Big brothers’ aggression fosters local patriotism

Ukrainians preparing to defend their country against a Russian invasion

Much concern has been expressed recently about the rise of nationalism in a variety of countries, fueled by adverse economic conditions, religious intolerance, populist politicians, and/or xenophobia. While fervent nationalism can lead to tribalism and a rejection of others, some forms of nationalism and patriotism can have positive effects, including pride, solidarity, and a sense of group bonding. With the winter Olympics starting up soon, we are likely to see patriotism tied to sports, a mostly benign phenomenon.

More recently, strong feelings of patriotism and shared group identity have arisen in two countries under threat from hegemonic big brothers, namely Ukraine and Taiwan. President Putin of Russia has asserted that Ukraine is historically and culturally part of Russia and that indeed Russians and Ukrainians are the same people. In fact, many Ukrainians, especially in the east, continue to speak Russian (rather than Ukrainian) as their preferred first language, long after the break-up of the Soviet Union. But the impending threat of invasion from Russia has led to a change of feelings about language and identity, including in Eastern Ukraine, as outlined in a recent piece in the Washington Post, “Border city pro-Russia no more”. The conflict with Russia has strengthened the pro-West movement already evident in Ukraine and in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Ironically, Putin’s effort to increase Russia’s influence in Ukraine have led instead to the opposite, to a growing distrust and a feeling of increasing separation from its historical partner.

Similarly, President Xi of China, has asserted often that Taiwan is a part of China, and that the people from mainland China and the island of Taiwan are the same, all Chinese. In fact, Mandarin is the main language in both places, although Taiwan uses traditional characters in writing while the mainland uses simplified characters. More and more recently the rumblings about Taiwan from Beijing are increasingly bellicose. This week the Chinese Ambassador to the US warned of “military conflict” over US support of Taiwan’s independence. Rather than convincing the Taiwanese that they should join the People’s Republic, the hardline stance from the Chinese government has led to a greater sense of a separate Taiwanese identity. That is discussed in a recent piece in the New York Times, “‘We Are Taiwanese’: China’s Growing Menace Hardens Island’s Identity”. The article points out that traditionally the ties to mainland China are strong:

Well over 90 percent of Taiwan’s people trace their roots to mainland China, but more than ever, they are embracing an identity that is distinct from that of their Communist-ruled neighbor. Beijing’s strident authoritarianism — and its claim over Taiwan — has only solidified the island’s identity.

According to the NY Times, more than 60% of the people surveyed identity themselves as solely Taiwanese, way up from the last survey in 1992. Only 2% identified themselves as “Chinese”.

It’s difficult to foretell what will happen as Ukraine and Taiwan strive to maintain their independence and develop a stronger sense of national identity. The people of Hong Kong also had a sense of separateness from China but were not able to maintain their semi-independent status in the face of Beijing’s economic, political, and military power. The reasons for the big countries seeking absorption of their smaller neighbors differ, but one motive seems clear: the functioning democratic states of Ukraine and Taiwan, providing a variety of freedoms to their citizens, are governance models that the authoritarian leaders in Moscow and in Beijing do not want their own people to have close by.