For Beijing’s foreign policy goals, nationalism has proved to be a similarly useful tool, particularly when it comes to its desire to more assertively reshape the regional order in its favor. Through propaganda or political conformity, the Communist Party has increasingly promoted narratives peddling China as a victim of Western imperialism and the current world order. Under this narrative, threats from Beijing’s adversaries, particularly the United States, can be easily framed as foreign manipulation intended to block China’s rise as a global power — whether it’s Washington’s trade moves, its increased presence in the South China Sea or support of Taiwan and the Hong Kong protesters. The party is then able to present itself as a guardian of China’s nationhood and sovereignty, giving it new avenues with which to instill internal cohesion and authority at times of growing economic plight and uncertainty.
But this strategy also suffered a serious blow during the early days of the trade war. In 2018, U.S. sanctions against state-owned telecom firm ZTE exposed a fundamental power gap in the eyes of the public and, in turn, put Beijing’s state-fueled narratives into serious doubt. As the trade war drags on, China’s top domestic firms will remain under threat. And given the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, the county’s national sovereignty is now even potentially at risk, evoking painful memories of the «century of humiliation» among the Chinese public.
The Party Versus the Nation
Such a staunch brand of nationalism at home, however, can easily turn against Beijing by limiting its flexibility to deal with matters both at home and abroad. The Chinese state, for instance, has sharply dialed up its anti-U.S. rhetoric since trade talks collapsed in late April in an effort to justify its uncompromising negotiating position over sovereignty and, more broadly, to prepare the public for a prolonged fight. But while Beijing has skillfully managed the sentiment to prevent broader protests and attacks against U.S. businesses, the same nationalist uptick has narrowed its space for future compromises with Washington. Meanwhile, issues related to national interests such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea are on the rise, while Beijing’s ideological clashes with the West are only set to increase in the coming years. And as a result, many countries and businesses will be forced to tiptoe around China’s nationalist agenda lest they face the consequences.
Nationalist messaging naturally supports a greater assertiveness of Chinese foreign policies and can also help justify actions against countries perceived as insulting national sovereignty. But sometimes those actions can conflict with Beijing’s intent to project a benign image in its global affairs to solidify its Asian periphery, as well as its economic influence overseas through giant investment projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative. As the recent NBA fiasco has shown, public commentary on sovereignty matters can now easily prompt a response — or overreaction — by the Chinese state, even if it means jeopardizing its key business partners.