Why anyone can be Chinese (3)

A few thoughts to add to the mix.

On Daniel Bell: To me, Daniel Bell seems like a cottage industry of finding virtue in “China” by any means necessary. So, even if China today obviously, by most counts, is an increasingly chauvinistic and narrow-nationalistic country, he harks back to the imperial era when ethnicity was indeed less relevant or salient (as is typically the case in empires!), and suggests that stance is, or should be, more true of China the eternal. I think he completely misses things like 1, empire; and 2, the profound impact of the modern ideas of nationalism and racism on modern China, an empire awkwardly re-cast as nation, today joining the new global trend of inwardlooking nationalism.

(One side of the Tiananmen gate has the text “Long live the unity of the world’s people” (世界人民大团结万岁), — I wonder how long it will be before it is taken down, — it does not fit with today’s dominant nationalism).

And so the whole thing comes across as an exercise in wishful thinking (something like his earlier effort to declare China the ultimate laudable “meritocracy” — for a review of that effort, read: http://insidestory.org.au/the-qing-is-dead-long-live-the-qing).

On identities generally, I think it is important to see that no identity is real, other than as part of the imagination of people embracing that identity, typically because they’ve been taught and told to do so. There is no underlying reality of ethnicity or culture or nation, that can somehow be uncovered as the “true” one. If anyone argues that there is, then, to me at least, they are engaging in another game of imagination or fantasy. Playing these games isn’t necessarily evil in itself, but the more guns, the more potential for trouble.

I think the key distinction in the world today isn’t between immigrant nations and non-immigrant nations, but between nations that allow people to join their identity and citizenship, thus in effect acknowledging the fundamental impossibility of the original nationalist idea of one true people-one true nation; and, on the other hand, nations that don’t allow it because of xenophobia and nationalism.

Everything is relative, of course: If you are Estonia, a small country living under the acute threat from a huge and increasingly militaristic neighbor, it will be difficult to accept too many people from that neighbor as citizens; but if you are China, immigrants like the Filipinas who have lived and worked most of their life in HK but are still denied residency or citizenship, can’t credibly be said to represent any kind of threat to your nation’s purity or survival.

Instead, the case of the Filipinas is just one expression of what should be recognized as a xenophobic nationalism based in racism; its flipside is the grotesque refusal to respect the new non-Chinese citizenship of those “Chinese” who decided to cancel their one-time Chinese citizenship (such as, among many others, the citizenship of my fellow Swedish citizen the bookseller Gui Minhai, who was abducted by Chinese agents from Thailand in 2015, and, horribly, remains in arbitrary detention in China).

The Economist had a nice article (with some flaws of course), summing up these trends in China. It may have been posted here, but here is the link again:

“Who is Chinese? The upper Han: The world’s rising superpower has a particular vision of ethnicity and nationhood that has implications at home and abroad.” The Economist, Nov 19th 2016. http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21710264-worlds-rising-superpower-has-particular-vision-ethnicity-and-nationhood-has<


Magnus Fiskesjö <nf42@cornell.edu>

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