananmen Square and the Soviet collapse succeeded in igniting assertive nationalism among the Chinese people for the support of party. Zhao commented that even though corruption and social as well as economic problems have undermined the CPC’s legitimacy to an extent, many people side with the government when foreigners criticise it, believing that, no matter how corrupt the government is, foreigners have no right to make unwarranted remarks about China and its people. Many Chinese people were upset by US pressure on issues such as human rights, intellectual property rights, trade deficits, weapons proliferation, and Taiwan because they believed that the US had used these issues to demonise China in an effort to prevent it from achieving great-power status.33 

Present Form of Chinese Nationalism 

Presently, Chinese nationalism is divided into two broad forms: state-centred nationalism and popular nationalism. The state-centred nationalism is closely related with CPC. The Western discourse believes that the ruling elite uses it to strengthen its rule in the country. This form of nationalism is centred on the Party as the embodiment and object of patriotic sentiment. This aims at making China strong, enabling it to regain its rightful place in the world. In this official discourse, China’s historical patriotic struggle to make the country strong again is inextricably linked to socialism and the Chinese Communist Party. The Party readily associates itself with most patriots who struggled to free China but their efforts are seen as ineffectual without the guidance of the Party. The official discourse on patriotism also of course places the Party at the centre of economic development. 34  

The popular nationalism, on the other hand, either goes beyond the relatively restrictive boundaries of the official discourse or is more critical of the Party and its actions. The fact that The China That Can Say No, published in 1996, quickly became a bestseller signalled there were growing anti-West sentiments among the Chinese population.35 Furthermore, popular nationalism can be critical of official policy. It certainly calls for more decisive action in defence of China’s interests. There were notable spontaneous popular expressions of nationalism in China. Most notable of these were the attacks on the US and UK Embassies in the aftermath of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. There were further demonstrations after the EP3 incident.36  

The fourth generation leadership of China seems determined to continue and deepen China’s economic reforms, both for practical and pragmatic reasons – recognise poverty of many people, understand the need for economic development. The CPC recognises that elimination of poverty, improved living standards of people through economic development would legitimate Party’s rule. Any deepening of reforms would require greater engagement with the world. This can spark popular outburst along nationalistic lines. Economic reforms bring negative consequences even without the addition of any downturn in China’s economic development. There are clear indications that the CPC would remain at the centre of official accounts of the nation’s achievements and continue to be the focus of patriotic sentiment. The implication of this is that fourth generation leaders will continue to be constrained in the way that they employ nationalist rhetoric. The deepening reliance on economic development to legitimate the Party-state will exacerbate this problem. The fourth generation’s continuing commitment to economic reforms and China growing integration into the world economy may serve to further disintegration between the official state-centred discourse on patriotism and popular nationalist rhetoric which has been highly critical of these policies.37  

In academic discourse on Chinese nationalism, Chinese scholars reject mainstream Western thought that Chinese nationalism is purely an instrument of the Communist Party of China, used to serve its own domestic policy goals. Professor Yu Tiejun, from the School of International Studies at Peking University, stated that “current Chinese nationalism is largely spontaneous, with internet and mobile phones being the main organisational tools. It is outspoken, emotional, radical and often exaggerated and biased, rather than rational. It was devoid of systematic thought, and results from a mass group mentality in society.”38 He further added that China was in the process of democratisation and unlike the charismatic Chinese leadership in the past, China’s foreign policy makers are now more responsive to domestic opinions, especially on those issues related to fundamental foreign policies. “China is changing. Now neither the Party nor the government can ignore the grassroots voices, especially those speaking out against Japan, the main target of modern Chinese nationalism owing to its aggression towards China during the first half of the 20th century.” 39 

Professor Yu believed that it was not in China’s interest to ignite nationalist sentiments against Japan. Chinese leadership had quite a rational stance on that. In April 2005 China’s Foreign Minister, Li Zhaoxing, submitted a report to an audience of more 3500 elites in the Great Hall of the People. The main idea of the report was that it was in China’s national interest to keep Sino-Japanese relations stable and healthy. Li’s report was estimated to reach an audience of 200 million in China through television broadcast.40 Furthermore, as China was becoming more open both economically and politically in the new century, it is a real challenge for the government to keep intense popular nationalism under control and therefore maintain a good balance between economic openness and concern for national independence.41 Furthermore, the history of China’s foreign relations since 1949 suggests that China should not avoid contact with the existing international political and economic system. Rather, it should use the system to protect and strengthen itself, and as it becomes strong, to make the system more equal and fair. 42 


Chinese people share a deep rooted historical sense of injustice and humiliation at the hands of foreign countries, as well as a dream of a strong China. These shared feelings generated, for the first time in Chinese history, a deep sense of nationalism among the Chinese people, which successfully overthrew the centuries-old dynastic rule in 1911 and colonial yoke in 1949. After the establishment of the PRC in 1949, the nationalism continued to play its role in both China’s domestic set up and in its foreign policy. In both cases, first in developing relations with the Soviet Union and drawing huge economic assistance from Moscow, and then distancing from it and reverting to the policy of self-reliance and isolationism, the Chinese nationalism remained predominant in Mao’s thinking. The reverse path of the post-Mao leadership of Deng Xiaoping, which opted for a policy of reforms and “opening up”, was again motivated by the desire of making China a great nation. Likewise, China’s third and fourth generation leaderships have aptly used, and when required, revitalised, nationalism to meet both domestic and external challenges. Above all, CPC used nationalism to consolidate its grip on power by successfully integrating itself with the fate of the state.  

