In March last year, many Western commentators framed the COVID-19 pandemic as the upcoming fall of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Conversely, others speculated that the nationalist sentiments would strengthen the CCP’s rule. With the benefit of a year’s hindsight, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the CCP’s ability to harness Chinese public opinion and transform popular distrust and anger into national solidarity and pride using the Chinese hybrid nationalism – a combination of party nationalism and popular nationalism.
Let us return to Wuhan in December 2019. Patient zero, the first documented patient in a disease epidemic within a population, was identified in Wuhan on the 1st of December 2019. Wuhan Municipal Commission reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia on the 31st of December 2019. On the 11th and 12th of January, the World Health Organisation received detailed information about the novel coronavirus outbreak. Given the time discrepancy between official responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, information about COVID-19 were circulated online as it is the first pandemic in the age of social media. When the government covered up the spread of the SARS virus in the early 2000s, social media was only beginning to gain a foothold in shaping public opinion.
The Chinese government is used to controlling public opinion by censorship of both printed and online media and conversations on social media channels. However, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the difference between the official narrative and testimonies circulated on social media platforms was stark. The narrative on social media was hostile against the CCP, criticising the government for cover-ups, incompetence and crackdowns on alternative narratives in late January and early February in 2020. Nevertheless, the CCP transformed the popular dissatisfaction into broad support for the CCP and the Chinese national effort in the COVID-19 pandemic. To understand the underlying mechanisms, it is important to clarify the relations between the Chinese party-nationalism and popular nationalism.
From Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, Chinese leaders emphasised the importance of securing public approval. ‘Winning or losing public support is an issue that concerns the CCP’s survival or extinction,’ admitted the latter. Similarly, in many authoritarian states, party nationalism, a top-down driven nationalism, has long legitimised China’s regime (Reilly, 2011).
Firstly, the party nationalism served to strengthen the regime’s stability. It has been historically intertwined with the establishment of a nation-state in 1949. Although a political and cultural Chinese heritage stretches back two millennia, nationalism in Gellner (1983) and Hobsbawm (1990) understanding is connected to the nation-state, born out of the CCP’s competition with the liberal nationalism of the May Fourth movement of 1919 and Kuomintang nationalism. While party nationalism was developing among the educated Chinese class in urban areas, the rural areas are traditionally more difficult to reach and influence. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) provided an opportunity to penetrate Chinese localism. The anti-Japanese guerrilla warfare soldiers introduced party nationalism directly connected to the CCP to the Chinese rural population (He, 2018). Thus, the victory of communism was equally perceived as a victory of Chinese nationalism.
Mao’s inward-looking self-reliance policy mirrors the need to establish domestic nationalism intertwined with the CCP. From 1949 to 1979, mass organisations, mass education and mass media for the first time reached Chinese communities. Nationalism developed simultaneously with the centralised nation-state under the CCP. Parallel to the newly established centralised modern state, the socialist revolution promoted schooling, in turn emphasising nationalism (Zheng, 1999). The role of nationalism in strengthening the regime’s stability is visible in the Patriotic Education Campaign (Liu and Dunnein, 2009) the post-Tiananmen period and the ‘national security’ schools curriculum imposed in Hong Kong in 2021. In these campaigns, the CCP depicts itself as the guardian of national independence against foreign countries’ influence on China, Chinese culture, and economic growth.
Secondly, party nationalism is a source of legitimacy for the CCP. In March 2020, Ai Weiwei questioned whether the government that lacks legitimacy could survive indefinitely. Should the COVID-19 pandemic undermine party nationalism’s narrative, Ai Weiwei predicted a possible fall of the CCP. Historically, the Chinese nation is closely identified with the CCP, which portrays itself as the herald of the nation’s interests. In the ideological vacuum following Mao’s death, Marxism-Leninism and Maoism were substituted by nationalism (Hughes, 2006).
Without popular elections, the CCP claims to represent the Chinese nation because it advances the nation’s interests rather than the state’s interest. The individuals are encouraged to let the CCP represent their interests en-bloc as a nation. Thus, the CCP demands individuals to subordinate their individual interests to those of the state. In turn, the CCP’s legitimacy lies in furthering the nation’s, not the political party’s, interests. Party nationalism was determined by the CCP’s successful maintenance of political stability and economic development. As a result, the CCP is intrinsically intertwined with the nation because it represents its interests. Understanding of this intertwined connection is important because, for instance, foreign criticism of the CCP is perceived as criticism of the Chinese nation, which the CCP claims to embody.
