Tag Archives: nationalism

China Takes Soft-Power Gold At Beijing Winter Olympics

THE 2022 BEIJING Winter Olympic Games have concluded. From the Party’s point of view, it will be seen as a winner.

The giant ‘closed loop’ that kept Games in a bubble successfully contained the Covid virus and will be taken as a vindication of the zero-tolerance policy. The US-led diplomatic boycott of the Games by a handful of countries turned out to be an irrelevance. No international corporate sponsor broke ranks. Nor did any athlete speak out, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was compliant with the Alice Through The Looking Glass notion that international sport is not politicised. Human rights fizzled out as an issue.

China improved its medal count to 15 from nine at the previous games, and, more lustrously, nine were gold versus one last lime. Nine golds were also one more than the United States achieved, even if the US team won 10 more medals overall.

National pride was stoked. The games had an audience of 600 million on state TV and were enthusiastically received. US-born Snow Princess Gu Ailing, who won two golds and a silver, became a national icon and the happy face of the Games, seemingly seen everywhere on state TV, advertising billboards and magazine covers. Her mother, Gu Yan, has become a parenting role model on Weibo. Move over, Tiger Mom.

The sad face of the games was that of the Russian skater Kamila Valieva, caught up in a doping scandal that deflected the spotlight of adversity from China as the Games headed for their conclusion. At least internationally; state media did not give Valieva’s case much prominence.

The tough-love treatment of the 15-year old by her coach after failing in one of her events to win an expected gold medal also confirmed these as the Joyless Games in the eyes of many outside China.

The athletes, too, found the strict isolation of life in the Games’ bubble with its relentless Covid testing regime stressful, those put into quarantine after testing positive especially so. This was even less reported by state media than Valieva, which instead shared on social media only positive comments by athletes such as praise for the friendliness of the Games’ volunteers.

None of those complaints will much concern Beijing, for whom these Games were an exercise in soft power projection — as are all Olympics for their hosts, it should be said. As this Bystander noted previously, whereas the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing celebrated China’s coming out in the world, these Winter Games were about reinforcing that this is Xi’s moment.

Domestically, it will have reaffirmed the Party’s leadership competence, especially the centrality of President Xi Jinping, and presented a glowing picture of China’s presence on a world stage on China’s terms. The success of these Games is an important milestone for Xi on the road to the Party Congress later this year.

Internationally, the Beijing Winter Olympics will have sent the same message as to the domestic audience. However, it will be read differently; China is a rising power that will pursue its path regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.

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Gu Ailing Nibbles At National Identity

Gold medalist Gu Ailing seen during the medal ceremony for the women's freeski big air at the Beijing Winter Olympics on Feb. 8, 2022. Photo credit: Xinhua/Ju Huanzong

THE BEIJING WINTER OLYMPICS is throwing a sideways spotlight on national identity. It is focused on Gu Ailing (above), the 18-year old Calfornia-born skier who has won a gold medal competing for China.

The issues it raises are complex. They concern the binariness of national identity, the intertwining of ethnicity and nationality as a basis for state, and state use of sport and athletes to project national power.

Gu was born, raised and still lives in the United States, where she goes by the given name Eileen. Her father is American; her mother is Chinese. Gu Yan came to the United States as a post-graduate biochemistry student and subsequently pursued a career there in finance. Her daughter switched her sporting affiliation from the United States to the country of her mother’s birth, at 15 years old by when she was already a rising star in US skiing.

Gu Ailing is far from unique among athletes in choosing to represent a country other than that of their birth. Elite sport finds it convenient to take a multigenerational view of nationality; eligibility can be derived from grandparents. Many of the Senegalese football team that recently won the Africa Cup of Nations, for example, were born in France, not Senegal, although they have family roots there.

Our man on the slopes tells us that Gu is among around a dozen foreign-born Chinese Winter Olympics team members, including US-born figure skaters (Beverly) Zhu Yi and (Ashley) Lin Shan, and at least five US-born ice hockey team members.

