Patriotism, Democracy, and Chinese Students Abroad

When I was still a little kid in an elementary school in China, I was
told by my teacher in the patriotic education class that I should love my
country. The slogan that we recited repeatedly is that “love the party and love the country.” I was too young to decipher the nuance within that slo- gan: the fact that the party is ahead of the country. After Xi Jinping assumed the presidency in 2013, he strengthened his grasp on power both politically and ideologically. He first proposed the so- called “Chinese Dream” in 2013, that China’s lost national greatness will eventually be restored by no one other than the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

His doctrine, “Xin Jinping’s Thought,” was enshrined in the Chinese Constitution after the 19th National Congress of CPC that its core is “Ensuring the Communist Party of China’s leadership over all forms of work in China.” Besides, Xi is a nationalistic leader and has strategies such as conflating the idea between the CCP and China as a cultural and social representation and others to indoctrinate the Chinese citizen and bolster legitimacy.

Clearly, this strategy is extremely effective in certain aspects. On the one hand, any comments or actions which attempt to criticize the CCP are being labeled as ‘unpatriotic’ and later chastised by the public outcry. The Hong Kong protest has received unanimous condemnation from people in mainland China as it was labelled by the CCP as ‘intervention and efforts from the West.’ From a broader perspective, strong Chinese nationalism also enhances people’s belief in and support of the CCP government and demonizes democracy and the West. However, Xi’s manipulation of Chinese nationalism and the conflation of the CCP as China actually backfires and makes it harder for him to achieve his goal of “reunifying China.”

Fewer and fewer people, especially young people, identify themselves not as Chinese but rather as separate identities, like Hongkongers and Tai- wanese in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Specifically for Hong Kong’s case, the hatred towards the ‘CCP China’ combines with eco- nomic despair caused by income disparity, incen- tivizing protesters to per- severe in their actions, de- teriorating the situation and escalating violence.

Today, over 500,000 students from main-land China are studying abroad in North America and Western Europe, with 360,000 of them are studying in the U.S. (33.2% of all international students in the U.S.), amid the U.S.-China Trade War and protest in Hong Kong. Those overseas students are in no way immune from this surge of Chinese nationalism. There have been tons of recent articles written by Chinese overseas students, most of them claiming that they have become more ‘patriotic’ after having the opportunity to study abroad because they have discovered that the democratic values promoted by the West are sinister and hypocritical, using democracy as an excuse to exploit other parts of the world and advance their interests. There are lots of answers from students such as: ‘You claim that China has no freedom of speech, but what about media in the U.S., aren’t they all run by corporations and are partisan?’

The main takeaway of my piece is this: there isn’t a single political system in the world that is perfect. The idea that Chinese overseas students become more ‘patriotic’ after studying abroad is inherently problematic because they should have obtained the ability to think critically and discern differences in political systems. Political gridlock and the rise of populism reveals the tremendous weakness within the democratic system. But the simple fact that I have to remain anonymous when writing this piece says a lot about the Chinese authoritarianism system.

Sure, partisan media is one of the major issues in the U.S., but it does not justify suppression by the Chinese government when it comes to freedom of speech. The bottom line is that it’s more important than ever for students like us to reject whataboutisms, nationalistic emotions, and tendencies towards over-simplified international incidents. We need to be independent thinkers and not be trapped in any cults of political belief.

The author of this piece expressed to the Tripod that they need to publish anonymously due to fear of retaliation from the Chinese government when they return home for winter break.

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