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Understanding Chinese nationalism through Chinese politics: competing claims and state-society dynamics

Ren, Justine Zheng (2015) Understanding Chinese nationalism through Chinese politics: competing claims and state-society dynamics. PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

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This thesis explores how different understandings, interpretations, and claims of diverse social actors from a growingly liberalizing society interact with China’s authoritarian state and various agents in the market in shaping contemporary Chinese nationalism. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that sees the force and impact of nationalism primarily through its homogenizing effect on the people, this thesis argues instead that the success of nationalism, as a mobilizing force, depends on the existence of differences that various social actors inject into the discourse of state nationalism. Therefore, the key to understanding contemporary Chinese nationalism is to study the meanings and causes of such differences, which are wrapped up in the discourse of nationalism and reflect new dynamics of Chinese politics. This phenomenon, as observed in China, represents a typical case in societies where the willingness and capabilities of people have increased in lodging nationalist claims towards other peoples. By explaining how and why nationalism has become a useful mobilizing force in China, where people do not take for granted what is propagandized by the government, this thesis also tries to make a theoretical push in the literature of nations and nationalism. It investigates the dialectical relations between tensions and disparities embedded in nationalism, on the one hand, and the homogenizing effect of nationalism at the national and symbolic levels, on the other hand. In so doing, it sheds new light on one of the most inviting puzzles in the field of nations and nationalism – why nationalism (like all ideologies) can incite widespread passion and appeal on the ground. Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 examine the phenomenon of contemporary Chinese nationalism, the conventional wisdom under which it has been studied, theoretical assumptions and their major critiques, and the theoretical propositions to be advanced in this thesis. Chapter 1 explores the puzzle of why nationalism can incite popular passion and appeal in the general field of nations and nationalism. In particular, it asks where the mobilizing power of nationalism comes from - whether it lies in the capacity to regularize diversity and construct homogeneity among the population, or it is in the other way around. Thus this chapter demonstrates what the study of contemporary Chinese nationalism can borrow from and lend to the field. Chapter 1 lays out major propositions of the thesis, introduces the research methods employed, and offers an overview of the rest chapters. Chapter 2 has two parts. The first part reviews and challenges three basic assumptions in the study of contemporary Chinese nationalism, which have to be reconsidered for the field to advance. The first assumption sees the rise of Chinese nationalism as a post- 1989 phenomenon. The second assumes state-centrism, lacking systematic investigation of the dynamics between state and society in reproducing nationalism. The third takes it for granted that Chinese nationalism must be a subversive force for international security, either because it is manipulated by the Chinese government or because it is incited by populists from below. The second part offers an introduction to the changing relationship between state and society in contemporary China, deciphering the sociopolitical context in which the following empirical chapters are developed. For the purpose of understanding the rise of diverse social actors, and their understandings, interpretations and claims of Chinese nationalism, this part disaggregates Chinese society so that relevant processes of social differentiation and contention during the reform period can be analytically presented. For the purpose of understanding the mechanisms through which these social actors are able to make their nationalist claims under the banner of Chinese nationalism sponsored by the state, it also disaggregates the (party-) state so that the relationships between its component parts and with society, and the relations between the central and local authorities in contemporary China are clarified. Except for the introductory and conclusion chapters, this thesis is composed of four empirical chapters. Chapter 3 deals with different understandings, interpretations, and claims of Chinese nationalism through the problem of victimhood in Sino-Japanese relations. It shows how competing claims for suffering in the 2nd Sino-Japanese War have been expressed, transformed and nationalized, which grows from the bottom of society and incites anti-Japanese nationalism at the national level. Chapter 4 studies visual representation of disparities and tensions between subpopulations and the party-state in making claims and interpretations of Chinese nationalism, through the changing images of anti-Japanese resistance in films, television series and Internet programs. It finds that joint endeavors and differing motivations of local governments, profit-seeking producers, artists and intellectuals, and minority groups have transformed popular images of anti-Japanese resistance in the Maoist years to new stylized images in the time of mass entertainment. Chapter 5 looks at the Baodiao (Protecting the Diaoyu Islands) Movement and its evolution in three political contexts (Taiwan, Hong Kong and China). It shows that, in all of the three contexts, Baodiao is a spontaneous social movement unfolding in the contestation between the regime and competing claimants for nationalism. Yet it is under the most authoritarian and unstable regime that civilian contestation embedded in Baodiao, as advocated by the middle class and professionals, has been stifled, and the movement has fallen prey of street violence. Chapter 6 focuses on one special group of the Chinese elites – the outspoken military officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It shows how their views in the mass media, which encourage anti-American nationalism, reflect more of their own personal viewpoints and sectoral interests than the Party’s line. Taken together, Chapters 3, 5 and 6 shed light on the general argument of the thesis by providing case studies of different social strata in contemporary China. Chapter 7 is the conclusion chapter. This chapter offers a summary and five policy caveats for international security and diplomacy, which are derived from the study of this thesis. It suggests that the evolution of socio-political conditions and state-society dynamics, rather than the substances and contents of state nationalism or popular nationalism, that will determine what kind of impact nationalism is likely to have on China’s domestic politics and international behavior. Therefore we should be careful not to draw too much, either pessimistically or optimistically, from the rise of contemporary Chinese nationalism.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2015 Justine Zheng Ren
Library of Congress subject classification: J Political Science > JQ Political institutions Asia
Sets: Departments > Government
Supervisor: Sidel, John T.

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