Chinese Nationalism and the ‘New Left’

Following the heated debate on ‘the rise of China’, we are now witnessing a rise of Chinese nationalism. While old Chinese nationalism between 1840-1949 was a legitimate response to foreign aggression and popular aspirations for national independence, today it is entirely different. Au Loong Yu discusses the debates.

The first well known Chinese nationalist in the 1990’s was He Xin, who was allowed to put out anti-Western books in the early nineties, against the background of the post-Tiananmen crackdown and the subsequent sanctions imposed by the West. Strangely, He Xin’s nationalist response to the hostility of the West stimulated little debate. Even after the US stopped and searched the Chinese ship The Milky Way in international waters, little public protest could be heard. When in 1996 the nationalist Wang Xiaodong published China Can Say No, targeting the US as the chief enemy, there was some sensation, but this soon died down.

It was not until May 1999, when the US bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, triggering off massive anti-US protests, that nationalism definitely made a come back. I define this as the New Chinese Nationalism. It is both a response by the ruling elite and important sections of the intelligentsia to internal and external problems, aroused by China’s reintegration with global capitalism, and also by those who advocate modernizing China via strengthening the one-party state. The ultimate purpose of New Chinese Nationalism is the re-building of the past, the great China Empire, hence the propaganda on ‘the rise of China’. [1] It contains nothing progressive.

Zheng Yongnian of the National University of Singapore, argues that the revival of nationalism springs from the new needs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP):

In the post-Mao era, the search for political legitimacy has replaced the foreign threat and has become the primary factor underpinning the revival of Chinese nationalism. In other words, the main sources for nationalism in the post-Mao era are domestic rather than external. [2]

Elsewhere he elaborates what he means by ‘the search for political legitimacy’, ‘Nationalism has been used by the Chinese Communist Party as a response to the decline in Maoist faith, and nationalism is ready to become another vision of the CCP ideology.’ [3]

Zheng’s dichotomy of domestic/external is not entirely satisfactory. Yet his contention that the CCP needs nationalism as a new source of legitimacy is correct. To replace a vision of world communism with China playing a leading role (a vision obsolete by the early 1980s), the project of building a great Chinese Nation and recovering the leading position it enjoyed until 1840 seems more plausible. Moreover, it is in the interest of the one-party state to divert popular discontent, such as the 1989 democratic movement, to external enemies. Hence the CCP began to change course on the issue of nationalism, and in practice encourage its re-awakening.

The CCP’s previous position on nationalism was to condemn it as the ‘bourgeoisie’s viewpoint on nations’. [4] As a matter of fact, there has always been an element of nationalism in its policies on ethnic minorities, public education and cultural programmes - however these are packaged as patriotism. Yet it had never explicitly endorsed nationalism, let alone allowed openly nationalist writings to be published. The policy began to change in the 1980’s, when the CCP gradually opted for a full scale embrace of global capitalism.

The CCP may loosen control over part of the economy, even the financial sector, to private business and foreign capital, but it is not going to loosen control over production and the distribution of information: it does not want to cede power over what and how people think. When nearly all publishing houses, media, and film companies are still in state hands, and have not been affected by the great wave of privatization, what the CCP allows or forbids to appear in public is paramount in the shaping of ‘public opinion’. No book is ever published, no film ever made, without prior approval from the Party. It is here that the state’s position or ‘taste’, becomes crucial. All dissident voices have been severely censored - democratic appeals, labour advocacy, and even mild critiques of environmental policy.

Conversely, the Party allows the production and wide distribution of nationalist works in all areas. For the past ten years we have seen book after book and TV program after program glorifying great Emperors of the past, advocating Chinese chauvinism and anti-Western thinking, or even outright social Darwinism and fascism.

In the 1980s, TV programmes and books were often dominated by a deep sense of national inferiority, fear of being marginalized in global competition, [5] and a yearning for social reform. The mood has radically changed since the middle of 1990s, when the CCP became confident that the West could not resist the temptation of the huge Chinese market, and that Western governments and capitalists were ready to forgive the 1989 crackdown in order to have a share of that market. The fact that China has been able to avoid the miserable fate of the Soviet Union, and in contrast has been experiencing high growth, has further boosted the self-confidence of the CCP.

