Nationalist views are very strong among ordinary Chinese. The education system instills them and the culture reinforces them. The government stirs up nationalism to prop up its legitimacy. The media exploits to sell newspapers and win viewers. Some argue that nationalism has replaced Communist ideology. The nationalist writer Wang Xiaodong told the Los Angeles Times, “The Chinese people are no longer embarrassed about being Chinese. The time when China worshiped the West is over. We have a rightful sense of superiority.”

Nationalist sentiments were stirred up the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the release of Japanese textbook that glossed over atrocities committed against Chinese in World War II, the Tibetan uprising and the Olympics torch relay (See Tibet, Olympics). Nationalist sentiments are often manifested in anti-Japanese and anti-American protests. Protest over Japanese textbooks and soccer victories and the American bombing of a Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the forced landing a U.S. spy plane were quite violent China sometimes uses public nationalist sentiments as diplomatic tool, stirring up anti-American and anti-Japanese feelings and using them to purse foreign policy aims and then reversing course when they seemed to get out of hand.

The Communist Party has made economic growth and nationalism the basis for its legitimacy. It encourages nationalism in the schools with textbooks that focus on China’s past victimizations by non-Chinese, and with nationalistic articles in the state medium and on Internet forums.

The Communist Party has used nationalism as an ideology to keep China together.” When Tibetans and other groups question or attack ths nation,” Tibetan scholar Dibyesg Anand of Westminster University in London told the New York Times, Chinese see it “as an attack on their core identity. It’s not only an attack on what it means to be Chinese. Even if minorities don’t feel like part of China, they are part of China’s nationality.”

The most hot-headed nationalists tend to be young, middle-class urbanites. Many dislike foreigners and are disinterested in liberal concepts like democracy. In university they take business and engineering classes and are not interested in social science or liberal arts.

Many in the Chinese government want to tone down nationalist feelings. There are worries that if feeling get stirred up too much then the nationalism may be directed at Beijing itself as has happened in the past. Even more worrisome, perhaps, is what might happen if democracy comes to China. Some think a democratic China could be dangerous than the non-democratic one that exists now.

Official patriotic classes for children was introduced in 1994 to support one party rule but had been around in one form or another since the Communist take over of China. In school, children are taught beginning at an early age that the party rescued China in 1949 from poverty, chaos and humiliation and saved Tibet from feudalism and backwardness. History classes emphasize the humiliation that China endured ay the hands of Europeans after the Opium Wars and the Japanese before and during World War II but have little or nothing to say about the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square. Sch

Zhang Xianyang, a political analyst in Beijing, told the New York Times, “Nationalism and patriotism mean love your country. The Communist Party was so clever because they linked nationalism to loving the party. They said the party was the same as the country.” Some aspects of the current wave of nationalism reminds old timers of the Cultural Revolution.

Nationalist views that are voiced on the Internet, especially those framed with a negative views towards the United States and Japan, are often stronger than those promulgated by the government and sometimes reach a pitch that the government finds alarming and feels a need to reign in.

Arousing nationalist sentiment, Chinese officials have learned, can be a double-edged sword. In 2005, officials allowed public ire against Japan, over territorial disputes and textbooks that glossed over Japanese wartime atrocities, to boil over into violent street protests. After some of the anti-Japanese slogans began morphing into demands for action by Chinese leaders, the authorities clamped down. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, December 12, 2009]

Reasons for Chinese Nationalism

China has traditionally been very isolationist. For a long time there was a widespread view in China that its culture and society were at such high level there was little the rest of the world had to offer it. In the 19th century and much of the 20th century China portrayed itself as victim of Western, Japanese and American Imperialism. One Mao slog went: “Imperialism will never abandon its intention to destroy us.” See History

Modern Chinese nationalism has it roots in self critiques and the denouncing of Confucian culture in the early 20th century as a way of explaining why China was so weak and technologically backward compared to the West. In response to Chinese nationalists that had become too Westernized under Chiang Kai-shek, Mao tried to mold a new revolutionary Chinese identity until that was undermined by Deng Xiaponing. This has left China with a kind of Chinese nationalism that is difficult to define except in terms of threats made against it, such as from Tibet, the U.S. or Japan.

