Page last updated at 09:00 GMT, Tuesday, 17 November 2009

China's rising nationalism troubles West

By Damian Grammaticas
BBC News, Beijing

Chinese rock band, Ordinance
Liu Li Xin and his group Ordinance depict a new mood of nationalism

While US President Barack Obama has been sitting down with China's leaders seeking ever closer co-operation, some observers are concerned as to how China will behave as it gets stronger.

Beijing is building up its military forces, while some fear that popular nationalism is a growing and worrying force.

In the dark, cavernous space of a rock club in Beijing's university district, Liu Lixin is warming up. Crashing chords resonate from his electric guitar.

It is the sound of China's stirring underground. Mr Liu and his group Ordinance are at the radical edge of Chinese music. Their latest album, Rock City, has been banned from the airwaves.

The lyrics criticise the government, they tell of democracy, corruption. They say: "Taiwan is ours, Tibet is ours. Compromising with the United States and Japan is a disgrace".

"Our lyrics are aimed at our government," says Mr Liu.

"It takes a very tough line towards its own people. But outside China it is very soft. When your people are being bullied by others, you should stand up for them. Right now they are being very soft."

Liu Lixin articulates a new nationalism that is a growing and increasingly powerful force in China.

It is almost always hostile to the US and Japan, apt to believe that other nations are bent on thwarting China's rise.

Government 'afraid'

China's nationalists are often critical of their own government too, saying it is weak, not doing enough to stand up for China's interests.

Wang Xiaodong
A powerful country like China of course needs a powerful army, an army that can conquer anybody in any part of the world
Wang Xiaodong

"Right now the government brainwashes people into thinking that the country is strong," Mr Liu says.

"The authorities have banned our songs but we are not afraid at all. I think it is the government who are afraid, and that is why they banned us."

Beijing's biggest bookshop is a vast place with thousands of titles on sale. For part of this year one book was riding high in the best-seller lists.

It's called Unhappy China and is a collection of pieces by a group of nationalist writers about the vision they have for China.

They say it has sold 800,000 copies since it was published earlier this year. The day we went to the bookshop, there was just one copy left.

One of the men who contributed, Wang Xiaodong, lives in a grey, nondescript apartment block in a Beijing suburb. He is one of the men giving a voice to the growing current of nationalism in China.

I ask him what he means when he writes in Unhappy China: "If you don't respect us we will beat you up."

"If there is a powerful country, and if you don't try to please that country, you will be in trouble," says Wang Xiaodong. "That's exactly the way the United States behaves."

When I ask if he believes China should have a powerful military and be prepared to go to war he replies: "Definitely. A powerful country like China of course needs a powerful army, an army that can conquer anybody in any part of the world. This should be our grand vision."

In recent years China has embarked on a rapid military build-up, acquiring the ability to project its power far beyond its borders.

One day it may even be in a position to challenge the US as the dominant power in Asia.

China's leaders says their nation's rise will be a peaceful one. But US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg recently called on China to reassure other nations about its intentions.

"Just as we and our allies must make clear that we are prepared to welcome China's arrival as a prosperous and successful power, China must reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global role will not come at the expense of the security and well-being of others," Mr Steinberg said.

'Dangerous scenario'

One of his predecessors, Susan Shirk, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian affairs under President Bill Clinton, goes further.

Li Nan
Li Nan was stopped from holding a nationalist protest

She says the combination of China's growing military and growing popular nationalism presents dangers.

"It creates the risk, not a high probability, but a risk, that one day China's leaders could feel that to look strong in the eyes of their public they have to make a threat to Japan or to Taiwan and that they will feel that they cannot back down from that threat without jeopardising their own domestic support or even their own survival in power. So I think that is a very dangerous scenario," she says.

Perhaps aware of the dangers of unchecked nationalism, China is trying to control some on the more radical fringe.

Three years ago there was a confrontation on some disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Chinese nationalists had sailed there to try to evict Japanese soldiers from the islands.

In the Chinese boat was Li Nan. He says his anti-Japan alliance has had more than 70,000 supporters registered on its website. But when he tried to stage another protest this year the Chinese authorities stopped him.

"I am not just targeting Japan but all those who threaten the interests of the Chinese people," says Li Nan. "Maybe even the United States and some others, I would see them all as enemies."

And Li Nan offers a view of how a future crisis, such as one over energy supplies, might spur on nationalist sentiment in China.

"In the future, energy supplies will become more and more scarce. Today each American consumes 10 times as much energy as each Chinese person. So every nation will have to think about their own survival. At that time, nationalism will be the mainstream."

It is a vision that will give some in America pause for thought.

The US National Intelligence Strategy this year described China as presenting a complex global challenge.

A China with a strong nationalist current and a powerful military could be seen as an even more troubling prospect for Washington.

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