Are Chinese nationalists woke?
Obviously not, but it’s worth considering why they are not. In America today, the woke are mostly known for two characteristics:
1. Concern for the disadvantaged.
2. Favoring oppressive (and often bigoted) policies to advance the interests of various groups.
One famous woke tactic is to try to shut down innovation with claims of “cultural appropriation”. They might try to cancel a person for producing a work of art merely because the artist belongs to the “wrong” ethnic group. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of bigotry.
As recently as 1997 a white author wrote Memoirs of a Geisha. The film version starred a Chinese actress (Ziyi Zhang.) That sort of multiculturalism is increasingly taboo.
Miniso is a retailer that sells Japanese-styled products. Irene Zhang reports that Chinese nationalists are complaining that Miniso is engaged in cultural appropriation:
A few weeks ago, Chinese social media users found a post on Miniso’s Spanish Instagram account selling qipao-clad Disney dolls as “Japanese geisha.”
Cue the patriotic boycott. With 2442 likes, the third top comment under Miniso’s corporate statement on Weibo reads, “Don’t bother. Please close your stores, thank you.”
So apparently Japanese geishas are not allowed to wear a qipao? Are Chinese people allowed to wear Italian suits?
I’m guessing that Italians are flattered if foreigners wear their elegant suits. Chinese nationalists ought to be proud if Japanese dolls wear the equally elegant qipao. And the bigotry also operates in the opposite direction:
Eager to violently impose unenforceable cultural borders, nationalists have carried out shocking abuses of power — like in the case of Suzhou police detaining a woman for wearing a kimono.
So why don’t we consider Chinese nationalists to be woke, given that they have adopted some of the worst aspects of wokeness?
It’s a mistake to define any cultural movement along a single axis. Woke people would insist that they merely want to help the unfortunate. Critics often claim that the woke are nothing more than bigots engaged in reverse discrimination and cancel culture. Reality is more complicated than either of these caricatures. (I recommend this long Noah Smith post on wokeness, which discusses many of its positive qualities, but ends with some reservations about their tactics.)
Right wing nationalists in places like China and India increasingly adopt the language of the woke to pursue entirely different goals than the woke pursue in America. The outrage of Chinese nationalists is not about concern for the oppressed—it’s been 80 years since the Japanese were oppressing the Chinese people. Indeed the biggest recent problems in China have been the CCP killing tens of millions of their own people. Their motivation is pure nationalism. (Thus they do not express concern about the Uyghurs or Tibetans.)
Unfortunately, the worldwide nationalist wave is far from cresting. I fear that Ukraine is merely the canary in the coal mine—much worse will come unless the world returns to the globalization drive of the 1980s and 1990s.