Nationalism would continue to play a consolidating role in China. A statement of one of China’s former senior officials seems aptly sums it up: “If Chinese people felt threatened by external forces, the solidarity among the Chinese would be strengthened, and nationalism would be a useful tool for regime to justify its leadership.”43


*   Mr. Ghulam Ali is a Research Fellow, China Study Centre, at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.

  1. Tianbiao Zhu, “Nationalism and Chinese Foreign Policy”, The China Review, vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 2004) p. 2.

  2. For Example Sea William A. Callahan, “National Insceurities: Humiliation, Salvation, and Chinese Nationalism Alternative vol. 29 (2004): Michel Oksenberg. “China: Confident Nationalism” Foreign Affairs, vol. 65, no. 3, 1986. Scoisheng Zhao, “China’s Pragmatic Nationalism: Is It manageable”, The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2005-6.

  3. David L. Sills (ed.), International Encyclopedia of the SOCIAL SCIENCES, vol. 11 (New York: The Macmillan, 1999), p. 63

  4. Maria Hsia Chang, “Chinese Irredentist nationalism: The Magician’s Last Trick,” comparative strategy vol. 17, no. 83 (1998), pp. 834.

  5. Pewter Marris, “Chinese Nationalism: The state of the Nation,” The China Journal, no. 38 (1997), p. 124 in Zhu, “National and China Foreign Policy.

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Wikipedia (Online),

  8. Tianbiao Zhu, “Nationalism and Chinese Foreign Policy,” The China Review, vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 2001), p. 3.

  9. Suisheng Zhao, “China’s Pragmatic Nationalism: Is it Manageable?” The Washington Quarterly (Winter 2005-06), pp. 132-3.

  10. William A Callahan, “National Insecurities: Humiliation, Salvation, and Chinese Nationalism,” Alternatives, vol. 29 (2004), p. 199.

  11. Zhao, “China’s Pragmatic Nationalism: Is it Manageable?”, p. 133.

  12. Zhu, “Nationalism and Chinese Foreign Policy”.

  13. Zhu, “Nationalism and Chinese Foreign Policy,” p. 6.

  14. Ibid., p. 7.

  15. Sergei N. Goncharov, John W Levis, and Litai Xue, Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 124 in  Zhu, “Nationalism and Chinese Foreign Policy,” p.  7.

  16. Chun-tu Hsuch (ed.), “Introduction” in China’s Foreign Relations, New Perspective, (New York: Praeger, 1982), pp. 2-3 cited in Zhu, “Nationalism and Chinese Foreign Policy,” p. 8.

  17. The Great Leap Forward was an economic and social plan used from 1958 to 1960, which aimed to use China’s vast population to rapidly transform mainland China from a primarily agrarian economy dominated by peasant farmers into a modern, industrialised communist society. Mao Zedong based this programme on the Theory of Productive Forces. wiki/Great_Leap_ Forward

  18. Zhu, “Nationalism and Chinese Foreign Policy,” p. 9.

  19. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), The Aid Progam of China (Paris: OECD, 1978), p. 8. cited in Zhu, “Nationalism and Chinese Foreing Policy,” pp. 10-11.

  20. Tianbiao Zhu, “Nationalism and Chinese Foreign Policy,” The China Review, vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 2001), pp. 10-11.

  21. On October 26, 1971, the General Assembly passed a resolution that admitted the PRC to the UN and also granted it the status of permanent member of the Security Council. The campaign was launched by a vast majority of the Third World countries, see Keesing’s Contemporary Archives: 1971-1972, p. 24941.

  22. Zhu, “Nationalism and Chinese Foreign Policy,” p. 15.

  23. Christopher R. Hughes, “Chinese nationalism in the global era,” http://www.

  24. Zhao, “China’s Pragmatic Nationalism: Is it Manageable?”, p. 133.

  25. Ibid., p. 134.

  26. Ibid. pp. 134-5.

  27. Allen S. Whiting, “Chinese Nationalism and Foreign Policy After Deng,” The China Quarterly, 1995, p. 297.

  28. Ibid.

  29. Hughes, “Chinese nationalism in the global era,” democracychina/nationalism_3456.jsp

  30. Whiting, “Chinese Nationalism and Foreign Policy After Deng,” p. 298.

  31. Zhu, “Nationalism and Chinese Foreign Policy,” p. 2.

  32. Whiting, “Chinese Nationalism and Foreign Policy After Deng,” p. 298.

  33. Zhao, “China’s Pragmatic Nationalism: Is it Manageable?,” p. 136.

  34. Seckington, “Nationalism, Ideology, and china’s Fourth generation leadership.”

  35. Song Qiang, Zhang Zangzang, and Biao Bian, Zhongguo keyi shuo bu (The China That Says No) (Beijign: Zhoungguo gongshang chubanshe, 1996). Tianbiao Zhu p. 22.

  36. Seckington, “Nationalism, Ideology, and China’s Fourth generation leadership.”

  37. Ibid.

  38. “Role of nationalism in Sino-Japan relation”, People’s Daily (online), 16 February 2007.

  39. Ibid.

  40. Ibid. People’s Daily (online), 16 February 2007.

  41. Zhu, “Nationalism and Chinese Foreign Policy,” p. 22.

  42. Ibid., p. 23.

  43. Zhao, “China’s Pragmatic Nationalism: Is it Manageable?,” pp. 134-5.



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