Gu’s nationality has been a matter of some speculation. As the daughter of a Chinese mother born in China, Gu would be a Chinese citizen regardless of where she was born. That she was born in San Francisco would also make her a US citizen.

The International Olympic Committee requires athletes to be nationals of the countries they represent and has said that Gu ‘acquired Chinese nationality in 2019’, and submitted a copy of her passport to it that year in connection with her change of affiliation.

The United States recognises dual nationality. China, however, does not, although not recognising it and turning a blind eye to it if needs be, are different matters.

Gu has been evasive about whether she has renounced her US citizenship. Instead, she portrays herself as a bi-national. She has repeated the line that ‘when I’m in the US, I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese’ that she used at the 2020 Youth Winter Olympics in Lausanne, her first major competition in her new national colours.

That sentiment may strike a chord among many other biracial children and the sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants who find themselves shuttling between two heritages. However, most of those people will not be high-profile individuals. Gu is a model and a paid ‘face’ for several international brands, as well as an Olympian who chose to switch her affiliation to a nation the land of her birth considers a geopolitical rival.

There are plenty of reasons for Gu to have opted to represent China. There is strong cultural affinity: she was raised by the maternal side of her family (her grandmother was an engineer with the Ministry of Transport), speaks accentless Mandarin and spent time in China every year as a child. There may be commercial considerations: she also has multi-million dollar brand endorsements in China, where she is lauded as the country’s ‘Snow Princess’; at 18, she may be laying a long-term geopolitical and macroeconomic bet on the future.

One reason that can be ruled out is that it gave her an easier shot at getting to the Beijing Games. She is world-class in her sport, as her gold medal testifies, and would walk into any country’s Winter Olympics team.

She has said that her motivation is that she has a greater opportunity to be a role model to young skiers in China, where winter sports are just taking off, than in the United States. Winter sports are popular recreationally there, but professionally, they only really get their place in the sun once every four years when the Winter Olympics come round.

Gu is accomplished, self-assured and a person who wants to leave her mark on the world. Yet, going from US athlete to Chinese athlete is a path less skied, especially when US-China relations are cutting up rough. Gu has been vilified on US social media for her choice, although that can be a dark place at the best of times everywhere. Zhu Yi was vilified on Weibo for her error-ridden performances.

There is also no escaping that sport and politics are bedfellows whether the athletes like it or not or whether they choose to use their sporting celebrity as a political platform. Just as the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing were used by authorities to promote China’s arrival in the world, these Games are being used to promote the idea that this is the moment for President Xi Jinping and his vision of the new China revitalised.

Gu has been impressive in appearing to remain apolitical during the Games. Her deft deflections of questions about her citizenship were matched by that of a question about the presence of tennis star Peng Shuai — that she’s ‘grateful that [Peng] is happy and healthy and out here doing her thing again’.

While not an overtly political comment that would have opened her to criticism in one or other of her homelands, her answer was no less political than her decision to give her first post-gold medal-winning interview to the newspaper of the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection, the top anti-corruption agency.

The question is how sustainable will her stance be, especially once she is back in the United States. There is no indication that Gu will move her domicile to China. In the autumn, she will attend Stanford University, one of her mother’s almae matres (Gu Yan is also a graduate of Peking University).

Outside the Olympic bubble, it is a different world. It is also an increasingly nationalist one in which US attitudes towards China are hardening and vice versa. She will, for example, be pressed in the United States to explain why she endorses the sports apparel brand Anta, which is open in its use of cotton from Xinjiang, a region from which the United States now bans imports, citing human rights abuses.

Whether she likes it or not and no matter how much she dissembles about it, her sporting success for China has made her a prominent Chinese public figure.

Given the current reduction of personal contacts between China and the West at all levels, anyone who can bridge the two should be welcomed. After winning her gold medal, Gu said, ‘I definitely feel as though I’m just as American as I am Chinese … Both [countries] continue to be supportive of me because they understand my mission is to use sport as a force for unity.’