Therefore, the Chinese party-nationalism strengthens the regime’s stability and is the legitimacy source for the CCP. Due to the lack of election, the CCP maintains its legitimacy by advancing the nation’s interests. Should alternative narratives of the COVID-19 pandemic circulate among the Chinese public on social media platforms, the role of advancing the nation’s interest would be undermined. Given the experience of the lack of transparency during the SARS epidemic, many Chinese citizens remained unsure of whether to trust their government during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
To retain the CCP’s legitimacy based on furthering the nation’s interest, the National Supervisory Committee sent a special team to Wuhan to investigate the matters related to Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist based in Wuhan, known for raising awareness of early COVID-19 infections in Wuhan. They decided to revoke the reprimand and hold the relevant police officers accountable. The pattern of punishing individual and local actors for easing anger and distracting from structural problems within the system itself persists. Top Hubei and Wuhan officials were replaced in mid-February.
Conversely to Ai Weiwei’s argument that the COVID-19 pandemic reveals a more serious illness of the Chinese regime, Xi Jinping positioned himself as the leader of the people’s war against the coronavirus from early on. What seemed to be proof of the inability of the CCP and lack of transparency was transformed into an effective blend of organisational prowess, respect for science, and traditional Chinese morality and a sense of collectivity. The relation between the Chinese party nationalism and popular nationalism is key to understanding the transformation of popular mistrust and anger to national support of the CCP.
Chinese popular nationalism
Popular bottom-up nationalism is a double-edged sword. The revolutionary nationalism in China, where until 1979 the CCP ran all newspapers, was replaced by a hybrid combination of party and popular nationalism, just as Chinese media were allowed to compete in the market and profit from advertisements (Shirk, 2011). The interest in foreign affairs was magnified by constructing an internet network in China in 1993 (Shirk, 2011). Both print and online media fuel hybrid nationalism composed of the party and popular nationalism. The former is secured by active censorship, firewall, and the so-called Fifty-cent army. The latter is fuelled by commercialisation dependent on sensational news feeding into popular nationalist sentiments in line with the CCP.
The CCP tolerates popular nationalism in the media because it mirrors the CCP’s narrative of Chinese exceptionalism (Zhang, 2013). Furthermore, the CCP monitors public opinion and accordingly adjusts its foreign policy. However, public nationalism has to be channelled through the CCP. Li Wenliang posted messages alerting his fellow doctors about a newly identified disease in the COVID-19 pandemic’s early days. Consequently, security forces accused him of ‘making false comments’ and acting illegally to disturb the social order. He signed an agreement not to discuss the matter further.
After the state-controlled media reported Li Wenliang’s death in February 2020, the CCP was met by grief and anger on social media. Risking the turn of public option against the CCP, the Party wasted no time joining the public to pay tribute to Li Wenliang, going as far as to officially recognise him as a martyr.
Thus domestically, the CCP has appropriated popular anger and grief, transforming it into a controlled narrative of national solidarity. The staging of national mourning day on the 4th of April was a crystallisation of party-nationalism. At that moment, mourning was no longer destabilising but patriotic.
Internationally, the CCP relied on popular nationalism. Since 2008, the CCP has begun to loosen its grip on popular nationalism and uses it to its advantage. The CCP defends the unity of the Chinese nation-state through the invention of a pan-Chinese national identity and emphasises the Century of Humiliation’s narrative to enhance anti-Western sentiments (Gries, 2004). This narrative refers to the period between 1839 and 1949 when Japan and Western powers invaded or otherwise interfered in China. In contemporary foreign affairs, the narrative serves to justify China’s place in the international society of states because it deserves it consequent to its humiliation. Furthermore, it delegitimises foreign criticism against China, which defends its sovereignty against being allegedly repeatedly bullied by foreign countries.
The international society of states has accused China from the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic of late response and notification of the World Health Organisation. Many world leaders directly linked China with the virus. The former American President Donald Trump spoke about ‘the Chinese virus,’ ‘the Wuhan virus,’ or ‘Kung flu’. The Chinese public often assumes that accusations from Western governments are in bad faith.
The online backlash against the scheduled publication of Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary (2020) in English and German is a perfect example of how the debate quickly became distorted by binary thinking: the assumption of a binary opposition between a homogeneous China and a homogeneous ‘West’. Chinese netizens who attack her claim that even though some part of the diary might be true and fair, the translation of her work for a Western audience means betrayal and cosying up to ‘foreign hostile forces’ – a term frequently used by both state media and the general public in China to delegitimise local social movements and grassroots activism as stemming from foreign influence.
Current Chinese hybrid nationalism is a combination of party and popular nationalism. Magnified by the commercially driven press, vibrant internet, and state-sponsored patriotic education, nationalism legitimates the CCP rule and is a tool for the Chinese people to judge the state’s performance. Internationally, Chinese nationalism was further fuelled by anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism and accusations of Chinese mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every crisis can strengthen or undermine the party’s grip. The CCP’s position has strengthened during the COVID-19 pandemic. It exacerbated the party nationalism, and popular nationalism raises a pressing question: If the CCP may not afford to make concessions on its sovereignty and economic interest due to the rising nationalism, will it be pressured into an increased assertive stance in global politics?
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