The Patriotic Volunteer?

Continuing the ‘Why’ series this article makes a brief foray into the area encompassing nationalism, patriotism and volunteering. As this topic is clearly extremely interesting, it will be increasingly covered in this blog over the next few weeks. In fact, to such an extent that I was going to herald the start of a ‘nationalism and volunteering’ month. I contacted the national press and they said no. So I didn’t.


The Patriotic Volunteer?

“Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first”          (Charles de Gaulle)


When answering the question ‘why do you volunteer?’; the majority of volunteers in the West would rarely reply with ‘I do it for my country’. In fact this answer would no doubt be near the bottom of their list. However a common reply from volunteers in non-Western countries would often cite nationalism as a dominant motivating factor. One such country is China; the world’s most populous nation and one in which volunteering has massive potential. This short article aims to explore the relationship between nationalism, patriotism and volunteering by looking specifically at the Chinese situation.

The staggering growth rate of the Chinese economy, coupled with the many success stories emerging from the country over the last  decade (regarding everything other than its football team), means that Chinese nationalists can surely have more to shout about in recent years than any other. At the same time, the rapid and successful development of Chinas economy is also changing Chinese society. One area of change is towards volunteerism. With increasing numbers of NGOs; formal volunteering is becoming more and more prominent in Chinese society. However the direction in which it orientates itself and the role it plays in China; will all affect the way volunteering is perceived in the country. This depends very much on a number of key relationships and several of these revolve around the role of nationalism.

A few months ago protests once again flared up across Chinas urban landscape as nationalists reacted to yet another incident involving the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute. With protestors chanting slogans demanding to boycott Japanese products, tensions were high in many of Chinas cities (and there are indeed many). This assertive anti-foreign nationalism seems to have become far more pronounced in China over the past fifteen years as the outside world becomes more visible to potential nationalists and the nationalists themselves become more visible to the outside world. Implicit in most forms of nationalism is the delineation of national characteristics and the exclusion, to varying degrees, of those who do not correspond to this vision. Nationalism in the vast majority of its forms is thus incompatible with the plurality and diversity of civil society. However it is not incompatible with the act of volunteering. Volunteering to strengthen ones nation could be deemed a perfectly laudable motive. Whether this is because you want your nation to be healthy, happy and fair or because you want it to be stronger than others, is another matter.

The problem is that Chinese civil society is only in a nascent stage. This leaves a noticeable gap between state and society. As the political scientist Robert W. Cox points out in his 1999 article about the global prospects for civil society, this creates a problem:

There is a gap between the retreat of the state and the still small development of civil society. This space, this void, attracts other forces. One is exclusionary populism: various forms of extreme right political movements and xenophobic racism.

Although not talking specifically about China, modern China corresponds alarmingly well to Cox’s theorising; the growth in assertive nationalism is the most well-documented trend in the reform-era.

The difference between nationalism and patriotism as a motive for volunteering in China can be explored better if we track-back two years to the spring of 2008. During this period the country again experienced nationalist protests as assertive nationalism flared up against the perceived Western support for Tibet and the impact it was having on the Beijing Olympic preparations. With nationalist fervour running high, the May earthquake hit Sichuan and devastated the province. What is quite clear is that the earthquake fundamentally changed the dynamics of Chinese nationalism in 2008. Nationalistic energies were redirected from the negativity of angry xenophobia to the positivity of assertive action to help fellow citizens overcome the destructive forces of nature. It is possible to hypothesise that many of those who took part in the anti-foreign protests in March and April would have been the first to volunteer for relief work or to organise collections.

If the earthquake converted nationalism from outward-looking destructive negativity into inward-looking constructive positivity then, in doing so, it decreased the possibility that assertive xenophobic nationalism would cause problems. That the two forms of nationalism, constructive and destructive, can co-exist side by side seems to be a realistic proposition. Charles de Gaulle would call them patriotism and nationalism. If this is the case then patriotism needs to be actively encouraged whilst giving nationalism little opportunity for growth. The stirring response of Chinese society to the earthquake showed that the two are not mutually incompatible; Chinese nationalism need not revolve around vandalising Japanese department stores. For Chinese society; inward-looking constructive patriotism is surely a far more healthy way to fill in the post-Mao spaces that still exist between state and society. China is a great country and it can be made greater through the healthy development of volunteerism. In order to successfully foster the growth of a culture of volunteerism; assertive, destructive nationalism must not be allowed to dominate Chinese civic-activity discourse.

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