October 28, 2008, Dr. Allen Carlson

A Flawed Perspective: The Limitations Inherent in the Study of Chinese Nationalism


(Click to enlarge) Dr. Allen Carlson discusses nationalism in China at the East-West Center in Washington on October 28, 2008.

(Washington DC) October 28 –Focusing excessively on Chinese nationalism as an explanation for China’s domestic or foreign policy behavior may distort the actual condition of identity politics in China. At an East-West Center event, Dr. Allen Carlson of Cornell University argued that few proponents of the view that Chinese nationalism is increasing can support their claims with empirical evidence and that by focusing on only the loudest voices in the discussion of Chinese identity, analysts overlook the diversity in the debate over what it means to be Chinese.

Dr. Carlson pointed out that the arguments to support the idea of rising Chinese nationalism often lack clear benchmarks that demonstrate the increase in nationalist sentiment over time. Though he acknowledged that proving something as intangible as nationalism is difficult, he argued that without setting clear measurements and benchmarks, it is misleading to use Chinese nationalism as a significant causation variable in describing current and possible future actions of the Chinese state.

He instead focused on the vibrant state of identity politics in China, noting that there is a very rich debate about Chinese identity in cyberspace where, despite government censorship, more and more Chinese are discussing their national identity. He argued that there is no unified definition of what it means to be Chinese much less a collective nationalism of the type that many American experts suggest will shape Chinese international policy.

Dr. Carlson cited several examples, including the anger the Chinese people exhibited over the Tibet uprising earlier this year which far outstripped the official rhetoric of the government, the debate in artistic communities over the message of a collective Chinese history suggested in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, and the tainted-milk scandal in which many bloggers questioned the Chinese government’s fitness to lead the nation.

These and other debates taking place on computers all over China prompted Dr. Carlson to suggest that there is a great deal of fluidity over what it means to be Chinese, and that these arguments are constantly challenging the party line.

Rather than the collective national monolith that the Chinese government would like to portray to the world, China’s discussion about its national identity is causing a certain amount of instability within the country; instability that is contrary to the claims by American scholars that a unified nationalism will push the government to act aggressively toward its neighbors. Instead, Dr. Carlson felt that this debate will cause the Chinese government to look inward rather than outward and that the cultural instability that it causes could lead the Chinese state to miscalculate its citizens’ responses to a wide range of issues.

Dr. Allen Carlson is an associate professor at Cornell University and serves as the director of undergraduate studies for Cornell’s government department as well as an advisor to its newly established China Asia Pacific Studies program. He is currently exploring the issue of nontraditional security in China’s emerging relationship with the rest of the international system. Recently, he was chosen to participate in the National Committee’s prestigious Public Intellectuals Program and has finished an article on the issue of Chinese nationalism which is forthcoming in the journal Nations and Nationalism. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale University and was a Fulbright-Hays scholar at Peking University during the 2004-2005 academic year.