Many see modern Chinese nationalism as a desire to return to the morality and propriety of ancient China and Confucianism. This sentiment is perhaps best reflected in the success of the book Yu Dan’s Reflections on the Analects.

Others see it on a more personal level. Xu Guoqi, a professor of East Asian Studies at Kalamazoo College, wrote in the Washington Post, “At root, it’s because we Chinese want “face”---not just from one another, but from the whole world. Chinese, especially boys, are brought up to believe that China is exceptional. But we’re not satisfied simply with believing this ourselves; we want others to believe that we’re a great nation, too.”

See Education

See Nanking, World War II

Book: China’s New Nationalism by Peter Hays Gries, a China scholar at the University of Oklahoma.

China, National Humiliation and Foreigners

Suffering and humiliation at the hands of foreigners was a theme in Chinese history in the 19th century and 20th century. In the Opium Wars era, Britain subdued the Chinese population with Indian opium; made tons of money; and took over Chinese territory with humiliating unequal treaties. Later, the Russians and Japanese occupied the industrial north; European nations established "treaty ports" on the Chinese coast to exploit China's resources and labor; and, finally, Japan raped and pillaged China like medieval invaders before and during World War II. The Chinese describe their feelongs with the word guochi, or "the national humiliation."

In the early 19th century Napoleon said, "Let China sleep when she wakes the world will be sorry." At that time misery and rebellions caused by overpopulation and an inefficient dynasty resulted in famines and wars which left tens of millions dead.

Foreigners were aware of the way China was being exploited. In 1900, the future Russian revolutionary leader, Vladamir Lenin, said, "The European governments have robbed China as ghouls rob copses." A descriptive 1898 French lithograph showed Queen Victoria of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, the Japanese emperor Mutsuhito and Czar Nicholas II all sitting around a giant pizza, inscribed with China, dividing it up with butcher knives.

China expert Orville Schell wrote, “The most critical element in the formation of China’s modern identity has been the legacy of the country’s “humiliation” at the hands of foreigners, beginning with its defeat in the Opium Wars in the 19th-century and the shameful treatment of Chinese immigrants in America. The process was exacerbated by Japan’s successful industrialization, Tokyo’s invasion and occupation of the mainland during World War II, which in many ways was more psychologically devastating than Western interventions because Japan was an Asian power that had succeeded in modernizing, where China had failed.”

“This inferiority complex has been institutionalized in the Chinese mind, “Orville wrote. “In the early 20th century China took up its victimization as a theme and, and it became a fundamental element in its evolving collective identity. A new literature arose around the idea of bainian guochi—“100 year of national humiliation.” After the 1919 Treaty of Versailles gave Germany’s concessions in China to Japan, the expression wuwang guochi—“Never forget our national humiliation”— became a common slogan.”

The sports writer Tom Boswell said, “China’s whole history predisposes it to believing that foreign nations wish it ill and want to belittle it...Always sensitive to criticism from outsiders, China feels picked on.”

All of China’s leaders in the 20th century tapped into it. Sun Yat-sen described China in 1924 as “a heap of loose sand” that had “experienced several decades of economic oppression.” Chiang Kai shek spoke of the entire country for more than 100 years of “suffering under the yoke of unequal treaties” and demanded the “national humiliation be avenged.” And when Communist China was founded in in 1949 Mao declared, “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation.”

In 2001 the National People Congress proclaimed a “National Humiliation Day” but because there were so many historical dates that could be used delegates could not agree on a single one.

Shu-Zen, the director of the film Dark Matter, told Schell, “There is something almost in our DNA that triggers automatic, and sometimes extreme , responses to foreign criticism or put downs.” The famous Chinese essayist Lu Xun wrote in the 1930s, “Throughout the ages Chinese have had only one way of looking at foreigners. We either looked up to them as gods or down on them as wild animals.”

