China and ethno-nationalism

Is the People’s Republic of China a communist state? Defining communism is not an easy task: communists, and left-wingers generally, or those who claim to be such, tend to engage in hair-splitting debates on what is and what is not the authentic form of Marxism, or communism, or socialism, or some other ism. However the recent economic policies and socio-economic structures in China cannot be categorized as communist by any stretch of imagination. If, though, communism means oppressive, undemoractic, one-party rule, then China is indeed communist.

Every regime seeks to bolster its claim to legitimacy one way or another. It is easier in a democracy: the people elect those who govern the country, and the people can get rid of the government in elections, if they do not like what it has done or failed to do. It is more difficult with other forms of government. It could take the shape of a theocracy, where the legitimacy of the state is dependent on the strength and the absolute veracity of a religion. So-called communist states may be seen as following the religion of Marxism(-Leninism-Stalinism-Maoism), but more likely they justified their system of governance by claiming that they are doing good for the lot of the people, rather like the enlightened despots of eighteenth-century Europe.

Perhaps China is a variant of such enlightened despotism, whose legitimacy depends on delivering economic development: shut up about politics, but you will become richer. Unlike Russia, which descended into economic turmoil for much of the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet political and economic structures, China managed to surge ahead economically. The regime was and is oppressive, but at least, there has been no tough and nasty years. There was food on the table and a better opportunity for many.

Another method by which governments bolster their position is appealing to nationalism. Broadly there are two types of nationalism: civic or state nationalism which is based on the sense of belonging to a state, and ethnic nationalism or ethno-nationalism which is based on the sense of belonging to the same people. Civic nationalism reaquires a state which commands the loyalty of the inhabitants, usually by fostering participatory democracy, good governance, and rule of law, among others. Ethnic nationalism does not require a state, and sometimes it is a force that tries to bring down the existing state in which an ethnic group feels ostracized or unfairly treated by the government which relies on the support of other ethnic group(s).

There has been a tendency of ethnic nationalism in China. It has not manifested as Han ethno-nationalism, but expressed by ethnic minorities who feel threatened by the encroachment of Han culture and people, such as the Tibetans and the Uighurs. Chinese authorities’ repression of minorities has strengthened the resentment among the minorities.

The Chinese government, concerned with its territorial integrity, and uncertain economic outlook, may be tempted to use Han ethno-nationalism as one of their pillars of state policy. If that happens, the tensions will inevitably rise, and the outer regions of China will become increasingly volatile. Alternatively, Han ethno-nationalism may arise, not manufactured by the government, but because of the economic and social situation of the people, who look for political narrative.

Whether it is a ethno-nationalism of the minorities, or a Han ethno-nationalism, this kind of nationalism may pause a problem for the Chinese government of the future.