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Global perspective: The resurgence of nationalism

High school students hold Chinese flags while standing in formation in front of bronzes of Mao Zedong and other "leaders of the national foundation" in Shijiazhuang, China's Hebei province, in this May 2021 file photo. (Mainichi)

In China, tourism of famous sites of the Communist revolution is booming. It seems to be a way of tracing a proud century of the Communist Party's founding on the occasion of its 100th anniversary.

    One tends to see this phenomenon as something involving poor people who have been poisoned by the one-party dictatorship that sometimes treats human rights and democracy as if they were nothing. However, in an emerging country that has overcome its "history of humiliation" and is on the verge of becoming the strongest country in the world, there are many people who seem to naturally become patriotic, likening their lives to the "Chinese dream." Regardless of whether you are on the left or the right side of the political spectrum, if you are pressured by two successive U.S. administrations, the Trump and Biden administrations, across the political spectrum, you may well feel bullied. There must be many people who reflexively want to defend their country.

    Love and pride in one's country is not limited to contemporary China, but can be found anywhere and anytime. The awareness of being linked to what Hans Kohn, a pioneer in the study of nationalism, described as "the common glory in the past, the common interest in the present, and the common mission in the future" gives grand meaning to even the smallest and shallowest lives. In particular, in this age of globalization, whether it is Tokyo or Shanghai, one tends to see oneself as a replaceable part of a larger system that transcends national borders. In such an era, nationalism is the perfect mental stabilizer, anchoring one's ever-changing life in a unique history that continues unbroken.

    It must work only when there is a sense of unity as a nation. When a catastrophe occurs in a distant part of a country and we extend a helping hand, the feeling of being a fellow countryman surely intervenes. In many cases, a certain level of trust in the same people contributes to the fact that the political system does not break down even when someone with a completely different political stance is in power.

    Therefore, one has to admit that nationalism has its benefits. However, its side effects are substantial. In particular, when patriotism is imposed "from above" from a position of power, and when people are forced to "ethnically" identify with a certain group, the negative effects can be serious.

    While President Xi Jinping has been praising the "great revival of the Chinese nation," the Uyghurs in Xinjiang have been subjected to severe repression. The Xi regime has put more than one million Uyghurs in indoctrination camps, denied their religious beliefs, imposed patriotic and pro-party education, and even deprived them of the right to have children. These measures, which are said to have been strengthened after a bomb attack took place during President Xi's visit in the region, are deeply tinged with genocidal tendencies. In the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the teaching of the Mongolian language has been relegated to the margins, and the policy of Hanization is being promoted.

    In this July 1, 2021 file photo, a military band enters Beijing's Tiananmen Square ahead of the Chinese Communist Party centenary celebrations. (Mainichi)

    In his speech on the centennial of the birth of the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi declared, "We have never bullied, oppressed, or subjugated the people of any country, and we never will." But Beijing is doing exactly that to its own ethnic and religious minorities, and one cannot help but feel disappointed by the gap between rhetoric and reality.

    Likewise, it is inexcusable to suppress people in Hong Kong who are seeking their rudimentary political rights on the grounds that they "threaten the unity of the country." The regime crushes journalism that criticizes it, detains promising young people as a warning to others and deprives them of freedom of speech and assembly, and even revokes the right to vote on the basis of "patriotism." The authorities take these measures for the maintenance of the one-party dictatorship, but these steps are equated with something different -- loyalty to the country -- and thus lead to the suppression of dissent. This is a typical example of the forcible homogenizing effect of nationalism.

    Japan, too, is not immune to this kind of nationalism. Try searching for what politicians and self-proclaimed experts, as well as "neto-uyo," online right-wing activists, are writing about Japanese residents of Korean descent, the southernmost island of Okinawa, and the Ainu ethnic group. There is an abundance of hate that treats others as different, imposes a certain image on them, and eventually leads to their exclusion.

    Perhaps the problem doesn't stop there because love of country can defy diversity and be exclusionary even when not engaging in such horrific acts.

    When I attend international conferences online these days, I get a curious response: "Japanese speakers talk only about China." One European intellectual once asked me if China was becoming an obsession for Japan. Indeed, I suddenly found everyone talking about China all the time.

    When I was talking with Vinh Sinh, a Vietnam-born modern historian who is now deceased, I realized that Japan's longing for and rejection of China is unique because Japan is spiritually disconnected from China compared to Vietnam. Almost certainly, the differentiation from China is a fundamental part of Japan's national identity. Therefore, even more so, Japan must be careful how it distances itself from contemporary China while looking squarely at the problems the neighbor faces.

    The writer Makoto Oda once said of the peer pressure coming out from nationalism: "It is not that getting drunk on nationalism itself is bad. Things become scary when you get drunk and start looking at other people who don't or can't get drunk as disgusting, thinking "what the hell is wrong with them." Then people who are not drunk will have to pretend that they are intoxicated too. And while they are posing, they also start to get really drunk."

    We should not stop watching China's problems and criticizing them. But if we get so caught up in it and succumb to anti-Chinese peer pressure, then Japan will become a mirror image of China.

    Nationalism is like a well that never runs dry. The off-putting celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party in China are urging Japan to check itself.

    (By Ken Endo, Professor, Graduate School of Public Policy, Hokkaido University)

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