Notes on Nationalism

Recently, I have been researching China’s history, particularly since the Communist revolution. I have also been reading Yuval Noah Harari’s books and how he sees the shared fictions that bind our societies together. Here are some notes on nationalism from those two perspectives and how it can, much like a tool, be used various ways. First, it makes sense to define nationalism. As with many words, its meaning gets faded and subverted the more it gets used. I am defining nationalism as simply the sense of national identity. In particular when writing on China, nationalism appears on both sides of the Communist revolution, both in the so-called Nationalist side and the so-called Communist side, perhaps even more so on the Communist side. In the West, nationalism especially since WW2 has been shaded with a sense of evil, mostly due to the nationalism shown by Hitler’s Germany. In reality though, nationalism has many different forms. The best way of conceptualising these forms was mentioned in Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” as a spectrum which denotes how “nationalistic” or how much value is given to the nation state. For some forms of nationalism, there is simply a sense of patriotism and a feeling that we should do what is best for our own country. The point at which this nationalism gets dangerous is where the country itself is seen as especially superior to others. Taken to an extreme, we have the example of American exceptionalism and a thinking that the US can do no wrong on the world stage. Taken to a more directly evil extreme, we have the example of Nazi Germany believing themselves to be the superior nation state. But there is a powerful force in nationalism if used and controlled in the right way. For example, if there were a nationalism based on mateship, the values of the country would be friendly to its neighbours rather than imperial. This is the nationalism that I believe Australia could benefit from. Instead, we seem to take most of our values from the United States, with our complacency and stagnation imported rather than home-grown. This is a separate idea that I may come back to, but first a note on another type of nationalism that has proven to turn a society from poverty to relative riches. China had suffered a century of devastation, known in China as the century of humiliation. This started with the opium wars of the 1840s and 1850s and effectively ended with the Communist revolution of 1949. China now had a new, visionary leader in Mao Zedong after a comprehensive and unexpected victory over the US-supported nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek. This conflict resulted in Chiang Kai-shek and his party, Kuomintang, fleeing to Taiwan. This resulted in decades of martial law and brutal suppression of the Taiwanese population in a period known as the White Terror. Mao, for all his infamy in the West, is still a revered figure in China today. I would argue that there is good reason for this. Mao brought a nationalism and vision to China that was much needed. This man had a different way of doing things, and while his policies ended in disaster, the coalescing of the nation was a huge feat and paved the way for the more competent policies of his successors to transform China into the superpower it is becoming today. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, took this national identity and utilised it along with far more competent policies. The special economic zones were some of the most visionary policies ever implemented and transformed Shenzhen from a tiny fishing village to a technology hub rivalling its neighbour Hong Kong. Opening up China to the Western world was another visionary move in this period, although it came with its drawbacks. The population revolted and was met with government force in Tiananmen Square. While we can argue whether such governmental force on its citizens is moral, there is also the point to be made that it was required to focus the vision of the nation. This is a vision that took almost a billion people from poverty and has turned an agricultural society into a competing global superpower. This kind of growth has never been seen before. This improvement was not matched in the West, even given our well-advanced starting position. I am not arguing that Western countries should adopt China’s model, but simply that we learn from it. My takeaway from China’s rise from a century of humiliation to a global superpower is, among many other things, that nationalism can be an incredibly effective strategy of mobilising your people. This shared vision of a Chinese dream aligned the goals of the citizens of the nation and with the right guidance has transformed their country. Could Australia take some lessons from this? My thinking on Australian nationalism is that we barely have any at all. Instead, we see ourselves as a 51st state of America. We import everything from our taste in Netflix shows to global movements of race relations, whether they are relevant here or not. We have the opportunity for visionary leaders given the relative strength of our unions and the Labor Party that has been established as a result. Leaders like Kevin Rudd and all the way back to Gough Whitlam have had visions for an Australia bigger and better than itself. Instead of sticking with these leaders, they are routinely dismissed by our friends across the Pacific. It seems that the only thing we haven’t imported from America is a sense of sovereignty. What could Australia do to establish a sense of healthy nationalism? There are plenty of ideas. For a spark point, especially with the coming decline of the American empire, we could use a republic referendum to start a conversation about sovereignty in a new era. I am not one for symbolism for symbolism’s sake, but this is for a specific purpose. With emotions raised and conversations started, we could have a democratic debate about our country’s sovereignty and how we envision ourselves in the future. In terms of policy, a sense of nationalism could be created around the transforming of Australia into a renewable energy superpower a la Ross Garnaut. The Australian value of mateship could be taken to both domestic and global stages, healing indigenous relations within our borders and helping our South-East Asian and Pacific neighbours to develop their own economies. There are plenty of ways to take nationalism, and yet very few points in history in which change can be fostered. I believe that one of these moments will occur in the decade to come.

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