In early 2021, popular grassroots nationalist vlogger Zheng Guocheng, apparently drunk, remonstrated vehemently against the government for corruption and repression during a live-streaming event with his followers. For Zheng, the incident was costly as he not only lost all his channels on domestic vlogging platforms and alienated many of his followers, but also became a laughingstock among his opponents, the regime critics, who mocked him for being repressed by a regime that he defended. While Zheng later returned to his nationalist and pro-regime position (either out of his true political orientation or simply to maintain his audience base), this incident is emblematic of the perplexing relationship between the state and spontaneous nationalism in China. More specifically, if Zheng is a true nationalist, he probably belongs to the neo-Maoist movement, which defends China and the state against regime critics while also often challenging the regime on domestic problems, especially corruption and increasing inequality.
Indeed, nationalism in reform-era China, whether it is state-led or spontaneous, has a pro-regime tendency overall. But the picture is much more complicated, especially under the current administration. On the one hand, the success of economic reforms and the subsequent rise of China on the global stage, together with President Xi’s “Chinese dream” of national revival and the more assertive foreign policy have all made Chinese nationalists more proud of the nation than ever before. When met with Western pushback, as in the Sino-US confrontation, such national pride only fuels popular nationalism further, boosting support for the Communist Party. On the other hand, well over forty years into the reform era, many serious social, economic and political problems have accumulated, leading to ever rising tensions within Chinese society, which in turn have caused frustration among many citizens, as reflected in cyber buzz words such as “involution” (neijuan, being burned out by endless and overly fierce competition) and “lying flat” (tangping, not working hard).
The neo-Maoist movement, which emerged much earlier and has recently gained more momentum, combines popular Chinese nationalism and Maoist nostalgia of communism (Jude Blanchette’s 2019 book China's New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong details the phenomenon). Far from a coherent political force, the movement overall constitutes a challenge to the Chinese state - as an unruly force that can cause disruptions and thus needs to be suppressed - but is also instrumental to sustain the Party’s rule due to its ideological roots and its popular patriotic appeal.
Putting the Xi Jinping effect aside, the rise of such a force suggests that after more than 40 years of economic reform, China is once again at a critical historical juncture. Where is heading the nation? What does this imply for average citizens (and the world)? The answers to such questions depend in part on one’s perception of the nature of Chinese reform itself. Specifically, is the reform a detour to communism or is it a complete denial of the communist ideation? If the reform is meant to save communism, the ideology then still serves as an important source of legitimacy and ultimately the Party will return to the communist route. Should the reform be seen as pronouncing the death of communism, what the Party has been doing in the past few decades was basically turning right with the left signal on, and the nation will eventually go through a regime transition toward a liberal democratic system.
While individual Chinese citizens may have their own perceptions of the reality and anticipations of the future, one can easily observe the confusion and anxiety in Chinese society. After all, the reform had no blueprint, with Deng Xiaoping and his comrades trying to “cross the river by touching the stone.” The ultimate goal is not getting clearer in the reform process either. Although in hindsight the reform is market-oriented, creating a booming private economic sector and a huge middle class, and the Party has seemingly moved away from communism as witnessed in official ideological constructs like Jiang Zemin’s “three represents” and Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society,” the Party since Deng has yet to formally renounce communism, or Mao. The historical resolution actually decreed that Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong. As problems such as inequality deteriorate, Mao is regaining influence both within the society and among the elites, as reflected in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing model before the Xi era.
Though Bo Xilai has lost the political struggle, his Maoist popularity suggests that what has happened since 2013 may not simply be the “Xi Jinping effect,” but rather the result of broader socio-political trends that any new leader has to answer to. This explains why in addition to tightening up control over pro-liberal forces, China under Xi has prioritised anti-corruption and poverty alleviation. The state has also evoked the once conveniently downplayed “common prosperity” promise Deng made at the beginning of the reform, accompanied with crackdowns on certain sectors such as video gaming and afterschool tutoring as well as enhanced regulatory pressure on the wealthy, particularly the tech tycoons. Neo-Maoists generally welcome such changes, despite the fact that not all the problems are actually addressed and they themselves often become the target of state control.
However, communist nostalgia and popular nationalism do not always go hand in hand. Regarding where China is heading, for pure nationalists, the answer is simple, with national revival being their top priority regardless of how that goal is achieved. For many of them, the nation can be the new “empire” that replaces but replicates the US, extracting from the rest of the world to support itself. But for neo-Maoists, the ideal China is not an imperialist hegemon. Rather, the nation has to return to the Maoist route and become a communist power that would not only end inequality, exploitation and oppression domestically, but also ultimately spearhead the complete emancipation of the entire human race, which in a strange way echoes the official rhetoric of “community of shared destiny for mankind” that President Xi preaches. Such different visions of future China help distinguish neo-Maoists from ordinary nationalists. The fact that neo-Maoists are not simply nationalists makes them more threatening to the regime, which in turn explains why they are more closely watched and controlled by the state.
Despite the discrepancies, it is worth noting that neo-Maoists and ordinary nationalists (or Chinese citizens in general) share the common goal of national revival. From this perspective, China’s assertive foreign policy, especially toward the United States, enjoys popular support. Perceived hostile behaviour and attitudes from foreign actors (especially in cases such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or Taiwan) do nothing but help create the rally-round-the-flag effect, thus mitigating the communist element in the neo-Maoist movement. After all, while neo-Maoists and pure nationalists may disagree on whether China should become an imperialist hegemon or a communist power, they (and most Chinese) are certainly unwilling to accept a future in which China’s rise is interrupted.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.