It is against this background that since the middle of 1990s there has been a change of tone in ‘public opinion’, TV programmes, journals and books. National inferiority has been replaced by a sense of national self assurance and an eagerness to recover the past glory of the Middle Kingdom. The 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy by the US further reminded the CCP and Chinese people that the US is not a reliable partner, and the sense of external threat further fuelled nationalist feeling. It also coincided with a period of intense negotiation with the US over Chinese accession to the WTO, with the US forcing China into more concessions than most developing countries have to make. Furthermore, foreign capital has been buying up Chinese firms, which many regard as a threat to the economic security of China.

Nationalists and the New Left

Zheng’s contention that, ‘the main sources for nationalism in the post-Mao era are domestic rather than external’, is a hotly debated issue between the New Liberals and the New Left. But first we need to define New Liberal and New Left. Chinese liberals and neo-liberals are discussed together because in the Chinese context it is difficult to distinguish between them. Liberals like Yu Jie overflow with enthusiasm for privatization, the WTO, the sacking of State Owned Enterprise workers and the US attack on Iraq, and so forth; they carry little that is progressive. The New Left, according to New Left scholar Dale Wen includes people from, ‘social democrats to Economic Nationalist to Maoist’. [6]

The New Liberals tend to think that the greatest enemy of China is its own obsolete institutions while globalization is the incarnation of the main current of modernization and civilization. Accordingly, the greatest horror for China is to stop halfway towards full integration. So if there is a rise of nationalism it is only the fault of domestic institutions. Zheng’s comment echoes what the New Liberals have been arguing in their debate with the New Left. Meanwhile, the New Left, or at least leading spokepersons of it, tends to argue the opposite. If anything goes wrong in China, the blame should lie with external enemies, namely globalization and imperialism. When prominent New Leftists make charges against the CCP, it is that the CCP is being too soft in dealing with external challengers. [7] In the dichotomy of market/state, foreign/ national, West/East, the Liberals tend to argue in favour of the former, while the New Left tends to favour the latter.

The term New Left may lead non-Chinese readers to think of them in the light of the 1960’s New Left. However there is no ideological link between the two. The Chinese New Left is a term used to distinguish it from the Old Left, or Conservatives, who are diehard Stalinists. The New Left is by contrast very diverse. Their main common ground is a critique of globalization, the market, privatization, and liberal democracy. There is less agreement as to the alternatives to liberal or neo-liberal ideas. A common point may be the emphasis on the role of the one-party state, the value of collectivism, the importance of holding the multi-ethnic Chinese state together, a more autonomous path of economic development, and reference to a Maoist legacy, although not everyone of the New Left shares all of the above.

Major spokespersons of the New Left display strong support for the one-party state going back as early as the post-Tiananmen crackdown, although at the time the term New Left had not yet appeared. While the New Liberals welcomed the collapse of Soviet Union, the New Left regarded it as a disaster, a fate that China must try to avoid at all costs. In fact, their anxiety to keep the multi-ethnic Chinese state - with the Han being the dominant ethnicity – intact, is so great that one may say that it is their primary concern, overriding all other values, be it democracy or equality. Their scepticism toward neo-liberalism and liberal democracy is chiefly driven by their anxiety about ‘stability’, which they see as threatened by market reform, accession to WTO, implementation of parliamentary elections.

