Categorized | Asia, China, Europe, World

Reflections on Ethnic Nationalism in China and the West

Image by Meaduva

I moved to London when I was 16, having spent my entire childhood living in Beijing. My parents met there studying Chinese and my father later got a job with the Spanish embassy. When I arrived in the UK in 2014 British national culture seemed like a breath of fresh air compared to the parochial nature of Chinese nationalism. If you watched British shows, complained about the weather, and endured the horrors of rush hour, then you felt like you were just as British as the rest. But what I’ve seen in the five years since then makes me think that national identity is becoming less inclusive; it’s become more about how long your ancestors have been in a particular country and less about whether you ascribe to its values and culture.

As an island this nation has always had a sense of solitary pride – “Britain stands alone”. However, this mentality of Britain versus the rest of the world has been amplified and given new life in the last few years. The United Nations’ committee on the elimination of racial discrimination argued that “British politicians helped fuel a steep rise in racist hate crimes during and after the EU referendum”. It certainly seemed like we had entered a new era of narrow-minded nationalism in 2016 when Theresa May uttered that phrase: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.

I saw first-hand in Beijing how easy it was to use parochial nationalism to separate different groups. The majority of foreign expats living in Beijing resided in gated suburban communities – fenced off from the impoverished hutongs (narrow residential neighbourhood) a five-minute-drive away. But these fences weren’t just there to keep poverty away from wealthy expats, but to keep foreigners from mixing with locals. The Great Wall was built to keep out the Mongols, but a few smaller ones have been built to separate different groups in China. In order to get a Chinese passport you must have a close relative who is a Chinese national – regardless of how long you have lived and worked in the country, and you must also renounce any other nationality. In the eyes of the government someone is either 100% Chinese or not at all.

This attitude towards ethnicity and migration can be found throughout history. For example, in the USA at the height of the Americanisation Movement of the early twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt commented that “A man has got to be American and nothing else.” Roosevelt was not denying that naturalised citizens could be good Americans, but that there was no place for dual nationality. The same can be said of contemporary Sino-identity. This makes it almost impossible for expats to assume any sense of meaningful Chinese citizenship. The blanket ban on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in China has been called ‘The Great Firewall’ and is another example of the measures taken to protect a carefully curated version of Chinese nationhood, while shutting out foreign influence.

We can see the increasing salience of a xenophobic definition of nationhood not just in China and Britain, but across Europe and the rest of the world. Earlier in July, Donald Trump tweeted that four US Congresswomen should “go back” to their countries – three of whom were born in the United States and the other is a naturalised citizen. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, endorsed Trump’s border wall, commenting that “the vast majority of potential immigrants do not have good intentions.” Far-right, anti-immigration parties across Europe, such as Spain’s Vox and the Sweden Democrats, have made gains in the last few years in national and European elections by tapping into a powerful current of populism.

These far-right parties articulate nationalism as a simplistic and singular identity, leaving little space for mass migration, multiculturalism and dual citizenship. I know from my own experiences that identity is much more complicated. When I lived in Beijing I never felt particularly Chinese, but if you told me to “go home” I would have responded that I was already there. I felt Chinese in so much as I loved Chinese food, enjoyed learning about the country’s history and felt comfortable around the people, but I felt more European in other aspects. As confusing as my national identity may have been, I knew many diplomatic and business families who travelled to new countries every two or three years. It didn’t occur to them that they should “go home” because they took their home with them.

The populist far-right, particularly in Europe and the US, has achieved success by basing their message on the exclusion of a group that does not fit with their definition of nationalism. Political scientists define different types of nationalism in various ways, but generally ethnic and religious based nationalism is described by academics, such as Roshwald, as intolerant and conducive to conflict. Far-right parties in Sweden, Spain and France have made gains by excluding immigrants and the Islamic community from their definition of national identity. They exploit the insecurities of voters by excluding a portion of society that they claim to be a threat to stability and order. Similarly, China has implemented this exclusionary strategy with the goal of strengthening civic culture but taken it to extreme lengths with its detainment of over 1 million Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province. President Xi Jinping’s comments warning Chinese Muslims to resist “illegal religious infiltration activities” and “carry forward the patriotic tradition” – reflect the historic distrust between the majority Han population and the ethnic minorities in China.

There are visible parallels between China’s ethnic nationalism and the increasingly divisive, exclusionary rhetoric of far-right populism across Europe and the USA. Parties like France’s National Front, the Danish People’s Party and Italy’s Lega Nord have based their appeal on anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric. Furthermore, although the scale is very different, there are also startling similarities between China’s separation of Uighur children from their parents and the Trump administration’s family separation policy implemented in 2018 across the US-Mexico border. The policies of the Chinese government should be a warning to the rest of the world of how ethnic nationalism can lead to violence and systematic oppression. At a time when Europe and the US should be condemning the authoritarian ethnocentrism of the Chinese it seems as though, in some respects, they are moving closer to it.

Image Courtesy of Meaduva.  [CC BY-ND 4.0]










About Alejandro Castillo

Alejandro Castillo earned his BA History degree from UCL, specialising in modern history. He intends to undertake a Master's degree in International Relations and is particularly interested in China and Latin American politics

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