Unhappy China and Chinese Nationalism

Unhappy China ---a hot-selling new book in China in 2009---is a collection of essays by five authors who argue that China has been too deferential to a Western world that is hostile toward it. They argue that China needs to use its growing power and economic resources to carve out its own position of pre-eminence. “From looking at the history of human civilization, we are most qualified to lead this world; Westerners should be second,” the book says. [Source: Jason Dean, Wall Street Journal, March 30, 2009]

Jason Dean wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The authors, a group of scholars, single out the U.S. for special scorn, and say their book's message---aimed largely at younger Chinese--- has been helped by the economic crisis. “This economic problem has shown the Chinese people that America does have problems, that what we've been saying is right,” said Wang Xiaodong, in an interview Friday in Beijing with three of his co-authors: Liu Yang, Song Qiang and Huang Jisu. The fifth author is Song Xiaojun.” [Ibid]

“Yet much of the response has been negative, reflecting the complex place that nationalism holds in today's China. Several reviews in the Chinese media have ridiculed Unhappy China as an attempt to cash in on nationalistic sentiment. The book is a way to “fish money from the pockets of the angry youth and angry elderly,” wrote one critic in the China Youth Daily, a leading state-run newspaper. An English-language article by Xinhua, the state-run news agency, said the book had failed to hit a chord with average Chinese, and quoted blistering critiques from bloggers and academics calling its nationalism embarrassing and unconstructive.” [Ibid]

“The authors of “Unhappy China” reject such talk, reciting a litany of grievances against the U.S., from a monetary policy that threatens to devalue China's holdings of U.S. Treasury bonds to Washington's support for Taiwan. Many of the prescriptions in “Unhappy China” echo positions China's government espouses -- strengthening the country's reliance on domestic technology and innovation, and bolstering its military, for example.” [Ibid]

“The authors, however, reserve some of their greatest resentment for China's current political and economic leadership. “I've already lost all hope in China's elite,” says Wang. The authors see last year's angry protests by mainly young Chinese against foreign criticism of China's Tibet policies and its hosting of the Olympics as a “milestone” for relations with the West. “America will face a less friendly China in the future,” says Wang.” [Ibid]

Maoist Theory Resurrected to Justify China’s Hawkish Diplomatic Stance

Willy Lam wrote in China Brief, “Conservative--and hawkish--elements in the party and the PLA have been resurrecting a number of the Great Helmsman's dictums on foreign and military affairs to justify the country’s new-found assertiveness on the diplomatic front. Hard-line theorists have heaped high praise on the Great Helmsman's so-called "three major dictums," which he put forward in the heady months before October 1, 1949. They were, one, "setting up a separate stove;" two, "put our house in order before inviting guests;" and, three, "one-sidedly favoring [the Soviet Union]". According to Zhang Baijia, Deputy Director of the CCP Research Office of Party History, the first two principles "enabled new China to seize the strategic initiative in foreign affairs" by "banishing the influence and impact of imperialism in China." The third precept, Zhang added, "enabled China to join the international pacifist camp". [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief (Jamestown Foundation) vol. 11, no. 16 September 2, 2011]

Popular media commentator Major General Luo Yuan praised Mao for daring to confront the "American imperialists" by entering the Korean War in 1950. Mao's decision, Luo said, "has served as an inspiration for the Chinese race as well as for all the suppressed peoples in the world." For Major General Zhang Zhaozhong, who thinks that "Mao Thought is very correct," the late chairman's pugilistic policies toward the West worked much better than the "tao guang yang hui" stance of "keeping a low profile and never taking the lead.". "Tao guang yang hui" refers to the largely conciliatory policy which Deng Xiaoping laid down in the early 1990s so as to improve relations with the U.S. and Europe.