All these are undesirable because they may lead to the collapse of the Chinese state. In fact this train of thought echoes the Deng and Jiang administration’s well known statement at that time: Stability overrides everything! This is a reply to any aspiration for the rehabilitation of the 1989 movement, or for democratic elections, or freedom of speech. It is obvious, then, that the first New Lefts are simply allying themselves with the authorities. The first well-known New Lefts to write on this were Wang Shaoguang and Hu Angang. While the liberals believe the state must shrink in order to facilitate a growing market economy, Hu and Wang argue the opposite. In 1993 they published A Study of China State Capacity [8] in which they argue that a strong state is necessary for the market reform.
The Merging of New Left and Nationalists

By the late 1990s the New Left’s appeal began to have a much larger impact, concurrent with a great anxiety across the country in the midst of ‘external’ threats. China’s opening to the world had entered a new period. The fear that China’s national industry would go under in the face of direct competition in the domestic market looked very real. In 2003, foreign firms accounted for 31 percent of all manufacturing output in China, up from 9.5 percent in 1992. The growth of market share for foreign capital at the expense of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), and the immense pressure to restructure the SOEs in order to maintain competitiveness after China’s accession to the WTO, resulted in 40 million SOEs workers being sacked. Transnational corporations and the WTO, agents of globalization, were considered by some as ‘external threats’ to China’s economic security. This has a grain of truth.

It is to the credit of the New Left that they were the first critics of the New Liberals in this new period. Two main scholars, Han Deqiang and Yang Fan, have become the best known spokespersons of the New Left at the turn of the century. They have written extensively against globalization and China’s accession to WTO. In 2000 Han published The Crash – The Global Trap and China’s Realistic Choice. [9] He describes the high hopes on China’s WTO accession and the supposed efficiency of the market as ‘market romanticism’. Contrary to the neo-liberals’ claim, China’s accession to the WTO under the current terms would only jeopardize infant national industry. He noted that:

The effect of globalization is the rapid seizure of the high value-added branches of the Chinese economy by foreign capital and imported goods. Some of them have now been totally dominated by foreign capital. SOEs and other (domestic firms) have found their profit sources are drying up, losses are reported, bad debts are rising, firms are on the verge of bankruptcy, and real unemployment rises steeply. All of these seriously threaten the betterment of people’s livelihood and social stability. [10]

In place of ‘market romanticism’ Han counterposes ‘market realism’, which sees protectionism, rather than free trade, as necessary for developing countries. He does not oppose China’s accession to the WTO in principle, but merely criticizes the terms agreed by China. He argues for a better deal for China’, to protect China’s market and at the same time enable China to acquire a bigger share of the world market. The question is: how to achieve this? His answer is market realism:

Market realism demands that we take the state to be the embodiment of our highest interest, and to have a sober understanding of the market as a battlefield of competition. Under the guidance of market realism, all our infant industry will be combined and formed into a single unit under the auspices of the state, and then join competition in the world market, fight a prolonged war of the weak against the strong, and eventually achieve the genuine rise of China. [11]

He also argues, ‘When we ultimately win this economic war, China will not only develop fully within the WTO regime, but it will even become possible to dominate it.’ [12]

Han’s critique of globalization and WTO does not really oppose corporate-led globalization as such, but advocates a Chinese version of it, one which may have a stronger element of protectionism. This is just a second route for China’s integration with global capitalism in contrast to the first route dictated by the US and EU. In place of the Americanisation of the world, Han wants Sinolization.

Zheng thought that, ‘New Liberals represent the interest of the newly rising rich class, while the New Left represents the interest of workers and farmers’. [13] Zheng’s view on the liberals is correct, but he is fundamentally wrong on the New Left, as far as its major spokespersons are concerned. Han Deqiang frankly admitted in an NGO’s workshop held during the 6th Ministerial Meeting of the WTO that:

The New Left does not have a workers’ and farmers’ position. Our main concern is how to avoid catastrophe. We hope to have adjustment (of government policy). We have widespread support among the middle and higher rank (of government officials). In the eyes of workers and farmers, we may be considered as running dogs of the capitalists. We do not want instability. We are reformists. [14]

Later Han wrote an article explaining further:

The new leadership of the Central government has already noticed the problem (of the widening gap of rich and poor, unemployment, etc). That is why they advocate sustainable development, harmonious society, autonomous innovation, etc. Their ideas are to a certain degree influenced by the New Left. As to the question of ‘should we not do something for workers?’ my reply is that I am more concerned about social crises and the outbreak of catastrophe. My position may be regarded by workers and farmers as, ‘running dog of capitalists’. What I propose is to replace one off exploitation with sustainable exploitation. [15]