This Bystander hopes that she is not being Pollyannaish, especially given China’s ‘whole of society’ approach to countering foreign adversaries. The narrative of China as a force for global unity and the non-politicisation of sport is one that Beijing is currently advancing. State media has reported Gu’s comments about being Chinese in China but American in the United States yet still identifying her as ‘of China’.

However, China also strongly advances the primacy of the Chinese model of everything from governance to sovereignty and the rules of the international order.

Should the political imperative for the narrative that Gu currently embodies change, that nuanced distinction will be less useful to a country in which ethnic, national, state and Party identity are closely intertwined, and nationalism is rising. Divided loyalty might then become untenable and equal identity along with it for as long as there are nation states.

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Unsporting Behaviour

THE OLYMPIC GAMES and nationalism are old if not particularly attractive bedfellows.

This is not just a case of elites and masses basking in the reflected glory of exceptional individual athletic achievement by a fellow citizen.

For small nations, it offers what can be a rare opportunity to wave a flag on the international stage. For larger countries, it becomes a projection of national prowess. The United States now battles China to top the gold medals count as fiercely as it once did the old Soviet Union.

Nor is it just the Olympics that prompt these outbursts of national pride and the risk that they will spill over into something darker, especially if domestic media have unrealistically built up popular expectations in advance. Football tournaments can be just as chauvinistic.

Yet there is something about the Olympics that brings out peak jingoism everywhere. It is not for nothing that winning athletes symbolically wrap themselves in the flag.

Thus this Bystander’s eye has been caught by reports of extreme reactions on social media to some of the performances by Chinese athletes at the Tokyo games. Online nationalists have vilified failure to win anything less than a gold medal as failing the nation and unpatriotic.

The online abuse was particularly evident after Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin lost the gold medal match of the mixed doubles in table tennis to Japan’s Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani and after Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen lost to the Taiwanese pair, Lee Yang and Wang Chi-Lin, in the final of the badminton men’s doubles.

Losing to Japanese or Taiwanese opponents hits a particular nerve. Yet, Yang Qian, who won gold in the women’s 10-metre air rifle event, was criticised for a Weibo post last year showing her Nike shoe collection. She was slammed online for not supporting the consumer boycott of the US sports apparel maker over its stance on the alleged use of forced labour in Xinjiang’s cotton production.

Meanwhile, teammate Wang Luyao suffered the ire of some netizens for not qualifying for the final of the event.

Overall, the spitefulness got so bad that Weibo suspended the accounts of 33 users, and censors deleted some of the most hyper-nationalist posts.

Such behaviour online is far from unique to China, and bigoted trolls outshout more moderate voices everywhere. However, the reports suggest a relentlessness to the attacks driven the prevalence online of young Chinese who have grown up to the drumbeat of a substantial increase in nationalist sentiment.

As the country’s global influence has grown, the official narrative has emphasised both pride in China and its success and portrayed any international criticism as ‘bullying’ to be resisted. Dengist notions of hiding one’s strength and biding one’s time just seem redundant to that generation.

Swapping its wannabe wolf warrior cap for its consumer hat, this cohort is also more likely to favour domestic brands over foreign ones when shopping. That may also be a development cycle effect as consumers in emerging economies tend first to favour exclusive foreign brands before reaching a point of economic development at which they turn to domestic brands as a reaffirmation of their own advances.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any country expressing its national identity and patriotism, promoting its national interests and culture, or searching for prestige and international admiration. Yet, even with the ebbing tide of globalisation, that need not turn into heightened tensions with other nations, or worse, the militarism to which Western commentators often quickly make an unspoken connection.

That that dotted line ends up pointing to a threat of the state in China’s case but libertarian militias in the United States is a separate conundrum.

Nonetheless, Beijing has frequently used nationalist sentiment for political ends in international disputes, especially with regional neighbours. It has been adept at dialling it up or down as deemed necessary. However, the risk is always that it will spin out of control.

Nationalism under populist, not Party control, would concern the leadership. The most outspoken online trolls will be tempered.

