The importance of patriotism (aiguozhuyi) for Chinese intellectuals: A study w.r.t. Confucian values, historical events and the idea of ‘national humiliation’

It is a widely acknowledged fact that Chinese society and its prevailing culture are closely linked to its unique conception of terms such as ‘nation’ and ‘patriotism’. Contributing to this uniqueness is the fact that Imperial China of the last five centuries had evaded attempts by European Imperial powers to fully colonize it. Barring the trade arrangements with leading superpowers of the imperial age and special cases such as Hong Kong, China had charted an independent course for itself, and to this extent its understanding of nationalism and patriotism are quite unique. The Japanese invasion and occupation of large tracts of North Eastern China during the Second World War had threatened this independence and compelled Chinese intellectuals to construct a new image and identity for the country and its people. It then becomes interesting to see what ideas and which intellectuals influenced the development of the brand of patriotism that is now recognized with the Chinese. The rest of this essay is an endeavor towards this end.

Renowned sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas’ coining of the term ‘constitutional patriotism’ (xianzheng aiguozhuyi) in reference to China, has had a big influence on Chinese intellectuals in the last few years. Under constitutional patriotism, “a kind of ethical bond would enable the citizens of complex societies to recognize themselves as members of their polity, a post-traditional community bound and motivated by the pursuit of equal justice under the law rather than by ethnic and cultural association” (Habermas, as quoted in Davies, 2007). While many Chinese intellectuals appreciated Habermas’ analysis and explanation of this brand of patriotism, he was not without his detractors. Among those who were critical of Habermas’ views were Xu Youyu, who reckoned that “this implicit nationalism is a flawed account of cultural pluralism: one that runs the risk of affirming all forms of difference-including fascist culture and ideas of slavery-at the expense of a properly universal conception of human rights” (Davies, 2007). Cao Weidong, on the other hand was more sympathetic toward Habermas’ conception. Hence opinion is divided among the Chinese intelligentsia on the validity and importance of Habermas’ analyses.

A distinction has to be made between the two terms ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’, as they are closely allied. The former is used more loosely in public discourse and it encapsulates feeling of solidarity and the emotion of belonging to a community at the individual level. In this way, patriotism is more of a personal expression of allegiance to a country and its people. Nationalism, on the other hand is a more arcane concept, which finds application in scholarly policy analysis. Here, the word is used to refer to the collective aspirations of members of an ethnic group (or its representatives) to achieve/maintain a status of legitimacy for their nation. But in the case of People’s Republic of China an overwhelming majority of the population belongs to the Han ethnic group and its leadership derives almost exclusively from this group (Fairbrother, 2003). In this context, patriotism and nationalism in China become interchangeable and come to represent the same set of aspirations and feelings. In the West, there are often misconceptions about what Chinese nationalism actually entails. But under the leadership of Hu Jintao and the neo-liberal economic policies he oversaw, a clearer picture of Chinese nationalism had emerged:

“Watching from their offices in Beijing, the officials of Hu’s government exemplified the tradition of state nationalism, which has roots deep in the imperial past but today closely identifies the Chinese nation with the Communist state. The Chinese government officially expresses nationalist sentiment as aigu, which in Chinese means “loving the state,” or aiguozhuyi, which means “love and support for China,” a China that is always indistinguishable from the Communist state. State nationalism demands that citizens subordinate their individual interests to those of the state. And in its relations with foreign powers, China’s current rulers believe that the state must prudently balance nationalist imperatives against other objectives, particularly the overriding goal of economic modernization”. (Terrill, et. Al, 2005)

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