Why Chinese authorities are trying to rein in jingoism

China appears to be softening its nationalist rhetoric following a spate of international investment.

Audrey Jiajia Li
5 March 2019, 3.22pm
Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects the Chinese People's Liberation Army, 2017.

Last November, Reminwang, the official website of the Chinese ruling party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily, triumphantly announced that “the world's first genetically edited babies have been born in China”.

However, the adulation was short-lived. The breakthrough set off a storm of backlash within domestic and international scientific communities for ignoring ethical concerns around the genome editing of embryos. A practice which is currently banned in several countries including the UK.

In response to the condemnation, the People’s Daily website quietly deleted the initial report and ran an editorial, “Scientific Developments Cannot Leave Ethics Behind”. Two months later, the state-owned Xinhua News Agency reported that after an investigation, the scientists who carried out the gene-editing “seriously violated” state regulations and are likely to face criminal charges.

The gene-editing controversy belongs to a long line of hubristic media stories that have been followed by awkward reversals over the last year. With the country currently embroiled in a trade war with the US, authorities are increasingly sensitive to how China is perceived on the international stage.

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One of the most significant row backs to date has been government’s softening of its “Made in China 2025” initiative. Launched with fanfare in 2015, its stated aims were to make China the dominant market force in ten key industries, including semiconductors and robotics.

The policy provoked alarm in the West, particularly in Washington, and was subsequently downplayed by the state-run media. According to Reuters, the state news agency Xinhua referred to the policy more than 140 times in the first half of 2018, but abruptly stopped doing so after June 5. A propaganda directive ordering media to stop using the term was leaked later that month.

Nationalistic rhetoric

Zealous national pride can be easily felt when glancing through the online comment sections under news stories announcing new scientific or technological advances published on Chinese media. The message is extremely clear – after a century of humiliation, China has overtaken the West and will no longer be bullied by it. But it would be unfair to single out the media for responsibility. This hyper-nationalistic, and at times xenophobic and chauvinistic, rhetoric has become widespread over the past few years – perhaps nowhere more so than in the movie industry.

In 2017, a box office record-breaking ($873 million) action mega-blockbuster Warrior Wolf II – in which a Chinese veteran rescues Chinese and African civilians and beats an American villain to death – perfectly managed to combine a narrative of victimisation with masculine heroism. The film received standing ovations in cinemas and was selected as China’s submission in the best foreign-language film category to the 2018 Oscars.

The following year, a film touting the nation’s achievements – in science, technology and poverty alleviation – over the past five years since President Xi Jinping assumed office became the country’s top-grossing documentary of all time. The success of the documentary, translated as “Bravo, My Country”, was in no small part down to a concerted mobilisation effort by state and party-affiliated organisations.

However, only one month later, the Chinese streaming platforms received a letter from the film’s distributor asking them to take the film offline, citing instructions from the state propaganda department. No one knows for sure why the film was killed abruptly, but the timing coincided with a new US sanction against ZTE, a Chinese telecommunications giant.

This hyper-nationalistic, and at times xenophobic and chauvinistic, rhetoric has become widespread over the past few years.

'Make a fortune quietly'

Singing the praises of the party and its leader is nothing new for China’s propaganda apparatus. But with the country becoming increasingly assertive on the global stage, its flag-waving has become a double-edged sword: revealing too much about its intentions and antagonising other countries in the process.

China’s publicity strategy has not always been like this. There have been five generations of leadership since the ruling party won the civil war in the 1940s. In 1950s, Mao Zedong famously belittled the Western powers as “paper tigers” and claimed that the then poverty-stricken China’s industrial production could surpass the UK and US within 15 to 20 years. That didn’t materialise and the Great Leap was followed by great famine and the Cultural Revolution instead – ordinary citizens suffered under isolationism.

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping returned to the center of power as China’s paramount leader. While introducing the reforms, known as the 'Opening of China', that would bring about a decades-long economic boom, the dictum that Mr. Deng repeatedly stressed was that China should “hide its capabilities and bide its time”. This low-profile approach was inherited by his immediate successor, Jiang Zemin, whose well-known philosophy was to “make a fortune quietly”. Hu Jintao, Jiang’s successor, whose tenure included the Beijing Olympic and Shanghai Expo, also assured the world that China would “never seek hegemony or expansionist policy”.

Exporting the 'China Model'

There have been noticeable changes in China’s foreign policy of late, especially with the presidential term limit abolished last year. The confidence in the top leadership has never been so absolute since the passing of Mao. A slogan seen nationwide reads “Chairman Mao made China stand up, Chairman Deng made it rich and, President Xi made it strong.”

Xi has overseen both the Belt and Road Initiative – a multibillion dollar international infrastructure project billed as a'21st century Silk Road’ – and the formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, of which 70 countries including the UK are members. Both are key elements of a strategy that aims to reshape the existing geopolitical and financial world order by exporting the “China Model” – which combines elements of a market economy with authoritarian rule – to the developing world.

With China focusing more of its energies outwards, authorities have become attuned to the risks of whipping up nationalism.

With China focusing more of its energies outwards, authorities have become attuned to the risks of whipping up nationalism, as evidenced by the recent string of publicity U-turns. China’s envoy to the US Li Kexin conceded in December that the “nationalist bubble we’ve created by ourselves” was just as much to blame for the exaggerated threat of the country’s geopolitical strength as the imaginations of foreign watchers. And Hu XiJin, editor-in-chief of the hawkish state-run tabloid Global Times known for its incendiary nationalistic style, admitted in a talk at the organisation’s annual gathering, that over the past few months, the newspaper had “adapted the tone of its editorials” to avoid “leading the Sino-US relations toward a direction of cold war”.

December marked the 40th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s economic opening-up, with China’s GDP now more than 200 times the size it was 1978. Can Mr. Deng’s old wisdom – be modest – be adopted again?

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