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China And The United States: Reverse Merger

US President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping walk in the grounds of Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, April 2017.

SINCE AT LEAST World War 2, the lodestar of US foreign policy has been to steer authoritarian regimes towards norms of free-market democracy on the American model through engagement backed by the United States’ economic and military supremacy.

On basic empirical measures, the policy has been successful. In 1946, there were 21 democracies; today there are more than 80. The number of people living in democracies has risen to more than 4 billion from 385 million over that time, and the biggest authoritarian empire of the second half of the 20th century, the Soviet Union, has collapsed.

US President Donald Trump has thrown out that notion. He has declared that engagement with authoritarian regimes, including China, and perhaps particularly China, to bring them into convergence with the international system does not work for the United States, but diminishes it.

He has thus reverted to the late 19th century-early 20th-century view of international relations as a contest between great-power nation-states in the pursuit of national interests, with hard power being the final arbiter. This is what students of international relations call realism. They contrast its competitive and conflictual nature to the cooperation and shared values emphasised by liberalism.

The America First agenda on which Trump campaigned for office was a clear exposition of realism. The Trump presidency has now enshrined that as policy. Three newly published documents, the National Security Strategy (NSS), the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the US Trade Representatives annual report on China’s WTO compliance, lay out that sea-change in America’s stance in the world.

As far a China goes, it is now declared a revisionist power and a geostrategic rival along with Russia, Iran and North Korea.

It has been a policy switch in the making since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The United States then started to act unilaterally to overthrow regimes perceived to be hostile through military intervention or the encouragement of local uprisings in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

That was followed by the challenge that the global financial crisis of 2008 posed to both the Western model of free-market capitalism and the underlying assumption that the US was the nonpareil of economic strength.

The decade since 2008 has opened space for China to demonstrate that it has an alternative economic model — and one that is appealing to many regimes in as much as it came without the accompanying baggage of political liberalism. In place of untrammelled free trade, free capital flows and large-scale cross-border migration, China offered a model that uses markets to allocate some resources but in which the state continues to run the economy (and in China’s case the Party also runs the state).

The United States’s new NSS suggests this model of state-run capitalism has cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars a year of commercial technology conveyed to China as a result of either the openness of the economic relationship on the US side or, as the Trump administration prefers to emphasise, through plain theft.

Trump has declared that that will stop. He repeated his intention in his first State of the Union address last month and has already made it evident by tariffs imposed on solar panels and refrigerators and stricter screening of inbound foreign investment on security grounds. (China has already countered with an investigation into alleged US subsidies of sorghum grain.)

Trump has said he has held off on more punitive trade actions against China only because he needs its help on pressing North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un to halt his nuclearisation programme.

This year is likely to test Trump’s patience in this regard, especially as this is a Congressional election year in the United States. The political support base that Trump needs to mobilise in the Republican cause, and particularly deindustrialised blue-collar workers, believe China to be the cause of everything ill that has befallen them. He will need to rile them up to vote.

The critical question about the trade measures that Trump takes against China — and it seems a matter of when not if — is their scope; whether they are narrow and targeted, say, anti-dumping duties on specific products such as types of steel and aluminum, as recommended by the US Commerce Department last week, or broad and sweeping, such as high duties on virtually anything shipped from China and a blanket ban on inward Chinese investment to the US.

If it is the former, the damage to the global economy (and US multinationals’ supply chains) would be containable; if it is the latter, the damage could be considerable.

The latter might satisfy Trump’s appetite for ’fair trade’ but at a massive cost to both the US and global economies.

As national security is the other pillar of Trump foreign policy, the proposed build up the US military and the expansion of the US nuclear weapon arsenal is also aimed at China. It has elicited the expected denunciation by Beijing, which accused Washington of reverting to a ‘Cold War mentality’.

