Nationalism in China means one thing: only the firm rule of the Chinese Communist Party will prevent foreigners, especially westerners and the Japanese, from humiliating the Chinese ever again.
Chinese nationalism is a poor substitute for empowerment
It must be galling for the Chinese government to keep seeing Nobel Prizes go to the wrong Chinese.
The first wrong Chinese was Gao Xingjian, a critical playwright, artist, and novelist, who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, while living in exile in Paris. The latest is Liu Xiaobo, a literary critic and political writer, who was awarded this year's Nobel Prize for Peace while serving a prison sentence for "subversion" of the Communist regime. Since the Dalai Lama is not a Chinese citizen, I will leave out his Nobel Peace Prize, though to China's rulers it was perhaps the most irritating of all.
Yet the Chinese government's response to Liu's Nobel Prize has been extraordinary. Instead of a show of lofty disdain, or official silence, it made a colossal fuss, protesting fiercely about plots to undermine China, and putting dozens of prominent Chinese intellectuals, including Liu's wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest. As a result, the utterly powerless, hitherto quite obscure Liu Xiaobo, has become not only world famous, but much better known inside China, too.
Combine this with China's bullying of Japan (by blocking the export of rare-earth metals vital for Japanese industry via a few uninhabited islands between Taiwan and Okinawa), and its refusal to let the renminbi appreciate, and one must wonder why China is being so heavy-handed in its foreign relations.
These strong-arm tactics stand out even more against the deftness of Chinese diplomacy over the last few decades. Japan, the old wartime enemy, has been outmanoeuvred repeatedly, and a soft touch made South Koreans and Southeast Asians feel relatively comfortable with China's increasing power.
But China's recent thuggish behaviour is changing Asian opinions. As the warm welcome given to Hillary Clinton on her recent swing through Asia - even in communist Vietnam - appears to show, Southeast Asians are more than happy to hang on to Pax Americana for a bit longer, out of fear of China. Other Asian countries might even draw closer to Japan, the only alternative to the US as a counterbalance to the Middle Kingdom. This cannot be what China wants.
So why is China being so severe?
One possible explanation is that China is a little drunk on its new status. For the first time in almost 200 years, China can really throw its weight around, and it will do what it wants, regardless of what other countries may think. A few decades ago, it was Japan that thought it was going to be number one, and its businessmen, politicians, and bureaucrats were not shy about letting the rest of the world know. Call China's recent actions revenge for a century of humiliation by stronger powers.
But this may not be the best explanation for China's behaviour. In fact, the reason may be just the opposite: a sense among China's rulers of weakness at home. At least since 1989, the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly on power has been fragile. Communist ideology is a spent force. Using the People's Liberation Army to murder civilian protesters, not only in Beijing, but all over China in June 1989, further undermined the one-party system's legitimacy.
The way to regain the support of the burgeoning Chinese middle class was to promise a quick leap to greater prosperity through high-speed economic growth. The ideological vacuum left by the death of Marxist orthodoxy was filled with nationalism. And nationalism in China, promoted through schools, mass media, and "patriotic" monuments and museums, means one thing: only the firm rule of the CCP will prevent foreigners, especially westerners and the Japanese, from humiliating Chinese ever again.
This is why anyone, even a relatively unknown intellectual such as Liu Xiaobo, who challenges the legitimacy of Communist party rule by demanding multi-party elections, must be crushed. It is why the government does not dare to let the renminbi appreciate too fast, lest economic growth slow, causing the to party lose face and legitimacy. And it is why bullying Japan is always a good option: China's rulers do not necessarily hate Japan, but they are afraid to look weak in the eyes of their citizens, who are taught from kindergarten that foreign powers want to humiliate China.
This suggests that if Liu Xiaobo and like-minded dissidents ever got their wish, and democracy came to China, the problem of Chinese nationalism would not go away. After all, if the people feel persecuted by Japan or the United States, then the people will demand chauvinistic policies. Democracy has not tempered South Korean chauvinism much, either, since the demise of the military dictatorship in the 1980s.
But nationalism may not be a political constant. Nationalism is often fed by a sense of impotence. When citizens feel disempowered by an authoritarian government, the next best thing is to feel empowered by national prowess.
In a multi-party democracy, on the other hand, citizens are concerned with other interests, material, social, even cultural ones, and thus less likely to be drawn into aggressive chauvinism. Or so we must hope. The state of many democracies today is not the best advertisement for political freedom. But the Chinese should have the right to decide about that themselves. And Liu Xiaobo should be honoured for saying so.
Ian Buruma is a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College, New York. His latest book is The China Lover
© Project Syndicate