A Parallel in History?

China’s Dangerous Game with Nationalism

By Jason Wu

On June 20, 1900, German ambassador to China Clemens von Ketteler was assassinated in front of the Zongli Yamen (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) in Peking (now Beijing). This assassination was carried out by a group known as the Boxers, an anti-West, anti-Christian, and anti-imperialist peasant militia group aimed at eradicating Western political and religious influences over China. The broader political movement was better known as the Boxer Rebellion, a series of uprisings and conflicts fueled, if not driven, by a hyper-nationalistic sentiment that permeated China after nearly half a century of national humiliation.   

This movement was not without backing. Unsurprisingly, Empress Dowager’s Qing Imperial Court long wanted to rid Western influences from her failing empire. The Imperial Government condoned killings and murders of foreigners and Christian missionaries, ignoring Western powers’ demands for investigations. Eventually, the Imperial Army even joined ranks with the Boxers to lay siege on foreign legations in Peking. The consequences were catastrophic as it was met by an invasion of an eight-nation alliance led by Great Britain, Germany, and other powers. The military conflict resulted in a series of unequal treaties known as the Boxer Protocol, which forced China to concede more benefits to the West. 

This article argues that a similar form of government-backed hyper-nationalism is currently taking shape in China and should be handled with great caution given its catastrophic historical precedent. The Chinese government is embarking on a parallel in history amid the current ever-complicated geopolitical landscape. 

If you ever get a chance to read international affairs articles on Chinese media outlets such as Global Times or the People’s Daily, you’ll see the comments sections flooded by patriotic, sometimes even radical, opinions and commentaries. These comments reinforce and echo the articles’ nationalistic tone, a pattern reminiscent to that of during the Cultural Revolution during the late 1960s. This phenomenon is likely to amplify during this pandemic crisis under Xi’s tendencies to rally and hijack nationalistic sentiments for the sake of political consolidation amid political challenges [1]. In fact, the effects of China’s push for nationalism are already surfacing. Due to the recent surge of imported coronavirus cases, resentment and discriminatory practices have been directed at foreigners living in China. White foreigners are denied entry from shops and restaurants while African residents are being evicted from their homes [2]. Boxer-like resentment and hostile attitude towards the West are becoming increasingly palpable. 

Coupling with the diplomatic tensions surrounding the Coronavirus and WHO, unrests in Hong Kong and conflicts with Taiwan are generating further discontent with the West (particularly the United States). From calling the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “enemy of the people” [3] to criticizing Canada as “America’s lapdog” [4], the Chinese medias are making the resentfulness more audible. These hostile feelings are extensions of chronicle grievances from the past, much like those felt during the Boxer Rebellion. Issues such as United States’ multibillion-dollar arms sales to Taiwan, Japan’s challenge on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and Britain’s interference in Hong Kong politics planted the sources for a new wave of Chinese nationalism. Chinese media deliberately adds fuel to the buildup of public outrage.

Without proper management and constraint from Xi’s government, a hyper-inflated nationalism will lead to more harms than good for China’s foreign relations. Rampant violence like the riots during the Diaoyu/Senkaku conflict are likely to resurface if China continues to tangle itself in a spiral of diplomatic skirmishes and state media propagandas. United States and its allies’ hawkish approach to confront China, such as bills to delist Chinese companies from US stock markets [5] and threats to take action on the new National Security Law [6], will only push Xi to further rally patriotism to protect his throne. Incidents of foreign embassies being sieged and foreign companies being sabotaged as a result of overheating public outrage will not serve well for China’s political and economic interests. Wide-spread economic sanctions and further actions on Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even Xinjiang will likely be considered diplomatic bargains for the West as they have done in the past. 

This article is not criticizing the Chinese people’s entitled pride in their national identity, nor is it suggesting that China should submit to pressures from the West. What this article is suggesting, however, is that Xi’s government should scale back on its propaganda efforts to avert punitive actions from the international community. As powerful economically and militarily China may be, in light of recent developments and under the initiative of the United States, many Western countries are no longer afraid to defy Chinese influences. With economic growth slowing and unemployment rate surging [7]as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, China may not be well-equipped enough to take on an international coalition if confrontations are to escalate. Public irrationality and radicalization as a result of Xi’s mishandling of public opinions are dangerous and not in China’s national interests. Government action can be and should be taken now before the escalating resentment evolve into Boxer-like political strife.

Jason Wu is a sophomore at Tufts University.


[1] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-04-03/chinas-coming-upheaval

[2] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3082653/chinas-guangdong-province-unveils-new-anti-discrimination

[3] https://www.cna.com.tw/news/acn/202005050291.aspx

[4] https://news.sina.cn/gn/2018-12-12/detail-ihqackaa7310023.d.html?from=wap

[5] https://www.marketwatch.com/story/senate-could-vote-on-bill-that-could-delist-chinese-companies-from-us-stock-exchanges-2020-05-19

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/22/world/asia/trump-pompeo-china-hong-kong.html

[7] https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3078251/coronavirus-chinas-unemployment-crisis-mounts-nobody-knows

[Photo by Mark Ralston] https://slate.com/technology/2012/09/diaoyu-protests-what-japanese-internet-users-think-of-the-chinese-demonstrations.html