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Unleashing the Patriotic Dragon

Students and pro-democracy activists were among those who marched to the Hong Kong government’s headquarters to protest the new curriculum, which authorities are encouraging schools to begin using when classes resume in September.

Students and pro-democracy activists were among those who marched to the Hong Kong government’s headquarters to protest the new curriculum, which authorities are encouraging schools to begin using when classes resume in September. Students and pro-democracy activists marching to the Hong Kong government’s headquarters in 2012 to protest the new patriotic curriculum. Vincent Yu / The Associated Press

An exhibition to commemorate the World War II victory over Japan is Beijing’s latest attempt to prop up nationalism and is part of a greater effort at patriotism that could eventually backfire. The “Great Victory and Historical Contribution” exhibition opened on Tuesday at the Museum of the War of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression in Beijing. The opening marked the 78th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, regarded as the first battle of the second Sino-Japanese war. The exhibition was visited later that day by Chinese President Xi Jinping and all of the top leadership of the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee.

The exhibition comes at a time when relations between Beijing and Tokyo have soured over the last few years, largely as a result of Beijing’s dissatisfaction with the depth of Japanese apologies for war suffering and heightened tensions over competing claims to islands in the East China Sea, alternatively known as the Diaoyu or Senkaku. Beijing also frets over Japan’s recent constitutional push for greater militarism, while Tokyo claims Beijing is becoming more aggressive in asserting its maritime territorial claims.

While the exhibition includes the usual weaponry and gruesome photos, it differs little from similar war-time exhibitions found in other countries, as it is intended to serve as propaganda for furthering patriotic education. Yet the seemingly harmless exhibition can be viewed as but one in a series of efforts toward the promotion of nationalism, following last year’s creation by Xi of three new annual national holidays linked to the war. Also this week, Beijing announced on Monday the staging of 183 war-themed performances, and the screening of new movies, television shows, and documentaries intended “to increase patriotism.” Beijing will also hold a military parade in September to mark the anniversary of the end of the war in Asia.

Unfortunately, the enhanced drive by Beijing to create nationalists and promote citizen patriotism has worrisome parallels to its attempt to promote stock ownership among its citizens. The party’s attempt at hyping stock ownership and propping up share values has only increased expectations of higher and unreasonable returns, as the average price-earnings ratio reached 64 for the Shenzhen exchange (anything above 25 is considered expensive). These high valuations eventually proved unsustainable, with fears causing the markets to crash over 30 percent from their peak on June 12 and forcing Beijing to restrict trading in close to half of the market’s shares. The inability of Beijing to impose effective stabilization measures to limit the downward spiral of share selling has many Chinese now wondering just how effective their government is at overall control measures.

Could the same downward spiral happen because of rising nationalism? Were changes to the Japan constitution to allow for greater militarization, could Tokyo seek to aggressively assert its claim over the Senkaku island chain, thereby prompting a strong (and face-saving) response from Beijing? With growing patriotism and today’s social networking capabilities, angry nationalistic mobs could rise up more quickly and coordinated in provinces and cities throughout China. We have already witnessed rampant Chinese nationalism against the Japanese in recent years, as patriotic citizens burned a Panasonic factory in Qingdao, looted a Toyota dealership and Japanese restaurants, and torched Japanese-branded cars (being made in China by Chinese workers). Meanwhile, Chinese fishermen have amassed in huge flotillas to challenge fishing rights in disputed waters.

Xi’s willingness to foster a greater patriotism among his citizens is a method copied from Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution with his backing of the Red Guards. The growth of nationalism and the encouragement of a New Red Guard in China is potentially as dangerous, as it raises expectations which may spiral out of control. Growing nationalism and subsequent support for Chinese companies vis-a-vis foreign companies (through increased regulation) also has the potential to scare off new foreign direct investment. Japanese manufacturers are already reconsidering investing in China and other countries may follow.

While the excesses of Mao’s Red Guard cannot currently compare with the patriotic fervor Xi has begun to promote, China is not strengthening its cause by encouraging these nationalistic forces to draw attention in international media and is failing to draw international sympathy for its cause. Instead, China is heightening anxieties among neighboring nations and inadvertently stoking the nationalist fires of other countries who are racing to upgrade their military capabilities. By firing up nationalism, the party is shooting itself in the foot as it weakens its ability to partner with these countries (and others not directly involved in maritime territorial disputes) to secure the resources it needs for its somewhat diminished, but continued, growth.

This escalation of nationalism will no doubt backfire as countries realize the extent the party will go to in order to secure its own interest — to the detriment of its trade partners. Perhaps most importantly, though, the party must be careful not to raise the nationalistic expectations of its patriotic populace in similar ways it raised the materialistic expectations of its profiteering populace — witness the recent anger and resentment over the all-powerful party’s inability to stem losses on the Shanghai and Shenzen stock markets. The new party leadership under Xi should reconsider its approach to promoting nationalism, in light of its failure to control the stock markets, and reign in its latest effort to promote nationalism, for as Mao Zedong once said, “It only takes a spark to start a prairie fire.”




Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666