It would be a mistake to regard the shift in US policy towards China as being particular to Trump. The latest issue of Foreign Affairs, the house journal of the blue-chip US foreign affairs think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, carries an article entitled the The China Reckoning. The authors, Kurt Campbell, a former senior Obama-era official the State Department, and Ely Ratner, a former deputy National Security Advisor to the same administration, and who thus would both have been involved in President Barack Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’, write:

Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted. Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness. Neither U.S. military power nor regional balancing has stopped Beijing from seeking to displace core components of the U.S.-led system. And the liberal international order has failed to lure or bind China as powerfully as expected. China has instead pursued its own course, belying a range of American expectations in the process.

This shift of position is also endorsed increasingly by US business, which has hitherto has been a strong advocate of engagement to open China’s vast and growing market to foreign trade and investment.

One of the intangible dangers in the new policy is the possibilities of missteps and missignalling resulting from a weakening of working relationships between officials at all levels. Many agency-to-agency channels built up over the past decades are on hiatus, and relatively few US officials are visiting China (or anywhere else). Of the high-level government-to-government economic dialogues only the military-to-military one appears still to be open, mostly on account of the need for channels on North Korea.

More broadly, the new policy will also likely reverse the long-standing practice by the United States of making unlimited provision of visas to Chinese journalists, researchers and students to visit, work and study in the United States while China strictly regulates the flow of their American counterparts in the opposite direction.

FBI director Christopher Wray told a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last week that Chinese students could be a threat since they could be gathering intelligence for China while studying in the United States.

A cutback in the number of foreign graduate students studying or researching in science and technology disciplines is under consideration by the White House as the FBI now considers them an intelligence risk. Wray told the Senate committee:

One of the things we’re trying to do is to view the Chinese threat as not just a whole of government threat, but a whole-of-society threat, on their end. And I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us. It’s not just the Intelligence Community, but it’s raising awareness within our academic sector, within our private sector, as part of defense.

Wray also said that his agency was monitoring ‘warily’ the Confucius Institutes. The risk to the bilateral relationship is that such investigations stoke xenophobia public sentiment against Chinese activities in the United States.

Beijing’s soft power campaigns to influence politics and civil society abroad are also likely to fall under greater US suspicion, especially in light of the Mueller investigation into Russian attempts to interfere with US elections.

For its part, Beijing no longer describes its policy objectives in terms of convergence with international norms. Instead, it emphasises the differences brought by doing everything ‘with Chinese characteristics’. It has been building an alternative architecture, such as new multilateral mechanisms like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative, even as it continues to seek more influence in existing institutions such as the IMF, WTO and United Nations.

Beijing has been taking a more aggressive foreign-policy posture since 2008 when it believed it saw a United States entering into a period of accelerating relative decline which created an opportunity for it to act more assertively on the global stage. This posture has intensified since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2013. In particular, it has become more transparent about its desire to displace the United States as the preponderant regional power.

Two examples that are cases in point: island building and increasing military deployment in the South China Sea to reinforce China’s claims over the waters and resources off its eastern coasts; and its disruption of trade and tourism with South Korea following Seoul’s decision to permit deployment of the US THAAD missile defence system.

That goes hand in hand with the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army, and particularly the PLA-Navy, which, eventually, will challenge US naval control of the Western Pacific.

There is a certain irony in two powers pursuing their national interest using not dissimilar mercantilist and military-minded means. China and the United States are following a similar model, though perhaps in not the way round that Washington had for so long imagined.


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Nationalism Aglow

The embers of anti-Japanese sentiment are always smoldering in China. It doesn’t take much by way of political oxygen to bring them forth in full flame. Thousands of Chinese took to the streets on Sunday across several cities to protest against  Japanese nationalists landing, albeit briefly, on one of the specs of rock in disputed waters of the East China Sea known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China. Japanese flags were burned in several cities and some Japanese restaurants ransacked. In Guangzhou, the Japanese embassy was picketed. In Shenzhen, demonstrators overturned Japanese cars, including a Honda in the service of Chinese police, no doubt an unintended piece of symbolism.

