Research at Brandeis

Chandler Rosenberger and contemporary communism in China

The Office of the Vice Provost for Research sat down to hear more about the research that Chandler Rosenberger, Associate Professor of International and Global Studies and Sociology, conducts about contemporary China.

Office of the Vice Provost for Research:
You received a grant last year from the Provost to do research on the roots and rhetoric in contemporary Chinese nationalism. Tell me about your project, Chandler.

Chandler Rosenberger:
I’ve been looking at Xi Jinping’s speeches, Wang Qishan’s writings, the culture and the language of contemporary communism in China.
We sometimes underestimate how much language and ideology have to do with political leadership, especially when we’re trying to understand how China is governed. I decided to focus on what Xi Jinping is saying to justify his dramatic actions, such as flouting term limits on the presidency and cleaning up corruption. It’s more interesting now because there are more critical comments than there used to be due to the faltering economy and trouble with the U.S., there’s anxiety that Xi Jinping is overreaching.

Tell me about what makes Xi Jinping’s language different.

A term he uses a lot is Cultural Confidence, and by that he means that China should be confident about its ideas and its practices, and the Communist Party is the best representative of those ideals. I read a wonderful book about Xi Jinping that compared his elevation to the rise of a new Pope through the College of Cardinals. We’re used to thinking that the Communist Party has no ideals and that Chinese politics is nothing more than a cage-match among different factions. Xi didn’t just rise because he could bring together an alliance of factions in China; he rose because he had a vision of how the party could be legitimate in the eyes of the Chinese, and that vision seemed to match the moment. I want to understand how he’s managed to go so far -- for example, to get himself written into the constitution as the third great leader after Mao and Deng Xiaoping.

What’s next for you?

What I’m doing now is part of a larger project on populist nationalism. Just look at the world today: we have a nationalist populist in India who connects his rule to 2,500 years of Hindu history and an authoritarian leader in Turkey who is making his party the purest expression of his nation’s cultural and religious traditions. Something similar is happening in Hungary, Poland, and China; also with Duarte in the Philippines, Abe in Japan, Putin in Russia, and in Brazil, which just elected Jain Bolsonaro, a right-wing authoritarian. Our own president recently proudly declared himself a nationalist as opposed to a globalist. There seems to be a pattern of imitation; one country after another is turning towards a nationalism that’s populist, committed to the majority’s culture and mores, skeptical of international institutions, and sometimes authoritarian.

The last time this kind of imitation happened was just after WWII; of course then it was in the opposite direction, as the triumph of liberal democracy led to a wave of nations imitating one another as representative democracies.

With resources we could pull together larger conferences on populist nationalism, or have a kind of laboratory with a PI leading a team to investigate this phenomenon. We could have a nationalism lab, and have a team of people look at the political rhetoric in these different movements and find patterns. And we could publish like crazy.

Is this the end of democracy?

It’s the flavor of the decade. Nationalism has always been with us, and we’ve underestimated nationalism, so when it comes back we’re surprised. But to some degree it’s never gone away. The common thread seems to be that people used to believe there was something called the international community, in part because the U.S. was so robust in its leadership and defense of the international organizations that were at the core of that leadership. The Iraq War and the later financial crisis of 2008 may have broken that, as people at home and abroad questioned how far the U.S. was reaching. Obama very much scaled back the international presence. Trump has scaled that back even further, saying that we have no interest in these international organizations anymore.