Of course we must take into account that Chinese participants in this debate may not be able to speak freely under censorship. However, the truth is that there are some New Lefts, sincere Maoists or broad leftists who have not succumbed to nationalism. Wang Hui, another prominent scholar of the New Left, exhibits little nationalism in his critique of globalization; his emphasis on the active role of the workers’ movement in social changes is rare among the New Left. Kuang Xinnian, who is considered a Maoist, in many respects remains faithful to the CCP’s original critical position on nationalism and even to a certain extent supercedes it:

Nationalism is a kind of bourgeois ideology. Essentially it is a kind of thinking used to suppress the class consciousness of the proletariat and socialist ideology. One of the important causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union is the limitation of ‘socialism in one country’, which resulted in ideological degeneration from a socialist vision to that of nationalism, and ultimately metamorphosis into ‘social-imperialism’. …If China simply endorses nationalism as an alternative ideology, it will not be able to solve domestic class antagonism and also the conflict between nation states: on the contrary it only serves to reinforce these conflicts. This would be a tragedy not only for China, but also for the world. [16]

Unfortunately these voices are not only marginalized, but also the New Left avoids direct debate with the Nationalists. It is by no means accidental, because these critical New Leftists are too heterogonous to make an effective response to the Nationalists.

Another World is Necessary

To conclude, there are good reasons to expect an ever stronger response to neoliberalism and corporate-led globalization in the years to come in China. About this we are optimistic. However, the one-party state, with the help of nationalists like Han, has to a great degree shaped the response into a nationalist and statist direction. If a movement from below is steered in that direction, it will add fuel to Chinese nationalism. Of course the Left does not have to just sit and wait to see what happens next. The urgent task is to make a thorough critique of the statist and nationalist tradition - deeply rooted in China - and the one party regime. Our vision for a just society cannot incorporate any nationalist or statist elements, or any accommodation to the one-party state.

If another world is necessary then it must put individual rights, pluralism in party politics, political and economic democracy, and last, but not least, internationalism, as its very core. This implies a transcendence of the narrow discourses of both the New Liberals and the Nationalist Left.

-Au Loong Yu is a anti-globalisation activist from Hong Kong.


[1] On this subject please refer to the author’s Post MFA era and the rise of China at the website of Globalization Monitor:
[2] Zheng Yongnian, (2004) Globalization and State Transformation in China, Cambridge University Press, p.51.
[3] Yongnian, (2004) p 41.
[4] Ci Hai (Dictionary), Shanghai Dictionary Press, 1980, p1805.
[5] There was then a common and deep anxiety across social classes on the danger of China losing qiu-ji, or global citizenship, because of the slowness of reform.
[6] China copes with globalization --- a mixed review, published by International Forum On Globalization, p.39.
[7] There are of course New Leftists who are less pro-government, but very often they are less well known. A major exception is Wang Hui.
[8] Wang Shaoguang & Hu Angang (1993) Zhongguo guojia nengli baogao, Liaoning People’s publisher.
[9] Han Deqiang (2000) Pengzhuang, Economic Management Press.
[10] Deqiang (2000) p5-6.
[11] Deqiang (2000) p160.
[12] Deqiang (2000) p 8.
[13] Zheng (2004) Globalization and State Transformation in China, Cambridge University Press, p 186.
[14] Shi gongnong de wuhui, haishi xinzuopai de wuhui? (Who have misunderstood things? The working people or the New Left?), a report on the workshop on China organized by Focus of the Global South, International Forum on Globalization, Globalization Monitor. See
[15] Han Deqiang, Zai Tuopai yanzhong shui bushi zibenjia de zougou --- huida yixie pengyou de yiwen, (In the eyes of the Trotskyists, who are not running dogs of capitalists?).
[16] Kuang Xinnian, minzuzhuyi yu zhongguo (Nationalism and China).