Is Beijing Adopting an Ethnonationalist Foreign Policy?

Warning Signs Emerge

Chinese President Xi Jinping leaves a news conference at the end of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, May 2017. Jason Lee / REUTERS

Around the world, governments from Poland to Myanmar are stoking ethnonationalist sentiment to consolidate support around otherwise divisive political agendas. For smaller or more homogenous countries, this has typically taken the form of inward-looking domestic policy shifts, such as the immigration restrictions and economic protectionism resurgent in Viktor Orban’s Hungary. But for larger or more economically powerful states, ethnonationalist sentiment tends to facilitate a belligerent foreign policy as well. History is replete with the ominous consequences of ethnonationalism spilling out from large countries onto the world stage—and there are signs that the world’s most populous country, China, could become the latest example.

For larger powers, a sizable or high-status ethnic diaspora can be a tempting target to co-opt in the name of an ethnonationalist foreign policy. States that bind their legitimacy to ethnic identity often make special efforts to reaffirm that identity among co-ethnics abroad, expanding the state’s power and reach beyond geographic borders in doing so. Perhaps consequently, these states have sometimes pursued interventionist foreign policies to “protect” their people abroad.

Inter-war Germany provides the most potent example of this interventionist, ethnonationalist policy. Adolf Hitler actively promoted ethnic German identity beyond the Third Reich’s borders and used the status of ethnic Germans as a pretext to invade neighboring states. More recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited protection of ethnic Russians from an anti-Russian government in Kiev as a pretext for his 2014 invasion of Crimea, claiming upon annexation that he “could not abandon Crimea and its residents in distress.” Although these two cases have their own specific externalities, the critical implication is that ethnonationalist powers are more expansionist because they either earnestly want to protect their ethnicity or they want to use it as a convenient cover for interventionist policy—or a combination of both.


Beijing is now displaying the warning signs of an emerging ethnonationalist power; it is actively trying to co-opt a massive and far-flung diaspora to advance its foreign policy

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