Generals with illustrious "revolutionary bloodline" who are tipped to either remain---or be inducted into---the CMC to be restructured at the 18th Party Congress include the following senior officers. Current Air Force Commander Xu Qiliang (son of the late Air Force Lieutenant General Xu Lefu), is expected to be appointed one of the CMC Vice-chairmen at the 18th Congress. Deputy Chief of the General Staff Ma Xiaotian (son of Ma Zaiyao, former provost of the Political Institute of the PLA), may be promoted Air Force Commander. Two princelings also have become candidates for the key slot of Director of the General Political Department, which controls personnel and ideological matters. They are General Logistics Department Political Commissar Liu Yuan, 60, (son of state president Liu Shaoqi) and Chengdu Military Region Political Commissar Zhang Haiyang, 62, (son of Long March generation General Zhang Zhen). Both Liu and Zhang are considered Xi’s cronies. Finally, Shenyang Military Region commander Zhang Youxia (son of Gen Zhang Zongwun, who was among the first batch of generals after the founding of the People’s Republic of China), may be promoted Director of the General Armament Department in 2012.

Several of these prominent princeling officers, including Ma Xiaotian, Liu Yuan, Zhang Haiyang and Zhang Youxia, only became full generals in the past three years. Since Xi became CMC Vice Chairman last year, he has maneuvered to elevate the political fortunes of the princeling generals. For example, General Liu Yuan was earlier this year transferred from the post of Political Commissar of the Academy of Military Sciences to the much more strategic slot of Political Commissar of the General Logistics Department. The possibilities are high that to quickly consolidate his power base after the 18th Party Congress, Xi may unreservedly back the generals’ ambitious goals of global hard-power projection. This could intensify already ferocious competition between China and the U.S. in theaters such as the Asia-Pacific Region.

China Puts Pressure on Foreign Governments to Silence Falun Gong

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “Beijing often puts pressure on foreign governments and organizations to curb activities it doesn’t like, a trend that has accelerated in tandem with an increase in China’s economic and diplomatic muscle. Targets for Chinese ire have ranged from a film festival in Australia showing a movie that annoyed Beijing; the Frankfurt book fair, which invited---and then disinvited---authors Beijing objected to; and the Nobel Peace Prize committee, which in December honored jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, August 5 2011]

But it is Falun Gong---a jumble of folk Buddhism, Taoism, breathing exercises and fierce anti-communism “ that has most aggravated Beijing, particularly since an incident in 2006 when a devotee heckled President Hu Jintao on the South Lawn of the White House. The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders recently reported that China had “successfully pressured” Vietnam to detain two Falun Gong members who ran an unauthorized shortwave radio station.

Falun Gong has been proscribed in China since 1999 and largely uprooted there through harsh repression. But it has built an extensive network of followers overseas. Its reclusive founder, Li Hongzhi, now lives in self-imposed exile in New York. Unlike exiled Chinese democracy campaigners, who have mostly faded into obscurity or become mired in infighting, Li and his supporters have formed a highly organized, disciplined and mysteriously well-funded movement.

The organization’s deep pockets help fund a media empire including New Tang Dynasty Television, a satellite broadcaster; a newspaper, the Epoch Times; and the Sound of Hope radio.

Young Chinese Nationalists

Some of China’s young nationalists are from China’s best universities and often have studied the West, “one of them told Evan Osnos in an article in The New Yorker, “China was backward throughout its modern history, so we were always seeking the reasons for why the West grew strong. We learned from the West. All of us who are educated have this dream: Grow strong by learning from the West...We’ve been studying Western history for so long, we understand it well. We are think our love for China, our support for the government and the benefits of this country, is not a spontaneous reaction. It has developed after giving the matter much thought.”

Some of the most ardent and vocal nationalist are Chinese student currently studying abroad. Chinese students at the University of Southern California challenged a visit by Tibetan monk with photo and statistics during a lecture. Security moved in when someone threw a bottle at the monk. At Cornell a director that screened a film on Tibet was told “to go die” on a web forum. This surprises many in that you would think that because Chinese students are better educated and more worldly than other Chinese they would be more open minded to other viewpoints but it turns out they are often more nationalist than older Chinese who have never left China.

