China values nationalism over economic competitiveness

September was an eventful month for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

Firstly, a leading university in northwest China, Xi’an Jiaotong University, removed English tests as a graduation requirement, reigniting debate about English’s value in the Chinese educational milieu after years of rising nationalist sentiment under authoritarian leader Xi Jinping.

The university’s declaration provoked various reactions on social media, with many lauding the move and urging more universities to do likewise. 

“Very good. I hope other universities will follow suit. It’s ridiculous that Chinese people’s academic degrees need to be validated by a foreign language (test),” read a comment with over 24,000 likes on microblogging site Weibo, where a similar hashtag garnered over 350 million views.

For years, passing the nationalized College English Test has been a graduation prerequisite at most Chinese universities, showcasing the significance these institutions placed on English as a global language. 

Following the disastrous years of Mao Zedong’s dictatorship, China looked towards the West to catch up in economic, military and even academic aspects, attaching importance to the English language as the world’s lingua franca. 

However, recent years have witnessed China becoming more insular and nationalistic under Xi’s rule, with some universities downplaying the role of English, by substituting the national College English Test with their tests, or doing away with English examination requirements altogether. 

Besides, teachers in Chinese schools and universities have been banned from using Western textbooks or discussing “Western values” like democracy, press freedom and judicial independence.

Some Chinese have opined that the various forms of devaluing English have signified China’s stricter ideological controls and insular approach. 

“We should have cultural confidence, but it’s not the same as being culturally arrogant, short-sighted or closed-minded,” a Weibo user posted. 

“We need English to understand the world. This is a fact and it cannot be covered up by the banner of nationalism,” another user remarked. 

With English’s importance as a global language, particularly in technology and science, others have warned against neglecting it in favor of nationalism. 

“You don’t have to link it (to graduation), but don’t underplay the importance of English. These days, if you don’t understand English, you’ll still fall behind in the scientific and technological world,” a Weibo user declared.

In the same month, reports also emerged that Chinese officials and government employees were forbidden from using iPhones – claims that were subsequently rebuffed by China’s foreign minister.  

Furthermore, a picture of an Apple employee on Apple’s website ignited public anger as it was reported to reiterate racist stereotypes about Chinese people – later, it was found to be a photograph of an employee who was Native American.

“The iPhone situation escalated into a showcase for Chinese nationalism,” Yao-Yuan Yeh, a professor of international studies focusing on Taiwan, China and Japan at the U.S. University of St Thomas, posited in an interview with Al Jazeera.

On September 12, the CCP’s Central Committee and the State Council issued a blueprint to enhance integration between the coastal province of Fujian and the self-governing island of Taiwan, while deploying warships around Taiwan in a display of military prowess.

The directive, extolling the benefits of closer cross-strait cooperation, pledged to make Fujian a “demonstration zone” for integrated development with Taiwan, and the “first home” for Taiwanese residents and businesses to settle in China.

Beijing praised the plan, with CCP officials pointing out that Xi and the CCP “attach great importance to the unique role of Fujian in the overall strategy on Taiwan”.

“We will … support the construction of (the demonstration zone) as a major initiative to deepen cross-strait integrated development and consolidate the foundation for peaceful reunification,” Vice Director of the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office Pan Xianzhang proclaimed.

Additionally, investor markets are awash with worries that China’s Counterespionage Law and other legislation could be employed to undermine foreign companies, based on the AmCham’s yearly review of U.S. businesses in China published in September 2023. 

Only 52 percent of companies admitted that they were upbeat about doing business in China over the next five years, the lowest level of optimism since the AmCham Shanghai Annual China Business Report was first launched in 1999. 

Also, “companies are shifting supply chains and redirecting investment away from China”, the same report revealed, with many firms quoting Sino-U.S. hostilities and a faltering economy. 

Moreover, the same AmCham study quoted patriotic “buy China” policies at state-owned enterprises and government agencies as a reason dampening business confidence.

“There are indications that “buy China” policies will soon apply to many more targets, potentially including the finance, energy and electricity areas which will be required to use only local software and hardware,” the report disclosed. “The ripples have already reached private Chinese firms, with many now opting to buy local products for reasons of political expediency.”

The European Chamber of Commerce voiced like-minded worries in its Position Statement report that was also released in September, citing unpredictability over how the CCP would enforce recent amendments to its Counterespionage Law, following crackdowns on foreign firms in China. 

The newly amended law offered no definition of what formed a “state secret”, a matter of national security or the national interest, but expanded the definition of espionage to include cyberattacks against government departments or key information infrastructure. 

To boot, the law also emboldens the CCP to obtain data and electronic equipment and to impose travel bans on individuals.

“The amended (Counter) espionage Law and the new Foreign Relations Law indicate an increasing focus on national security across a widening scope of areas, which is prompting businesses to exercise even more caution,” the same report asserted. 

Thus, European firms are “struggling” to comprehend their obligations under the amended laws, the report added. 

Beijing’s recent nationalistic maneuvers amidst the backdrop of China’s faltering economy, high youth unemployment rates and bankrupted real estate developers are not surprising. After all, the authoritarian regime has been enthusiastically touting Sino-centrism in a bid to further entrench its grip onto power and play the public opinion card. 

That being said, simply stating that Chinese nationalism is merely a passive instrument of the CCP to be used or abandoned at will would be an oversimplification of China’s complex sociopolitical reality. 

Jessica Chen-Weiss’s book “Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations” contends that for years, the CCP has been harnessing nationalistic sentiments on the ground to serve its agenda as and when it deems fit, while acknowledging that such nationalism can further reinforce the Party’s hold onto power. 

One activist cited in Chen-Weiss’s book noted: “To speak plainly, the government uses us when it suits their purpose. When it doesn’t suit them, it suppresses us. This way the government can play the public opinion card. After all, Japan is a democracy and respects public opinion. Even in a non-democratic country like China, the government can still point to the public’s feelings.”

As long as the CCP remains in control, it can involve all levels of government to preserve social stability and encourage “rational patriotism” when nationalist fervor begins to potentially develop in a way that could undermine the Party’s stability and legitimacy itself. 

Thus, despite foreign firms, especially European and American businesses, slowly pivoting away from China, and notwithstanding Germany’s Annalena Baerbock remarks lambasting Xi as a “dictator”, the CCP could care less, as long as it still retains absolute power domestically and at the same time, is on the path to global dominance and control. 

No one, not even Chinese nationalists, can get in the CCP’s way.

Photo credit: iStock/ FMNG

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