On the Xinhai Centenary, WSJ has a good post by a Chinese history professor:
The Chinese Communist Party would like to forget this internationalism. Today the Party’s idea of a “superpower” is a nation capable of taking anything it wants from the global arena and free to give nothing back if it so desires. With the ideological heritage of communism neutralized by cronyism and corporatism, the CCP insists that the revolutions of 1911 and 1949 were powered by the elusive stuff of “nationalism.”
Non-Chinese take their notions of nationalism from the history of countries like Britain and France—where in the early modern period nationalist officials, historians and rhetoricians could work in the context of continent-wide laws recognizing absolute sovereignty and of emerging bases of civil opposition to royal power, military forces to protect economic independence and essential farmland, and boundaries defined by treaty. But during the same period, China was part of the Qing empire, ruled by foreign invaders, the Manchus.
The Chinese themselves had no armies, no defined boundaries and above all no concept of national sovereignty. At the end of the 19th century, as in the cases of many peoples entering the twilight of the great land empires, Chinese leaders arose who claimed the banner of nationalism. Their opposition to the Qing, British and French empires was clear enough. What was unclear was the basis of this nationalism once the Qing fell and the assaults of foreign empires withered away.
Today the CCP condemns questions, criticisms or opposition from abroad as assaults on China’s “national sovereignty,” a reaction only possible from a government with no historical grounding in what sovereignty is. Officials, along with collaborating writers and academics, have engineered a Chinese “nationalism” that consists of odds and ends of resentment against real wrongs done to China by foreign invaders and imperialists in the past; glorification of a genuinely distinct literary, artistic and philosophical tradition of some 4,000 years’ duration; fictive narratives of political and geographical continuity of a Chinese “empire” for that same period; and circuitous claims to dominate the former Qing empire territories of Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan.
China’s national evolution in the post-imperial period is rooted in a vibrant tradition of popular opposition to tyrannical government and an openness to international cooperation, but CCP-approved history and rhetoric feverishly denies this truth. The Party wields a blunt club of undefined and amoral “nationalism” that would be dangerous to it were the club to fall from its grasp. If a future government recognizes the history of China’s transition from empire to republic, however, it could temper relationships with its own people, as well as with international friends and rivals.