Osama bin Laden said that people will follow the strong horse. He wasn’t wrong. That phrase came to my mind today reading the RealClearInvestigations piece Why China’s Brightest Abroad Show Team Spirit For Beijing’s Hardball. The American fantasy is that people in oppressed nations want more than anything to be free, or at least be freer. Though this is partly true, it ebbs and flows and is sometimes much less true than we expect. It is true that in measuring public sentiment under dictators all data is suspect. People are afraid to be the first to stop clapping for Stalin.* In the current case of China, those that have received approval to study abroad are from the class of people benefiting most under the current regime, and are additionally vetted to boot. They are among the most likely to support the regime to begin with; then additional carrots and sticks are applied.
Nonetheless, I think that Richard Bernstein is reading the available data correctly, and that China is not populated entirely by huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Beginning about a third of the way down, he illustrates that many of the students are proud of China’s power and growth, that it is expanding. There is no mention of them being proud of its government’s actions, but the sense is that they just don’t think about that much.
“The conviction in China is that we’re on the right track,” Wang added. “The vibe is that the system we have is better than the West’s.”
I don’t think this is a Chinese characteristic, I think it is a human characteristic. A great deal of German and Japanese fervor leading to WWII was created out decades of teaching the idea that because we are becoming powerful, it shows our way is superior. I may be reading the idea back onto historical events, but I think of Romans, Ottomans, and Venetians saying much the same. Even when everyone recognises the idea in the abstract that because tyrannies do exist, it cannot be true that the most powerful is the most moral, they seem to forget this when it comes to their own nation. It may be tied at some deep level to seeking secure resources. When your people are powerful, you are more likely to eat. Notice that nations on the make do not seem to get attacked, either, even if they are not yet especially powerful. One would think that a rising threat would attract violence, but they seem to attract diplomacy, alliances, agreements, or at worst only sanctions and counterthreats. Something in our nature says that’s not a good bet to confront unless it is necessary.
Does this apply to us as well? Hmm, let’s look at some friends of ours first, the British before answering that. England was not powerful in the Middle Ages. Spain, France, the Italian states, the Holy Roman Empire and eventually the Portuguese were more powerful. British patriotism has large regional elements now, but even English patriotism was more regional until…I will say 1500, just as a round number. Over the next hundred years England became more powerful, and a more full English patriotism grew. It likely reached its height in late Victorian times or early Edwardian. It dipped a little about the time of the Boer War, perhaps not accidentally, and plummeted after WWI, even though Great Britain was among the victors. A sort of anti-patriotism became fashionable in the 1920s and 30s. Among its elites it still is, despite their having been proved wrong repeatedly over the last hundred years.
I don’t think it is easy to measure the patriotism within one’s own society when it is this diverse and the target is moving. There have been intentional attempts to redefine patriotism, which I have thought pernicious, but acknowledge the door doesn’t have to be left open for that when the common wisdom is so oversimplified that it can easily be kicked in. We think we know what “patriotism” means intuitively, but it has grown vaguer over the years until it became more of a glittering compliment word – at which point it is only natural that it will become a target for mockery. Yet for all that, I think there would be general agreement that the 1950s were a high point of patriotism, which started receding in the late 1960s.
The standard explanation is that some were becoming disillusioned because of Vietnam, and we began to question whether we were actually doing good in the world or were all that noral and correct. What if that’s not true? The standard explanation is also that it was the young who were opposed to Vietnam, but that isn’t entirely so. Support for the war eroded among older Americans first, especially around 1968, while the war in general was supported by a majority of the young. Those who had seen a victorious war, followed by an inconclusive one in Korea, were less enthused about a dithering, uncertain America doing much off anything abroad anymore. We may have the cart and horse reversed. Had we been an aggressive country on the make, patriotism might have sustained longer. Whether that sort of patriotism would be a good thing for us or the rest of the world is a separate question. While acknowledging it’s all contradictory and difficult, I am going to come down in favor of the idea that indecisive losing sapped our patriotism more than more intellectual and reasoned positions about the place of America in the world. I think the latter was only partly true, and much of it was retrofitted onto a more basic response.
*This is why the success of large “peaceful” protests are not a full argument that civil disobedience works. Gandhi’s success was predicated on there being a half a billion people behind him who were not always nonviolent, and on their dealing with a nation with enough moral code to be shamed. I have never been able to track down the quote, so it may be apocryphal, but Ho Chi Minh is reported to have said that if India had been a French colony, Minister Gandhi would long since have gone to another reward. The assembling of large crowds has the effect of everyone discovering exactly how much support there is for a cause. Even if everyone just goes home, that information is now out on the table.