OPINION – Assertive Chinese Nationalism: Implications for Hong Kong and “Wolf Warrior” Diplomacy

The prominence of assertive Chinese nationalism has recently been shown in the remarks of Chinese officials on Hong Kong and world affairs, having implications for how Beijing governs Hong Kong and how Chinese diplomats have dealt with foreign matters.

Assertive nationalism refers to a phenomenon that Chinese officials, including diplomats, have become far more rigorous in putting forward China’s perspectives in public than before, and refuting and criticizing the opponent’s viewpoints in an energetic manner.

This assertive nationalism is perhaps ideologically entrenched in three important speeches made by President Xi Jinping. 

In November 2014, when the Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference was held in Beijing, President Xi stressed that China’s foreign policy must insist on independence and peaceful development while assertively defending its “correct rights” and “core interests.” He added that the Chinese dream would include the achievement of peace, development, cooperation and win-win situation. In China’s foreign affairs, President Xi said that the party leadership must be enhanced. In this way, the Chinese-style foreign policy would be established. 

On September 3rd, 2019, President Xi added an important element of “struggle” in his speech delivered to the Central Party School, saying that China was encountering many “struggles” in the realms of economic, political, cultural, social, ecological, military and defence development, and that these areas embraced the work of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as well as  foreign policy and party construction.

On September 24th, 2019, when President Xi delivered a speech in the Politburo’s collective study session, he outlined “four self-confidence” in China’s development, namely self-confidence in developmental path, theory, system and culture. These four features became, according to Xi, the hallmarks of Chinese socialism.

Putting the three speeches together, President Xi emphasized Chinese-style foreign policy, the need for China to “struggle” with potential enemies internally and externally, and the necessity of developing self-confidence. These three ingredients have constituted the pillars shaping the assertive Chinese nationalism.

One must attribute these features to the ideological tsar, namely Wang Huning, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, who remains a key architect of not only the Chinese dream under the Xi Jinping era but also the “Three Represents” in the Jiang Zemin period and the “Scientific Development” during the reign of Hu Jintao.

Wang is a realist politician and ideological architect, emphasizing the need for a strong government in the stage of economic development as early as 1988 and the necessity of upholding the Chinese “values, spirit and power” in his speech in November 2017 when he delivered a speech in a National Cultural Renaissance’s session. 

The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping adopted an approach of “taoguang yanghui” (maintaining a low profile). But Xi Jinping and his adviser Wang Huning and their followers have been shifting to “yousuo zuowei” (striving to make achievements).

If Karl Marx emphasized the need to develop the economic base so that the superstructure (culture, values and institutions) would be developed further, then the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping could be seen as a Marxist who stressed the development of productive forces. Deng abandoned Mao Zedong’s ideological emphasis on the rapid development of superstructure (socialist values) in favour of a more economically pragmatic approach.

While Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao toed the line of Deng’s economic pragmatism, Xi and his ideological architect Wang have shifted from economic pragmatism to the emphasis on superstructure. As such, assertive nationalism in China under Xi Jinping, whose ideology appears to be shaped heavily by Wang, has become far more prominent in Chinese development and foreign policy than ever before.

Interestingly, Premier Le Keqiang appears to be far more classical Marxist as he emphasizes the need to tackle the poverty of many Chinese citizens – a point he admitted in the recent two sessions. Li went so far as to stress the importance of hawkers’ market, but this idea was downplayed by the propaganda machinery in the official Chinese media.

Overseas Chinese commentators have observed the “struggle” between the Li and Xi factions, but this observation was perhaps over-interpreted. A careful reading of Li’s work report shows that he mentioned Xi’s “core leadership” at least three times, showing his willingness to combine pragmatism with ideological emphasis.

Anyway, assertive Chinese nationalism has immediate impacts on how Beijing has been handling the Hong Kong matters and its foreign policy.

First, the emphases by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) and the Hong Kong Liaison Office (LO) on the need to reform Hong Kong’s education system are illustrative of the prominence of assertive Chinese nationalism. The 2019 protests in Hong Kong marked a serious clash between Hong Kong’s localism and the mainland Chinese nationalism. The extradition bill epitomized the Chinese nationalistic policy. The protests turned into anti-mainland, marking an apex of the clash between radical localism and Chinese nationalism.

To rein in Hong Kong’s localism, Beijing has decided to impose a national security law onto the territory – a move marking the re-assertive mainland Chinese nationalism.

Beijing’s officials responsible for Hong Kong affairs see the Hong Kong education system as “unpatriotic” in many aspects, ranging from examination questions, Chinese history subject, some school teachers, and even some civil servants in the education bureaucracy.

On June 12, while the HKMAO criticized some “black hands” for interfering with schools and mobilizing school children to participate in protests and politics, the LO declared that “education has a clear nature of sovereignty” and that “in nurturing qualified nationals who understand what is right or wrong in a nation, there is only the responsibility of ‘one country’ without any division of the ‘two systems.’”

Second, the rise in assertive Chinese nationalism shapes the rapid development of the “wolf warrior diplomacy” in which Chinese diplomats have become far more aggressive in their rebuttals to the remarks of foreign officials and politicians. One can easily recall the remarks of Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who scolded a Canadian reporter in June 2016 for “prejudice” against China’s human rights. 

The outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan and the resultant blame of some foreign politicians on China have unintentionally strengthened the assertive Chinese nationalism in the psyche of many young diplomats, who appear to see their “struggle” with enemies is a must to demonstrate that China is different from foreign countries.

The China difference, however, may have unintended consequences beyond the calculations of the Chinese political elites. Some foreign politicians have reacted strongly to this Chinese difference. In June, an Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China was established among legislators across various countries to counter China over trade, security, human rights, “rules-based order” and the Chinese economic influences and soft power.

Another unintended consequence of the assertive Chinese nationalism is the “undesirable” image generated on some overseas Chinese, many of whom have already been integrated into the mainstream foreign societies. Although some overseas Chinese are pro-China, many others are more politically neutral and may unfortunately be seen “negatively” by foreigners who do not really understand China.

Hence, assertive Chinese nationalism runs the risks of curbing the soft power of China. Even worse, it may even create more enemies unintentionally.

Domestically, supporters of China’s assertive nationalism naturally point to its effective and full-scale mobilization of citizens in the lockdown of cities in the face of Covid-19. 

The ongoing preparation of the national security law for Hong Kong shows that re-assertive Chinese nationalism is received with mixed and divided feelings among the people of Hong Kong.

If we adopt the yardstick of winning the hearts and minds of more peoples in the world, then more foreign politicians and officials have appeared to resist and oppose assertive Chinese nationalism.

Perhaps it is time for the power elites in China to rethink the limits of assertive Chinese nationalism and review how it can be readjusted to achieve their national objectives in not only a more persuasive way internally but also a more diplomatic manner externally.