See Duke Incident

Many young Chinese have embraced nationalism in a way they hadn’t before after the Tibetan riots and the ensuing anti-Chinese, pro-Tibetan ensuing protests during the Olympic torch relay and threats to boycott the Olympics over the Tibet issue.

Nationalists feel the world profits from China’s cheap labor but blocks its attempts invest abroad.

Chinese Cybernationalists

As the attack on Google in January 2010 showed the victims of cyber attacks are just as likely to be private companies as military or government targets with the aims being to steal computer source codes, company secrets and strategies, and intellectual property or to implant spyware or disruptive malware or otherwise disrupt the target company . The hackers often use a “1,000 grains of sand” approach, meaning they collect every bit of information they can and sift through it for intelligence. Many companies that are victims of such attacks regard them as an embarrassment and keep quiet about them.

A report by the congressional U.S.-China commission noted Chinese espionage is sometimes “straining the U.S. capacity to respond.” The report focused on one attack and concluded that it was supported and possibly orchestrated by the Chinese government.


Cybernationalists seize on anything seen as anti-Chinese and attack those who are perceived of instigating it. There is little hard evidence that the elite hackers have ties with the Beijing government although it is widely believed they are.

Nationalism today is largely driven through exchanges on the Internet and e-mail. Cybernationalists see Chinese history as a series of conspiracies, schemes and betrayals at the hands of foreigners who are also blamed for almost every bad thing that happens to China today. Declining Chinese stocks are blamed on foreign speculators who “wildly manipulate” Chinese stock markets and lure investors to take their money out of China. These nationalists talk of a global “currency war” to “make Chinese people foot the bill” for America’s financial woes.

The cybernationalists are known for being particularly nasty to anyone who defies their agenda. Among the responses to criticism of their positions have been “someone give me a gun! Don’t show mercy to the enemy!” And “People who fart through the mouth will get shit stuffed down their throats by me!”

Book: Chinese Cyber Nationalism by Xu Wu, a former journalist in China now at Arizona State University.

Attacks on Tibet and Other Activities by Chinese Cybernationalists

Hackers have caused the website for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to display the slogan “Down with Barbarians” and made the White House website crash under flood of angry e-mail. In preparation for a wave anti-Japanese protests in the mid 2000s, anti-Japanese messages were broadcast via chat rooms, bulletin boards and text messages. When the protests were at their peak in Shanghai the Shanghai police cut off cell phone service to downtown Shanghai.

One of the most viewed video in the Internet in 2008 was a piece called 2008 China Stand Up, a work made from snatched video and photos---by a Fudan university student named Tang Jie, who called himself CTGZ---that drew a million hits in its first week and half online. It begins with a run down of “farces, schemes and disasters” thrown at the Chinese by foreigners, then cuts to images of Tibetan rioters and a montage of pressing clippings critical of China, with CNN and BBC logos giving way to images of Nazi and accusations the West s stirring up a “new Col War.” From there it moves on to protesters attempting to disrupt the Olympic torch relay and ends with a Chinese flag and the promise: “We will stand up and hold together always as one family in harmony!”

After writing a piece about the disruption of the Olympic torch relay in London, one Times reporter received an e-mail that read: “Hope someday someone will spit in your face. Your name will be recorded in Chinese history book forever as one of cold-blooded, Hitler-type, murder’s assistant.” Other foreign reporters who have received much worse as well as death threats have been worried enough to move their offices.

The Dalai Lama has said that hackers have hacked into his computers and those of the Tibetan exile community and accessed e-mail and information, in one case getting information about a request for an Indian visa, with the Chinese government contacting an Indian embassy and telling them not to grant the visa. In other cases hackers have gained access to e-mails between exile offices just a few kilometers apart in Dharamsala.

The Dalai Lama has said he is not sure who the hackers are but is sure the stolen information finds its way to the Chinese government, A Canadian research group called the Information Warfare Monitors which looks into the matter said mainland hackers they have researched tend to be very nationalistic and “place as much importance on sovereignty [over Tibet] as Beijing does.”

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2012

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