For days, the US consulate in the Chinese city of Chengdu was not just a place for curious spectators, but also for residents wishing to express pride in their country. Some waved the Chinese flag, while others set off fireworks. In one video, a woman said she was “extremely happy” to see the consulate nearby. “We threw away another spy hub!”
In another video, widely circulated on Chinese social media, a CNN reporter trying to broadcast was drowned by a group broadcasting a patriotic Chinese song. The crowd sings merrily, if undoubtedly, “Praising our beloved homeland as it moves toward prosperity and strength.”
Residents note how different the scene was from 1999, when thousands of Chinese protesters descended on the US embassy in Beijing after the US bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Crying and rocking the building with eggs, stones and any other objects they could find, the demonstrators became angry with the United States, but also disappointed how little their government could take revenge.
“Our country is not like before. We can do more than just make statements, we can actually take action, “said Wu, a 25-year-old who lives in Chengdu and visited the consulate on his last day on Monday, taking a few pictures to keep. “China could not afford to insult the United States then, but China is now powerful and not afraid of American imperialism.”
As China comes under attack abroad as a result of its increasingly aggressive global stance, nationalist sentiment is growing at home. Officials have won support with the usual tools of propaganda and patriotic education, as well as new tactics, such as “warrior warrior” diplomacy, characterized by aggressive attacks on foreign critics of the country.
However, the cultivation of a sense of nationalism that increasingly pits China against much of the Western world also threatens to make the ongoing friction more intractable, bringing it closer to conflict with countries like the United States, its main competitor. Beijing is embroiled in disputes with Britain, Australia and Canada over issues from Huawei to Hong Kong, and blames the United States for the tension.
“On both sides, nationalist sentiment is stronger than ever. There is no doubt that antagonistic nationalism has risen dramatically to a level that many have never seen, “said Shi Yinyong, a professor of international relations and director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University in China. “This could mean that government policies will become more antagonistic to each other.”
Nationalism has long been a double-edged sword for the Chinese leadership – useful for strengthening the ruling party’s position, but dangerous when emotions are too high. Anti-Japanese protests over a territorial dispute in 2012 turned into a riot, with residents of Shenzhen throwing and smashing Japanese cars. The editorial office of the state-run China China at the time said, “This type of ‘patriotism’ will never receive applause.”
In the years that followed, Chinese officials encouraged nationalism rooted in “positive energy,” a general outlook for optimism and confidence in the country. Meanwhile, they have further narrowed the space for public discussion with more censorship and regulation of the Internet, including consumer retention.
“The Chinese government is increasingly relying on nationalist rhetoric to justify its rule, while keeping national nationalism on a much tighter leash,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor of government at Cornell University and author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist protest “in China’s foreign relations.
“To some extent, the government has managed to use difficult talk and nonsense to reassure local audiences, but the swing has real shortcomings for China’s foreign policy.”
For people like Liu, a 50-year-old who runs a software company in Beijing, this means that nationalist views seem more prevalent than they really are among the general population.
“Because of these controls, the votes that are allowed are nationalist. So they’re stronger and they’re getting more extreme lately, “he said.
As a person who depends on his access to the United States and other countries for his work, he watches in horror the deteriorating relations with the United States. He believes that many like him are worried and do not want to look at their country so combatively.
“We are really desperate because we can’t express our views. It’s like we’re on a train that has lost control and there’s nothing we can do but let it accelerate, “he said.
However, Chinese leaders also do not want to see things out of control. Chinese state media have been keeping a close eye on topics such as the recent border clash with India, an incident that could easily spark a wave of national anger. Chinese authorities, while loudly condemning the United States for ordering the Chinese consulate in Houston to close, have limited threats to promise an “equal response” to U.S. action.
“Chinese authorities have been quick to crack down on any protest outside the US consulate in Chengdu, reflecting Beijing’s apparent desire for revenge in a way that shows determination but does not accelerate the current spiral of death in US-China relations,” Weiss said.
As the deadline for closing the Chengdu consulate came on Monday, consulate officials rushed to clear the compound, including a garden planted with American and Chinese items. A banner reading “Thank you, Chengdu, 1985-2020” was ordered. At dawn, the American flag was lowered for the last time.
Wu arrived that evening, hours after the official closure of the consulate. It was late and the street blocked by the police was quiet, but the crowd remained. Most watched the stage or took pictures.
Wu, who had appeared in the Witness Story, said there was still a sense of unease about the closure. Born and raised in Chengdu, a place known for its backwardness and more openness, he believes his city has always been friendly to foreigners.
“I think most people think it’s a little negative. Although we closed the consulate, we still feel some regret. China-US relations should not be like that. “
Additional reporting by Pei-Lin Wu