In the Name of the People: Is China an Exception to the Global Wave of Populism?

Updated: Apr 16

Dibyesh Anand, University of Westminster | 19 February 2020

Photo courtesy of the author

Recent years have witnessed a rise of political phenomena associated with populism and a crisis in the idea and practice of democracy has come to be accepted as an integral part of the present. Anti-globalist populism has become a global phenomenon cutting across continents and Global North/Global South divide. While scholars study the relation between populism, globalisation and nationalism in the context of the USA, European democracies, Turkey, and India, there is a conspicuous silence around the world’s largest country – the People’s Republic of China. I argue that various dynamics of right-wing populism are present in the Chinese system as much as they are becoming entrenched in various democracies.

One feature of populism is the fact that politics is conducted in the name of the collective ‘people’ that is seen as more important than the state as well as individual citizens. Political decisions are justified in the name of defending and protecting the nation from the enemies of the people. These ‘enemies’ can range from hostile foreign forces to minority communities, from those espousing liberal ideas of human rights to those questioning the ruling populist leader/party. Who protects? It is not the people who are tasked with protecting themselves but a party or a leader? The cult of personality (whether around an individual or a party depends on the context) is used to privilege the idea of “One Leader, One Party, One Nation”.


When we look at China today under the leadership of General Secretary, Xi Jinping, it is a Party State where actual people have no say in the governance because the Party speaks for the people. The de jure People’s Republic of China is a de facto Party’s Republic of China. Populist Chinese nationalism is generated against inimical forces that include the ‘jealous West’, foreign human rights organisations, domestic pro-democracy activists, religious and ethnic minorities, protestors in Hong Kong, and anyone who dares to challenge the party’s absolute rule. The party’s critics are branded enemies of the people. The party-state ruling in the name of the abstract people dons a garb of sacrality where any questioning is rejected as ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-people’. Xi, like Chairman Mao, is portrayed and imagined as an omnipotent leader.


Another critical feature of populism is the focus on development in the service of the nation-state. Populists are anti-globalist but not anti-globalization. Nativism is strengthened by a globalised economy. As we see in the case of China, the economy is globalised but the global norms of human rights are rejected as foreign. Development is not an end in itself but a means to further national glory. Xi’s vision of the “China dream” is one of a strong state that gains respect from the international community as well as all other states through its might.

Nationalism of the populist variety is neither liberal nor inclusive but muscular and masculinist. It is majoritarian nationalism where minority rights are resented as appeasement of minorities and the ruler or the ruling party is seen as the only one who can balance competing interests. Chinese nationalism suffers from Han chauvinism, where members of the Han majority are seen as ‘victims’ of preferential policies favouring and pampering religious and ethnic minorities such as Uyghur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. All kinds of surveillance, disciplining, and dehumanisation against Uyghurs and Tibetans get justified in the name of nation-state-making.


Chinese populism presents itself as anti-imperialist while legitimising Chinese colonisation of the Uyghurs’ and Tibetans’ homelands. While coloniality is not unique to populist regimes, what is different is the popularisation of genocidal ideas and legitimisation of genocidal practices amongst the colonial citizenry. Therefore, violent governance of Uyghurs and Tibetans, including the use of concentration camps, ‘re-education’ exercises, total surveillance, denial of dignity and incarceration, are seen by the majoritarian Han population as legitimate. But it is not only the minorities who are victimised. Those from the majority community who dare question the supremacy of the Communist Party also get portrayed as the enemies of the people. The Chinese populist regime seeks to discipline dissent and brand all critics as “anti-national” and “foreign-funded”. Rights-based discourses are rejected in favour of collective sentiment around resurgent China. The suppression of actual human beings is thus done in the name of an abstract people.


What the Chinese example shows is that the root of populism is not in democracy but in the universalised form of nation-statism that privileges abstract “people” over living breathing persons. So, populism is not exceptional but a normal part of both nation-statism and anti-democratic politics. This recognition should encourage a new kind of anti-populist ethics and politics that rejects not only dehumanising populism but also dehumanising nation-statism.

Keywords #China, #populism, #statebuilding, #abstractpeople, #globalization, #minorityrights, #Tibet, #Uyghur, #XiJingping, #PeoplesRepublicofChina

Professor Dibyesh Anand is the Head of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Westminster. He is the author of monographs "Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination” and “Hindu Nationalism in India and the Politics of Fear” and has spoken about and published on varied topics including Tibet, China-India border dispute, Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia in India, and the colonial occupation in Kashmir. He is available on Twitter @dibyeshanand

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