China’s Self-Defeating Nationalism

China’s Self-Defeating Nationalism

  • Brazen Diplomacy and Rhetorical Bluster Undercut Beijing’s Influence

In the months since the global COVID-19 pandemic began in Wuhan, China’s leaders have turned increasingly nationalistic. They have boasted to both domestic and foreign audiences about the superiority of China’s system when it comes to combating the disease. They have peddled conspiracy theories about the U.S. origins of the novel coronavirus. They have embraced “wolf warrior” diplomacy, brashly attacking foreign critics and using social media and other platforms to highlight foreign shortcomings.

Although the main objective of Beijing’s nationalist push has been to build domestic support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it has also stoked tensions with Washington, as each side tries to outdo the other in shifting blame and avoiding accountability for its handling of COVID-19. The tit-for-tat rhetoric has already accelerated a race to the bottom in U.S.-Chinese relations and hindered cooperation in fighting the pandemic. For the United States, this more nationalistic Chinese approach will present even greater challenges going forward, hindering U.S. leverage and deterrence in ways that will constrain U.S. policy options.

But over the long term, nationalism will prove even more of a hindrance to Beijing’s ambitions, since it undermines Chinese efforts to attract international support and show global leadership. Wolf warrior diplomacy might appease Chinese nationalists at home, but it will limit China’s appeal abroad. And xenophobia and repression in the name of national stability—whether toward African migrants in Guangzhou, Central Asian minorities in Xinjiang, or ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong—have given the lie to Chinese efforts to project a benevolent and magnanimous image. Even if Beijing recognizes these problems, it will be costly—although not impossible—for the Chinese leadership to constrain the nationalism it has unleashed.