On it’s surface, the notion that the country in which you hold citizenship should be well-positioned within the world order is an enormously practical thought. Pride in the shared communal identity held by all who live within a country’s borders fosters a sense of civic responsibility and sacrifice. It creates a cohort with which to celebrate in times of success and grieve in times of loss or hurt. Humans are naturally social creatures, therein it is fitting that national constructs draw us in as identifiers. Yet we see pride in belonging to more than a simple nation; pride often stems from identifying with what we deem to be the components that make our nation great. Be it a governmental system, shared history or systemic constructs, pride in your country is rarely about the scope of it’s borders.
The understanding that nationalism is fuelled by identification with a particular state’s ideology is exploited everyday by those in power. From the Crusades to exploration of the New World to modern American invasions of the Middle East, the pretense of spreading a “better” ideology has often been used by governments to position themselves as heroes on the right side of history. When done successfully, in time, it can form empires that span influence across the globe. Today’s world typically shuns the use of hard power in spreading influence. But one nation is successfully developing an empire through the use of an oft-employed secondary technique.
To be Chinese is to be of Chinese nationality. But with Han Chinese numbering 1.2B in mainland China alone, being identified as Chinese is equal parts ethnicity and nationality. This blend of civic and cultural identity has drastic impacts domestically, with China’s 110M minorities facing extreme prejudice in an extremely homogenous society. But it is the international scope of “being Chinese” that is of greatest importance on the world stage. Ethnically Chinese individuals and groups who have left Chinese soil are seen as part of a larger national group, both by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chinese people.
This began with the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, thus ending the reign of emperors and leading to the founding of the Republic of China in 1912. Unification of the people became of paramount importance to the ruling parties, who sought to bring together those who had diverse beliefs and languages. This was accomplished by highlighting ancestral lineage to inform citizens that all Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group, had a common ancestor 5000 years previous known as Huangdi, or the Yellow Emperor. The idea of “common blood” amongst Han Chinese is still used today – Chinese claims of ownership over certain states is laced with rhetoric of “blood is thicker than borders” and “we must never forget our shared origins as a people.”
China’s efforts stretch past it’s border claims. In the past decade, surrounding nations and allies have had to rebuff rhetoric from Chinese officials who speak directly to ethnically Chinese citizens of other states. In this, there is danger. A claim that belonging to a certain ethnic group should inform individual decision making and support of international affairs beyond levels of base culture identity is a claim with the potential to undermine sovereignty. One such example was the frequent criticism in Chinese media faced by Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American emissary of the United States to Beijing. Repeated attacks from 2011 to 2014 stemmed from the notion that Mr. Locke was “disloyal” simply for doing his job – representing American interests abroad.
China has taken steps beyond speaking directly to ethnic groups. The opening of China’s first ‘Confucian Institute’ in Seoul in 2004 was widely viewed as a tactic serving primarily to soften China’s image abroad. Hundreds of such institutes now span the globe, an example of the spread of Chinese influence. The spread of international arts and cinema over the past decade, championed directly by President Xi Jinping, is another such example. The bastions of Chinese culture and thought find followings in Chinese and Western audiences abroad, eager to receive the influential content. The spread of culture that the CCP has deemed “ideologically pure” serves a dual political purpose to address an imbalance between Western and Chinese culture on the world stage, and globally expand Chinese soft power.
There have been criticisms of China’s ideological spread. Canada and the United States have closed Confucian Institutes within their borders, accusing them of being vehicles for Chinese propaganda and firmly pushing an ideological viewpoint. The experience of the Soviet Union during the Cold War shows that influence must span beyond a simple mix of hard and soft power to find ground. Creating an attractive message for an individual, one that resonates with the potential for a better life, is of importance as well. One could argue Western liberalism holds a dominant cultural place because it stresses the success of the individual, appealing to the more personal desires of people everywhere. After all, we are all human.
Tying nationality to ethnicity has it’s risks – domestic politics becomes difficult if a ruling party associates a national identity with being a member of a particular ethnic group. In this, China’s homogeneity is to it’s benefits. In the West, the pride we feeling from belonging to a nation is typically overshadowed by the anger we feel at those who attempt to undermine or change what we feel makes our state great. A divided nation is one that runs the risk of believing hard power is necessary to heal wounds through victory. The lesson taught to us by our Eastern neighbours throughout history is that other methods exist to being people together. We simply need to find the ones that work for us.