The U.S. Should Take Note of China's New Generation of Nationalists | Opinion

In the United States, Millennials and Gen-Zers get a bad name. They are little more than narcissists and snowflakes, we're told, who care first and foremost about preserving their own feelings.

China, by contrast, is seeing the rise of Generation N—the "N" stands for "nationalism." In a recent piece for the South China Morning Post, Jun Mai and Amber Wang discuss a new generation of Chinese youth who are "more vocal and more nationalist than those a decade ago." Members of Gen N "are staunch defenders of Beijing's policies."

This new generation of Chinese nationalists "no longer take[s] to the street to vent their anger against foreign governments and businesses." Instead, they do all their battling online. They spend day and night scrolling the internet, actively searching out individuals who make impermissible references to Hong Kong or Taiwan, whether on purpose or accidentally.

For many outside of China, "nationalism" is a dirty word. In 2019, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the president of Germany, called it an "ideological poison." But that description is not a fair one.

After all, nationalism involves identifying with one's own nation and championing its successes. One can love one's country without necessarily loving all of its elected leaders. One can love China without loving Xi Jinping; one can love the U.S. without loving President Joe Biden. Nationalism is, by definition, loyalty and devotion to one's nation, rather than a particular political group.

Chinese Communist Party flag
Passengers take photos with a flag of the Communist Party of China at the Nantong Railway Station in China's eastern Jiangsu province on July 1, 2021, during celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. - China OUT STR/AFP/Getty Images

What exactly is fueling the rise of nationalism in China? Mai and Wang argue that it is a "result of the Communist Party's efforts to reinforce its legitimacy, as well as a shifting expectation of China's international status as its power grows." Unlike previous generations that grew up in poverty and turbulent political environments, Gen N has become accustomed to "high-speed railway, roads and the pace of urbanization." The pride that they feel may be misplaced, driven by disinformation campaigns and state-run media, but it exists nonetheless.

Why should any of this matter to citizens of the United States? Because a more united China is a more dangerous China. Having lived in the country for an extensive period of time, I am not exaggerating when I say that, in China, animosity towards all things American is palpable. I have spoken with Chinese people, both young and old, who view the United States as the ultimate enemy. And while Chinese nationalism has grown, American pride fell to a 20-year low last year, according to Gallup. Only 45 percent of those polled said they were "extremely proud" to be American. That percentage has consistently declined over the past decade. As the United States becomes more divided, and China becomes more united, there is reason for concern.

To be clear, what I am talking about here is civic, or liberal nationalism, not ethnic nationalism. The former is wholly inclusive. It promotes traditional liberal values like freedom, tolerance for others and respect for individual rights. The latter merges the ideas of nation and nationality with ethnicity. Civic nationalism is to be celebrated; ethnonationalism is to be condemned, repeatedly and vociferously.

As the scholar Gustavo de las Casas has noted, nationalism, in its purest form, is nothing more than a sense of unity "with a group beyond one's immediate family and friends." In an age of protests and critical race theory syllabi, isn't this exactly what the United States needs? "The bad rap on nationalism," de las Casas argues, "relies almost exclusively on cherry-picked exceptions." Nationalistic citizens, being more likely to care about people outside their immediate bubbles, "are less likely to break the law and violate the rights of others." In places like New York and Minneapolis, where hate crimes and shootings are an all too regular occurrence, many couldn't care less about laws or the rights of others. But nationalism motivates citizens to be more respectful and law-abiding, and inculcates a strong sense of the rule of law. Nationalism gets a bad name, but it is consistently and positively linked with three things most Americans value: economic prosperity, political comity and civic peace.

Which brings us back to China, where the communist regime focuses on instilling greater levels of nationalism among its citizens. The U.S. should take note. A more united country, where the values of American citizens are put first, is a stronger one. To compete with China, strength and unity are most definitely required.

John Mac Ghlionn is a researcher and essayist. Find him on Twitter, @ghlionn.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.