May 9, 2023
ASN interviews Dr. Koter about a role of ethnicity in shaping African politics and the robustness of national identity in African countries, an area of research often overshadowed by ethnic identity.
April 3, 2023
Can we (and should we) compare China to other countries when analyzing nationalism? David Stroup discusses his latest article “Chinese Nationalism: Insights and Opportunities for Comparative Studies” (Nationalities Papers, vol.51 #1)
February 26, 2023
Interview with Vladimir Đorđević, Mikhail Suslov, Marek Čejka, Ondřej Mocek and Martin Hrabálek about their latest article in Nationalities Papers.
April 3, 2023
ASN: What inspired you to focus your research in China?
DS: My interest in China really began as an undergraduate student at Davidson College. In my second year, I took a course in Chinese Politics with Shelley Rigger, who would go on to be a mentor, and serve as my undergraduate advisor. It was such an excellent course, and it really captured my attention as it explored so many questions about China’s complexity and dynamism. I soon began to study the Chinese language, and before I knew it, I was signed up to do a semester of study abroad in Kunming, a provincial capital in southwestern China. Being in Yunnan, one of China’s most ethnically diverse provinces, was a truly formative experience. My studies there showed me that there were so many puzzles about how people situated themselves in relation to the state and to Chineseness. Every day, I found myself in a place where there were so many emergent questions about the politics of economic development, heritage preservation, ethnic identity, cultural authenticity, and state-society relations. I knew from this experience that I wanted to dig deeper into all of these questions, and explore them in an academic sense.
ASN: The research literature on China is often perceived as a stand-alone monolith. What can be learnt by comparing China with Western/democratic and non-Western/non-democratic cases?
DS: Placing China in a comparative context helps us to better situate and develop theory. By doing so, we can avoid the pitfalls of overgeneralization, or find the limits of theory. A common critique is that while much of the theoretical canon in studies of nationalism is derived from the experience of nation-state building in modern Europe, its axioms are posited as universal. Likewise, it is important to consider how matters of nationhood and national belonging are performed and negotiated in contexts where formal political competition is limited or non-existent. Looking to cases like China allows us to refine those theories and understand how and when they fall short of understanding other contexts. Understanding how structures of power, institutions, culture, etc. might operate differently in China than in other cases may help us to better understand the way processes of identity construction and maintenance work. Importantly, looking at the study of nationalism in China provides the opportunity to apply a critical lens, and build stronger, more nuanced theory. In short, widening out and including insights and observations from China enriches the theoretical base for the field as a whole.
ASN: Economic growth over the last few decades has increased socio-economic differentiation in China. Do you see a rise in different elites – political, economic, social – and do they have differing visions of national goals?
DS: Undoubtedly, the change in economic status of millions in China after the start of the Era of Reform and Opening (begun in 1978) has led to a general transformation of China’s social and political landscapes. Numerous studies of the politics of contemporary China have focused on the internal politics of the Chinese Communist Party and the role of economic elites within contemporary Chinese society. So, too, has there been much attention on the importance of China’s middle class, many of whom have seen their economic status rise dramatically over the last two or three decades. The recent “White Paper Protests” of November-December 2022 illustrate that understanding of what it means to be included in the community of nationhood, what values stand as patriotic or in service of the nation, and what actions may be seen as pursuing national interest vary widely across the population. Indeed, it’s hard to say that these protests were about any one thing, as they encompassed a range of aspirations, concerns, priorities, and demands. As my state-of-the-field article stresses, it’s important that scholars of nationalism looking into China continue to seek out these everyday perspectives, and understand how and when individuals’ understanding of national identity and national belonging diverge from official ones.
ASN: A rise in migration and improvements in communication technology have impacted information exchange in the 21stcentury. Do these factors play a role in how national identities are formed in China?
DS: Like the rest of the world, the internet has enabled citizens in China to express and negotiate ideas about national belonging. Despite government censorship of online communication, netizens have still been able to use domestic social media platforms like WeChat, Douyin, and Weibo to disseminate discourse about the nation to members of the imagined community of the nation, both within China and abroad. For example, a meme of a blank sheet of A4 paper became a widely circulated symbol during the November-December protests, as did an image of the street sign for Urumqi Road in Shanghai, where some of the largest protests took place. These images were replicated throughout China, but were also widely distributed online and subsequently reproduced by Chinese citizens living in places like London, Paris, Tokyo, and New York. Similarly, in recent years viral documentaries, like 2014’s “Under the Dome” about air quality in China, or 2022’s “Voices of April” about the COVID-19 lockdowns in Shanghai, have brought international attention to pressing issues in ways that previously might not have been possible. While censorship does certainly impose challenges on viral political movements, instances like these illustrate how technology and online communication have sparked more inclusive national conversations than in previous eras.
ASN: The onset of COVID-19 and restrictions on civil society have complicated data gathering and observations in China. What advice would you give to young scholars of everyday nationalism who are trying to start their work in the region?
DS: While the last few years have made going back to China to do fieldwork very difficult, they’ve also shown us why seeking out everyday perspectives on what is going on in China is so vital. As we explore the socio-political landscape in China after the start of Xi Jinping’s unprecedented 3rd term in the leadership, it’s important to remember that amidst the official communications and rhetoric, the perspectives of ordinary people can teach us a lot about the success of legitimation narratives, points of resistance to the regime, or mechanisms of authoritarian stability maintenance. Put simply, I think we can’t lose sight of those perspectives. However, we also need to remember to put the safety of our interviewees and research participants first. One thing I would stress to scholars just starting out in the region is to make ethical protection of their interviewees the core of their work. This may mean rethinking how we define “the field” in the midst of authoritarian foreclosure. If access to the field becomes restricted, scholars will need to consider how they can explore what Jon E. Fox (2017) calls “the edges of the nation.” This could mean looking to members of the community residing abroad, or toward online spaces. While such places need to be contextualized in order to ensure that we don’t overstate their representativeness, I think this is a way to pursue the everyday even if the field is hard to reach.
ASN: Looking ahead, what do you see as the future of Chinese nationalism, and how might it shape political and social dynamics in China and beyond?
DS: Xi Jinping has continued to place nationalism at the core of his rhetoric and to speak about the “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” as one of his paramount goals. While these are vague platitudes, they speak to the importance that Xi places on notions of national pride as a tool of governance. To that end, I think it’s important to consider how Xi’s regime understands what falls within the boundaries of Chinese nationhood. Given Xi’s emphasis on Sinicization as a broad project connected to this national rejuvenation, it’s important to think about what (people, places, practices, etc.) Xi includes as part of Chinese nationhood, and what he determines to fall outside the boundaries of Chineseness. Understanding how Xi’s policy agenda attempts to achieve Sinicization is a key subject for future understanding of Chinese nationalism and its political influence.
Full article can be found Stroup, D. (2022). Chinese Nationalism: Insights and Opportunities for Comparative Studies. Nationalities Papers, 1-15. doi:10.1017/nps.2022.99