Is the middle class turning nationalistic?

Updated: 2012-11-30 09:53

By Robert Hoffmann (China Daily)

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Is the middle class turning nationalistic?

Survey provides insights into shifting patriotic sentiment

Chinese nationalism as a whole has traditionally been viewed through the lens of foreign relations. Needless to say, this is very much the case now. But lately there has been a discreet shift in focus toward the nationalist values of people from all segments of society, with the emergence of a middle class with a growing political and economic voice generating nascent debate.

The consensus in academic circles is that Chinese nationalism is on the rise and constitutes a populist, mass movement rather than a product of official policy.

It can trace some of its origins to the humiliation of colonial history and the greater self-confidence born out of China's growing economic power; and it can perhaps be seen most obviously in the spontaneous and genuine public outrage that increasingly accompanies China's international confrontations. Central to any attempt to form an enhanced understanding of the phenomenon is the greater affluence of ordinary Chinese.

Conscious of the part it is likely to play in the nation's continued political and economic development, arguments have been made both for and against nationalism among China's burgeoning middle class. One theory is that rising materialism left a void that was felt particularly keenly by the urban, educated population, who duly turned to nationalism as a substitute.

Another is that a form of liberal nationalism has been used to assert individual rights. Some others feel that middle-class nationalism is a potential force for unbridled change and, as such is kept in check.

On the other hand, it has been suggested that better levels of education and international exposure foster liberal values and the rejection of nationalism as jingoism. Higher income may also be associated with an augmented interest in international free trade and a demand for foreign imports. In addition, empirical research from other countries shows poorer people are more patriotic.

Most of these ideas are rooted largely in qualitative and case-study work. Such approaches are perfectly valid, but they fail to explore in detail the wider issue of Chinese nationalism and its relationship to demographic characteristics.

A study by the International Centre for Behavioural Business Research, based at Nottingham University Business School in the UK, took an alternative tack, one that differed from conventional studies in three key ways.

First, rather than targeting particular demographic groups, the research used a sample of respondents drawn from the general urban population in a provincial Chinese city. Although this precluded claiming the representativeness of nationwide polls, it did generate a suitably mixed cross-section.

Second, nationalist behavior was elicited in a deliberately unobtrusive way, avoiding the risk of response bias that can occur when subjects become aware of a study's purpose.

Third, an incentive-compatible task - that is, one with material consequences - was used in the form of a field experiment. This took place in a city-center shopping location in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, a relatively affluent city with a strong manufacturing base and a large seaport. It has recently become a regional educational hub with several universities and colleges, among them the University of Nottingham's Chinese campus.

In the experiment, members of the public were given 10 yuan ($1.6; 1.2 euros) each and invited to divide it between two charity donations. Each volunteer was told to split the amount entirely as he or she saw fit, including giving everything to one charity and nothing to the other. The charities' names were never divulged to those taking part, and in the first experiment no information about their nationality was revealed.

In the second experiment one was shown to be helping build a school in rural China and the other to be providing healthcare "all over the world".

The set-up meant volunteers in the first experiment simply chose how to divide the money between an educational charity and a health charity, whereas subjects who took part in the second experiment had a choice between China and the rest of the world. Volunteers also completed a survey designed to uncover general demographics and attitudes toward patriotism, collectivism and global openness.

Almost 450 people took part in the experiment, receiving small gifts for their participation, and the funds were later sent to the respective charities.

The results were instructive. The split between the educational charity and the health charity only slightly favored the former in the experiment that did not divulge nationality, but there was an increase of almost 10 percent toward the educational charity when it was revealed to be an organization working only for China.

Who, though, was especially responsible for this shift? The answers were revealed by an in-depth analysis of the demographic survey findings.

It was found the Chinese charity particularly benefited from female, married, rural, older and poorer subjects. This is unsurprising and in keeping with accepted theory.

Crucially, however, "significant" nationalism was also discovered among university-educated and white-collar demographics. This may well offer, however tentatively, empirical proof of growing nationalism among China's middle class. Of particular note in considering this is the relationship between educational attainment and nationalism, which could provide useful clues about China's political and economic leadership in the years to come.

What we cannot say yet is precisely why the university-educated volunteers in the sample proved more nationalistic. One reason may be that students, with greater exposure to the world, see themselves as ambassadors of their nation and have a heightened awareness of China's international rivalries.

The empirical evidence concerning the demographics and development of Chinese nationalism, even in light of this study, remains relatively sparse. Above all, its collection entails substantial methodological challenges in terms of access and reliability. Even so, the potential implications of these initial findings cannot be ignored.

Perhaps it remains for others to discuss in detail exactly what a nationalistic middle class might mean for China's future, but we can at least be certain that its importance should not be underestimated.

The author is an associate professor of economics at Nottingham University Business School, where he is director of the International Centre for Behavioural Business Research. He co-authored the research discussed here, The Demography of Chinese Nationalism: A Field-Experimental Approach, with Jeremy Larmer, also of Nottingham University Business School. The view do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 11/30/2012 page10)