China Power

Riding the Tiger: Ethno-nationalism and China’s Foreign Policy

Recent Features

China Power | Politics | East Asia

Riding the Tiger: Ethno-nationalism and China’s Foreign Policy

Having built up the U.S. as a perceived enemy seeking to forestall China’s rightful greatness, the CCP has few off-ramps from its aggressive stance.

Riding the Tiger: Ethno-nationalism and China’s Foreign Policy
Credit: Depositphotos

It was interesting to see the various analyses coming out of the recently-concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, which, despite the word dialogue in its name, became more of a forum for both the United States and China to talk at each other rather than talk to each other. In fact, the common consensus coming from the SLD was that the weekend provided another opportunity for the two countries to “lock horns” as the deteriorated China-U.S. relationship continues to cause rising tension within the region.

Of note were remarks coming out of the Chinese camp that could hardly be termed as diplomatic. Lt. Gen. Jing Jianfeng, deputy of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, in response to the speech by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, said that the United States was “using enticements and coercion to turn other countries into foreguard weapons, in what is fundamentally a system to protect hegemony by making dominance look good.” In his keynote speech, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu warned against the formation of “NATO-like” alliances in Asia and protested against “a certain big power’s” desire for hegemony.

In making these sharp remarks, China appears to have reached a new level of assertiveness in dealing with the region it considers to be its own backyard. As the strategic rivalry between the United States and China continues, gone are the days of China playing the role of the good neighbor in the Indo-Pacific.

That much was evidenced by its responses to the growing bilateral and multilateral partnerships the U.S. is entering into with other countries in the region; Beijing made veiled threats regarding Filipino foreign workers in Taiwan in response to the Philippines leasing naval bases to the United States. These other countries, though, view China’s increasingly aggressive response with consternation, and are worried that the lack of engagement between the two powers represents a destabilizing risk. Most recently, Beijing declined requests from Washington for a bilateral meeting between Austin and Li on the sideline of the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Despite growing concerns in the region, it is difficult to foresee a de-escalation of China-U.S. tensions in the near future. China’s refusal to engage with the United States comes from the very top of their leadership, and it is hard to see Xi or any of the other top officials in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) deviating from the current line. Arguably, the casting of Washington as the enemy that is trying to contain China’s rise is as much a natural response to U.S. actions in the region as it is a necessity of China’s foreign policy at the moment. Much of this can be traced to the domestic situation in China itself, and this prevents Beijing from being perceived as backing down against U.S. “aggression.”

While anti-American rhetoric has long been part of Beijing’s toolkit since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the years of China’s vast economic growth in the 1990s and early 2000s saw a noticeable softening of that language as Beijing focused its attention on economic development. Yet that all changed in the 2010s. Troubled by the political turmoil brought about by the color revolutions like the Arab Spring, the CCP turned its focus to maintaining the party’s legitimacy to rule and tightening its grip on power. With his selection as party leader in 2012, Xi led a political crackdown domestically, on the pretense of fighting corruption.

It was also during this period that the anti-American rhetoric coming from Beijing began to ramp up. In order to tighten the party’s control, Beijing pushed the narrative that Washington was threatened by the success of China’s economic growth and thus was taking steps to contain China. Chinese leaders began to frame the United States once again as a large enemy that was threatening China, seeking to prevent it from assuming its “rightful place in the global hierarchy.”

The foundation of this narrative of “American bullying” has its roots in the ethno-nationalist messaging of China’s great destiny. Since his ascension, Xi has often referred to China’s rise as the country’s national destiny, referencing the country’s glorious past and harping on the “century of humiliation” that denied China its place among the world’s powers. Xi’s slogan of “national rejuvenation” conveys the concept that China, once great but humiliated by the predations of Western colonizers, is now reclaiming its previous majesty. And in the Chinese iterations, it’s clear that the “Chinese nation” refers not only to the national polity, but to the ethnic group.

The success of the CCP propaganda machine can be seen in how the Chinese citizens have internalized this ethno-nationalist message. There are numerous examples of Chinese online commentators engaging in arguments and labelling any negative view of China as “Western imperialism” or “racist” and “anti-China.” Chinese international students in university campuses in places like Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom use these accusations to openly challenge their lecturers and peers who comment on issues like Taiwan and Hong Kong. Ethno-nationalism has become a key tool for Xi and the CCP to not only unite the Chinese people, but also control them and ensure their continued support for the party’s rule.

However, ethno-nationalism can be a double-edged sword. The “China is rising, West is falling” narrative that is centered on ethno-nationalism has proved successful thus far in ensuring continued support for the CCP’s rule, but China’s domestic challenges seem to only be growing. China has still not fully recovered from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the various lockdowns that ended only in December last year. Reports out of China indicate growing levels of youth unemployment that are worrying, and the country is also battling a population crisis as China’s population started shrinking for the first time in 2022. Coupled with the instability in the real estate market that saw large developers like Evergrande default and Xi’s recent crackdown on the Chinese tech firms that were some of the most lucrative businesses in the country, the domestic forecast for Beijing is challenging at best.

As Xi starts his third term in power, it is hard not to equate these domestic issues with his reign, especially given the way official narratives have inextricably linked his name to China’s “new era.” Thus, the CCP can only return to its ethno-nationalist messaging and use Washington as a scapegoat. And the issue with ethno-nationalism is that once unleashed, it is very difficult to rein in.

With the Chinese people increasingly buying into the narrative of China’s own “manifest destiny,” their support for the party in the face of the numerous challenges will hinge on Chinese officials’ ability to show that they are committed to “fighting” against this perceived American imperialism. Given the current domestic headwinds faced by Beijing, it is difficult to see an avenue to which Beijing can tone down its current rhetoric toward the China-U.S. rivalry without sparking a sense of betrayal from the population back home.

It remains to be seen if the United States and China can find a means to engage and de-escalate, and it seems that both countries are cognizant of the need to do so. But the CCP’s embrace of the ethno-nationalist narrative in the past decade means the assertive and aggressive remarks and actions emanating from Beijing will remain for the near future, given that such positions are what the people would expect out of them. Like the Chinese proverb says, 骑虎难下 – when riding a tiger, it’s hard to get off. Having embraced ethno-nationalism in its narrative, Beijing is now forced to continue its aggressive position.