The outdated notion of nationalism in a globalised world: The China Post

People gather in Hong Kong's Chater Garden to protest the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruling on the West Philippine Sea, formerly known as the South China Sea, in the Central District, Hong Kong, China, July 14.
People gather in Hong Kong's Chater Garden to protest the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruling on the West Philippine Sea, formerly known as the South China Sea, in the Central District, Hong Kong, China, July 14.PHOTO: EPA

In its editorial on July 19, the paper argues that the world needs leaders who can unite, not divide.

After the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled against China's sovereignty claim in the South China Sea, a person posted a photo of a smashed iPhone on China's microblogging website Weibo with the words: "Remember how passionate young people smashed Japanese cars, Japanese shops and Japanese cameras during the dispute over the Diaoyutais. It is time for those who of you who call yourselves patriots to throw away your iPhone, iPad, iPod, iWatch [SAC], Mac..."

The post launched an onslaught of online photos depicting trashed Apple products, posted by Chinese netizens. There are reports that a man was attacked in China for wearing sneakers made by United States sportswear manufacturer Nike.

The US, according to those caught in this wave of anti-American sentiment, was behind the PCA's ruling in favor of the Philippines to reject Beijing's "nine dotted line" claim in the South China Sea.

These strong and simple-minded reactions reflect the outdatedness of nationalism in a globalised world.

The products these mainland Chinese "patriots" destroyed were mostly at least partially made in China. The US is China's biggest trading partner. China is the largest foreign holder of US debt, with holdings worth around US$1.2 trillion (S$1.62 trillion).

However, such primitiveness perhaps illustrates the appeal of nationalism, as people look for uncomplicated ideas to root for in a complicated world.

The power of a person's cultural and national roots, the connection and sense of loyalty and familiarity inspired by shared mother languages and customs are strong and often last for a lifetime. Assistance for one's fellow countrymen, especially in a foreign land, is one of the most common altruistic actions towards strangers.

Nationalism, as such a readily available source of public loyalty, is no doubt one of the most important and trusted tools by politicians and dictators to drum up support and to distract the public from real problems in difficult times. 

The connection between strangers of the same nationality is often not the result of formal indoctrination but of sharing the same imagined community. Benedict Anderson attributed the creation of such communities to the rise of mass media, which formed "national print-languages".

There were hopes that nationalism would become history as the Internet shrinks the modern world.

Indeed, humanity is in many ways becoming more and more connected, to the point that a single GPS-based AR (augmented reality) mobile game can quickly incite a global craze, even if it is currently available in only a few nations.

Yet in a world where social media appears to be replacing the traditional, often nationally bounded mass media, nationalism is enjoying a robust comeback. If anything, as the Weibo-inspire iPhone trashing demonstrates, social media provides a route for appealing ideas such as populism to be spread quicker and wider.

The affections people feel for their nations and their fellow countrymen are proof that most human beings are capable of love for strangers.

It is therefore a shame that some will exploit such affections with ugly intensions.

Those who wave the nationalist flag are quick to remind people of the specialness and sacredness of their attachment to their motherland and are less willing to point out the complexity of globalism, much less the fact that the attachment of people from other nations to their motherlands is equally special.

The world's most challenging crises - global warming, international terrorism, human trafficking, refugees, nuclear proliferation, even financial turmoil - can be best solved by a global response.

Solving these problems is in the best interests of people of all nationalities. The world needs leaders who can unite people, who can use a people's love of their families and their nations to relate to - instead of to alienate - other peoples'.

The China Post is a member of The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 21 newspapers.