In case you didn’t notice, nationalism in China at the moment is a bit cray

...and that is not good for China, nor for the world

If I could sum up the state of nationalism in China today in just one sentence, that sentence would be: how come those damn foreigners keep reporting on the United States’ meteorological attack on Zhengzhou, in which only six people lost their lives?

If that sentence made no sense to you, congratulations, you are living a much happier life than I am. I encourage you to stop reading this article right now, take a walk, and just enjoy your life.

Now, for anyone who understands that sentence… where to begin?

The foundational element to examine here is the obviously deceptively low number of casualties reported in Zhengzhou after horrible flooding in the city ten days ago.

Such obvious under-reporting is a reliable and reliably puzzling feature of every tragic incident in China.

You might remember the massive 2015 Tianjin explosion: we were told that 173 people lost their lives in that tragedy, 103 of whom were firefighters, despite the fact that hundreds of buildings stretching across miles were very obviously decimated by the explosion.

Or perhaps you might remember the beginning of COVID-19 in Wuhan, in which we were told that around four thousand people died. Yet in March 2020 when funeral homes began bringing urns of the deceased to their loved ones, they appeared to be distributing at least ten times that amount.

And now we come to Zhengzhou. Initial reports suggested that six or maybe twelve residents lost their lives in flooding. Anyone who was on social media last week and saw images from the city undoubtedly knew that these numbers were, to put it gently, very incomplete.

The most shocking example of such obvious lies came after the PLA searched a flooded tunnel in which hundreds of cars had been trapped, only to announce that there had been four casualties.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that we should focus solely on numbers in such situations: behind every figure, after all, is a living breathing human being who meant the world to his or her loved ones, and who undoubtedly suffered horribly in the course of drowning. This suffering cannot be simply represented in numbers. Yet if even the basic facts of these deaths are not acknowledged in the numbers, this suffering is compounded by its erasure by the state.

If such under-reporting was all that we had to deal with, however, this would just be another predictably sad story of totalitarianism downplaying the tragedies that it produces: a tradition that extends back to the beginning of CCP rule.

Unfortunately, however, what really troubles me is that some are more likely to be offended by my discussing these blatantly false numbers than by the Chinese government’s cover-up.

We can see this in the sight of Zhengzhou locals surrounding and haranguing international journalists who came to report on the catastrophic flooding. Correspondents for several media outlets, engaged in the arduous task of reporting from the scene of a disaster, were subjected to nasty harassment at various locations around the city. In many cases, journalists were ordered to report “the truth,” which seemed to mean giving their reporting a positive spin: a paradoxical demand for journalists reporting on mass flooding deaths in which the government is not being honest about the extent of casualties.

A conventional understanding of nationalism as an imaginary bond with one’s fellow citizens would seem to motivate survivors to keep the memories of their neighbors’ suffering in everyone’s minds. Yet the reality of nationalism in China today is that the specter of “the foreigner” plays a far more effective role in fostering a sense of identity than any imagined underlying commonality.

As a result, rather than a direct relationship between human beings with the shared capacity to suffer and the haunting knowledge that one could have easily been a victim as well, these tragic realities are read through “Chinese-foreign” rivalry, traced through the century of humiliation leading up to today, when everything is supposed to be great.

People are hereby recruited as accomplices to the Party’s cover-up, standing together not with fellow citizens but rather with the rulers who want them forgotten. All anger, of which there is naturally plenty in the aftermath of an event like this, is to be displaced onto the figure of “the foreigner” who, by wading through a disaster that the Party would like to cover up, becomes a threat to national and by extension personal pride.

If a Zhengzhou flood victim could see what had happened this week, do you think they would be angry at journalists for reporting on the floods that took their lives? Would they care that the journalists covering this tragedy came from a different country, or had slightly different skin pigmentation from them? Or would they be crushed to see fellow citizens harassing people who simply came to hear and share their stories, in the name of defending China’s reputation?

Victims of these disasters are forced to endure a double violence, first having their lives taken away from them in a disaster, before being forcefully forgotten in the service of national pride and regime stability.

Yet if your national greatness can only be built on top of the hurriedly buried bodies of compatriots, I propose that perhaps it really is not all that great.

And is it really all that stable?

This is a question that I could not help but ponder after reading a post from Jin Canrong, Associate Dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University and a supposedly respectable academic, in which he proposed that the flooding in Zhengzhou may have been the product of an American meteorological weapon.

Every country has its conspiracy theorists, who float baseless allegations that provide a false image of erudition: only the enlightened few, they tell us, are in the know about what is really happening. As a citizen of the United States, where a reality television star rose to the presidency by floating a conspiracy theory about the birthplace of the previous president, I certainly cannot begrudge another nation for being home to wacky conspiracy theories.

And yet, here the vital importance of the self-correcting mechanisms of free media and democratic institutions are made apparent: institutions that incorporate self-reflection and self-correction into their operations can only be occupied by conspiracy theorists for so long.

Sadly, however, there are no such self-correcting mechanisms in China today. Rather, the proactive suppression of frank discussions of reality provides fertile ground for the naturally curious imagination to produce conspiracy theories, providing psychologically necessary explanations for inexplicable tragedies that cannot be discussed honestly (“perhaps it was the product of a meteorological weapon?”), while conveniently placing the blame on politically acceptable scapegoats (“those damn foreigners”).

There are, in conclusion, two points to make about this admittedly cray style of thinking. First, it is self-reproducing. Those who criticize and oppose such conspiracy theories are not recognized as truth-tellers bringing the discussion of serious matters back to reality. Rather, they are reincorporated into the theory itself as part of the global anti-China conspiracy that needs to be defeated once and for all.

Second, to state the obvious, this mode of thinking is extremely dangerous. Citizens are being affectively kidnapped by nationalist narratives to be accomplices to the Party’s war on basic accountability and truth.

Without any self-correcting mechanism that brings deliberation back to reality, the Party will only be ever further encouraged to act in an ever more reckless manner, for which it will never be held accountable.

Sadly, I do not see any way to break out of this mode of thinking, which is not only an insult to those who suffer under the current political system in China, but also a genuine danger to peaceful relations between nations: this does not bode well for the future.