Both governments have tried to keep a lid on the worst excesses of nationalist expression on both sides since 2010 when Japan arrested in 2010 the captain of a fishing boat after it collided with Japanese Coast Guard ships near the islands, chilling diplomatic and economic relations. Yet at the same time, both governments are keen to assert their sovereignty. It is not a combination that will douse the flickering embers of nationalism for good. Not that politicians in either country really want to, providing it doesn’t get out of hand. The risk is that one day it will.


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Signs It Is An Anniversary Of The End Of World War II

Ways to tell it must be the anniversary of the end of World War Two:

  • Japan arrests Chinese activists who land on one of the Senkakus, known as the Diaoyus to China, the islands in the East China Sea islands whose ownership is disputed by the two countries;
  • Beijing lodges a strong protest with Tokyo;
  • Japanese cabinet ministers make their annual controversial visit to the Yasukuni shrine for the war dead in Tokyo;

This year, add something new to the list: South Korea’s president making remarks about Japan’s Emperor, drawing a protest from Tokyo that they were insulting. Lee Myung-bak told a group of teachers that if Emperor Akihito wants to visit South Korea (something that is apparently in no one’s travel plans) he should apologize more sincerely than his 1990 expression of “deepest regrets” over the war.

More than six decades on, the war in East Asia still casts a long shadow over the region. Tapping into anti-Japanese sentiment remains a surefire way to seek public support in South Korea and China. This particular year, with tensions rising over territorial claims in both the East and South China Seas, its shadow risks being darker and heavier than usual.

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Young Web Savvy Chinese Forge A New Chinese Identity

Bystander’s man in New York sends word of a discussion at the Asia Society on whether China’s attitude to the press is changing ahead of the Olympics. Much confirms the notion that press freedom in the country waxes and wanes with the political season, but that the Internet is forcing Beijing’s propagandists into new way of managing the news. They now must frame the discussion, not dictate the stories — much as happens in the West.

But Bystander’s man says what most caught his ear were remarks by Michael Anti, also known as Zhao JIng, a journalist whose political blog was shut down by Microsoft in 2005 in a flurry of controversy. Anti said an emerging  generation of Chinese are forging a new sense of Chinese identity.

It comprises those those born post-1980 who have no memories of the Cultural Revolution; barely memories of Tiananmen in 1989. They are connected to each other and information by the Internet is a way no previous generation was. They — even the intellectuals and liberals among them –readily wrap themselves in the flag, not out of any traditional sense of patriotism of nationalism, but from a pride in their country born of two decades of economic growth and China’s growing standing in the world. Fail to grasp that distinction between blind patriotism and national pride and you miss something important about the new China and the face it presents to the outside world.

Anti also raised the notion that this new generation might be creating proto-NGOs within China by its use of Web bulletin boards to discuss issues, trade information and promote activism beyond established state and party structures. Our man in New York says this is a tenuous conclusion but a trend to be watched.

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Keeping Chinese Nationalism In Check

Two examples of the conflicting tug of nationalism for China:

The authorities are dampening down the protests against French-owned superstore chain Carrerfour in response to the pro-Tibet protests in Paris when the Olympic torch was in the French capital on Apr. 7, the FT reports. As a result the proposed boycott of Carrefour stores on May 1 fizzled out.

Beijing is used to dialing up or down the level of nationalism at home whether it is directed against the French, the West in general, Japanese, Taiwanese or its own minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs. (The Council on Foreign Relations has a useful backgrounder on the history of Chinese nationalism.) These national mood swings have to be carefully calibrated. Too much makes the rest of he world uneasy;  too little and the societal glue nationalism provides doesn’t stick.

But in Hong Kong, where the Olympic torch made its first stop on Chinese soil, thousands turned out to see the torch, waving Chinese flags, wearing red and cheering. And unlike the pro-Chinese rallies when the torch visited the Australian capital, Canberra, these supporters weren’t bused in to drown out protestors. But it did provide a glimpse of the potential power of nationalist fervor which if unleashed could as easily be turned against the authorities, and why Beijing knows it has to keep firm control of the reins.

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