COVID-19, Nationalism, and Tao Guang Yang Hui - SOAS China Institute

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COVID-19, Nationalism, and Tao Guang Yang Hui: The reflections of a Chinese student

Photo credit: Jrwooley6 (Flickr)

By Cailin Cheng 程才林 | 25 January 2021

2020 in many ways has been the worst year for many individuals and countries. However, some in China see it as China’s best year under the leadership of General Secretary Xi Jinping in light of the successful containment of COVID-19, the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, the eradication of extreme poverty and the achievement of a moderately prosperous society. I question such achievements and would like to sound the alarm for all Chinese patriots. I take the view that China should return to the ‘Tao Guang Yang Hui’ principle, meaning roughly ‘Bide out time and focus on building ourselves.’


The translation of the word ‘crisis’ in Chinese is composed of two parts — ‘danger’ and opportunity’. The crisis of COVID-19 could have been a historic opportunity for the Community Party of China to finally implement political reforms, but it was seized by the leadership to strengthen control by invoking nationalism instead. As it does so, it has refused to allow WHO investigators to go to Wuhan until a year after the first outbreak. I find it disheartening to see a people to whom I am proud to be a member behaving like a teenager, one who does not want to take responsibility for its actions.


With the Chinese model to contain COVID-19 being efficient and successful, the ‘teenager’ keeps boasting about it. But the ‘teenager’ forgets about how frontline health workers in Wuhan were punished and accused of spreading misinformation when they sounded the alarm bell at the start of the Pandemic.


Going through puberty, teenagers often doubt their abilities and think they cannot achieve anything. Our ‘teenager’ has a ‘mentor’ who tells him to have ‘Four Confidences’ and believe in himself and his chosen path. Comparing daily death tolls and economic growths in more mature countries that are supposedly better than China, our ‘teenager’ starts to believe that his ‘mentor’ is right and his decision is the best one there is. But he knows little about how to balance between feeling inferior and arrogant. Meanwhile, his ‘mentor’ prefers the teenager to be arrogant because it makes the ‘teenager’ more readily controllable. If the ‘teenager’ feels irrational and aggressive, the ‘mentor’ directs his aggression to someone else. “Why not the USA? The ‘teenager’ was bullied by them when he was little”, says the ‘mentor’. So our ‘teenager’ forgets all about the importance of ‘Tao Guang Yang Hui’, preached by an earlier ‘mentor’.


With Tao Guang Yang Hui, the ‘teenager’ was asked by Deng Xiaoping to sit quietly and focus on improving himself. This was to secure precious time for China to develop. Having been removed from power twice and knowing how powerful other countries were and how backward China was, Deng took to heart the Chinese saying that ‘if one keeps quiet, one will earn lots of fortune’. By avoiding attention, China can develop economically and mature its political system incrementally. In contrast, being confrontational draws criticism and external pressure to which China needs to spend precious time and resources to respond. If both sides respond in a confrontational way, it will result in a decoupling of relations, which I do not wish to see.


Admittedly, Xi’s China is vastly different from Deng’s China. Some will therefore argue that China should now put aside Tao Guang Yang Hui and adopt the Four Confidences instead. I acknowledge that China has achieved tremendous economic success. But one should not assume that the images of coastal cities such as Shanghai represent China as a whole. Growing up in a relatively undeveloped city unknown to most and having the privilege to visit many developed cities like Shanghai and developing cities like Lhasa, I believe China should not be arrogant about its power. Premier Li Keqiang suggests there are 600 million people, or around 43% of the Chinese population, living on a monthly income of 1,000 RMB (113 GBP). Notwithstanding this, as our leaders declare that extreme poverty has been eliminated and a moderately prosperous society has been created, many have become arrogant. They assert that China’s rise is inevitable and whoever acts against China is going against the tide of history.


The Hong Kong issue epitomizes this rise of nationalism as mainland Chinese, encouraged by domestic media, blame everyone but the Chinese government. I believe the Chinese media, which is closely controlled by the Party, is instrumental in inciting nationalism. When using Chinese media platforms, it is hard not to be recommended cleverly-edited clips of spokespersons from the Foreign Ministry talking about how foreign influence has got the people of Hong Kong to go astray. Under a supposedly meritocratic system, I find it incomprehensible that the government sees a need to incite the public against some of their fellow citizens by distorting and selectively using information. Beijing sees the implementation of the Hong Kong National Security Law as a success since it has stopped mass protest.


However, this disheartening saga in Hong Kong is far from over, and the mistrust of the people of Hong Kong towards the government has only heightened. How I wish the nationalists will respect Xi’s teaching on paying heed to the people’s feelings towards the government as much as they do on Xi’s words on the Four Confidences.


No patriot would wish to relive the hundred years of national humiliation when China was half-colonized by foreign powers. However, officials should not use sovereignty as an excuse to incite nationalism. A powerful country now, China can afford to show humility, welcome constructive criticism while it stands up against malicious slandering. I believe the Chinese people can restore China to its rightful place in the world without antagonizing other states, but this can only be achieved by a return to the policy of Tao Guang Yang Hui.


The sole purpose of this piece is to serve my civic duties as a Chinese citizen.

Cailin Cheng 程才林 is an undergraduate Chinese student studying Politics at King’s College London. He has created a Society called ‘China and the World’ (FB / IG / Twitter) with the stated aim of providing an unbiased platform for people interested in Chinese politics.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.