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The anti-American demonstrations in 1999 and the anti-Japanese violence in the spring of 2005 highlight the difficulty of such an evolution, as well as the persistent temptation for the Chinese government to instrumentalise the only ideology that allows it to prolong its life expectancy.Chinese nationalism is a more ambiguous reality than it might seem. It has great power and intensity, as shown over the last few years by the demonstrations against the American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999, the EP3 incident in April 2001, the denunciation of the Japanese Prime Minister's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, the virulent criticisms of Taiwanese leaders, from Lee Teng-hui to Chen Shui-bian, and, more recently, the ambition to make China not only a great economic and military power but to surpass the United States as the greatest power in the world.
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It is widely accepted that Chinese nationalism took form only as a reaction to the shock of forced contact with the West, after the Opium War of 1840.
It is true that before this historic turning-point, China was much more an empire than a Nation State, a civilisation and a culture dominated by one race (zu)—the Han—rather than a society brought together by a national project, and even less so by a modern citizenship.
One may well wonder if there is not another form of Chinese nationalism, a nationalism which derives its legitimacy both from cultural specificity and from current Chinese economic and social realities, without however rejecting foreign influence out of hand.
While seeking to modernise China and to make it regain the place and influence which are its due in the international community, while preserving its culture, this nationalism seeks to be less aggressive and more peaceable, showing a desire to favour convergence, in particular political convergence, with the rest of the world.
However, behind this feeling of insecurity, several forms of nationalism co-exist: an official nationalism inspired by communist ideology and the Communist Party's preoccupation with maintaining its monopoly of politics, which is similar to the modernising but authoritarian nationalism of many Chinese revolutionaries at the beginning of the twentieth century; a “primitive” and revanchist nationalism with racist tendencies, which is disseminated in society by the most xenophobic elements among the Chinese elite; and a “pragmatic nationalism” which derives its legitimacy from the economic and social realities of China, without however rejecting foreign influence out of hand.
Can this latter nationalism eventually give birth to a democratic nationalism, at once measured, open, and concerned with defending not only the interests of the Chinese nation, but also those of the men and women who belong to it?
Nationalism seems today to be the most widely-shared value both in Chinese society and in the government, which is perfectly aware of this, and has repeatedly instrumentalised it with the aim of strengthening its hand in the face of its foreign partners and also of preventing any “peaceful evolution” of the regime towards democracy.
Yet at the same time, motivated by self-interest, many international actions by the Peking government, and many expressions of society, have remained impervious to this feeling of nationalism.