As Canadians and Americans spend the coming week preparing to celebrate their respective national days, a good number will be in the midst of heated debates over just what it is they’re celebrating – a contest over the meaning of nationhood with international repercussions.
Do we commemorate our countries, and our fellow citizens, as they exist today – as malleable and ever-changing vessels for our hopes and ambitions? Or, in a return to an older idea, do we laud their creation – the realization of their intrinsic greatness, made real by their heroic founders?
In Canada, the debate has circled around Sir John A. Macdonald. This comes amid another moment of national iconoclasm, and some literal statue-toppling, over the founding prime minister’s racial attitudes and the resulting policies of Indigenous segregation and cultural destruction, with the grave repercussions still being experienced today (as are those of his badly mismanaged Confederation).
This has provoked a backlash from those who would venerate the first PM as the sine qua non of Canada’s greatness, a ”hero to the nation” who was “inspired by a vision of human freedom and flourishing.” To criticize him is, in this view, to condemn Canadian nationhood itself.
South of the border, this Fourth of July is accompanied by a battle over how to teach America’s history, specifically whether to include the industrial-scale slavery that accompanied and shaped it. In response, almost a dozen Republican-governed states are trying to pass bills and policies that would outlaw the teaching of U.S. history as anything other than, as Florida puts it, “the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”
This desire for heroic origin stories, in which national greatness is pre-existing and unchangeable, is a return to an old form of nationalism born in Europe in the late 19th century. It sees “peoples” and “civilizations” as concrete realities and nations as the inevitable and changeless embodiment of them.
The problem with this kind of national veneration is that it presumes the a priori greatness of a predefined people – and that implies that you would be wrong to change the fundamentals of the system.
That’s not a healthy attitude within our own countries. What makes it worse, though, is that it validates regimes that have imported these old Western notions of nation and people and applied them far more rigorously than anyone else.
I recommend reading The Invention of China, a new book by Bill Hayton, a British scholar of Asian politics and history, who draws together important work by Chinese and foreign scholars on the historical realities behind the efforts of President Xi Jinping and his Communist Party loyalists to persuade billions of people that China is a timeless, ancient nation-state and that the Chinese are a racially and linguistically homogenous people, making the party a natural continuation of their essence.
Those notions are little more than 100 years old, and most have come into existence only in the hands of the Communist Party (and the nationalists who immediately preceded them). The notion that “China” existed as a contiguous place or idea – and not a selection of very different patches of Asia ruled intermittently by various Mongol or Manchurian dynasties with very different self-conceptions, none of which resembled or called itself anything like China – did not really exist before the 20th century.
The notion of a Chinese people united by the Han ethnicity and a common language covering a specific historic territory is equally recent, very much manufactured during the past century. As historians point out, the classification of “Han” peoples (that is, those claimed to be genuinely ethnically Chinese) was not a matter of ethnic or linguistic definition but political lobbying: Groups were included because they supported the right leaders.
There’s nothing uniquely Chinese about that. Most modern countries constructed their ethnic and territorial claims out of the chaos and ether of the past during the great period of national myth-making – broadly between the 1860s and 1920s.
What Mr. Hayton and his fellow scholars make clear, however, is that Chinese leaders – and specifically the Communist Party – imported these ideas from Europe and the United States in order to enhance their hold on power. They are profoundly un-Chinese notions, but Mr. Xi has successfully persuaded much of the world that they’re timeless realities.
Mr. Hayton calls this the irony of Mr. Xi’s regime: “While it rejects foreign interference in its affairs, its obsession with sovereignty and its fundamentalist attitudes towards territory are distinctly foreign ideas. In the name of ‘national rejuvenation,’ Xi Jinping is adopting the attitudes and behaviour of the imperial powers whose legacy he is supposed to be erasing.”
In seeing these Western mythologies adopted and amplified by Mr. Xi, we ought to see how bad they look within our own borders.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.