Ukrainian Lessons

Four things that are wrong with the conventional wisdom about the country’s politics.

by Petra Stykow and Peter Rutland Transitions Online, 10 April 2014

The dramatic developments in Ukraine left Western media scrambling to explain a distant and complex country to an audience that could barely locate the places on a map or pronounce the names.

Ukraine found itself in a tug of war between Moscow and Brussels, and this fed into a simplistic narrative of a bifurcated country, torn between East and West, that misrepresents the situation on the ground. The fact that Western policy is based on this misreading of Ukraine helps explain why it has gone so badly astray.

1. Binary thinking is lazy thinking

Western newspapers have been very proud to publish maps showing the Ukrainian electorate divided along into two neat halves: the west-center versus the south-east. Looking at that electoral map, it does indeed seem as if Ukraine has a serious identity crisis – and one that suggests a natural and insuperable territorial divide.

This apparent east-west split confirms our own preconceived notions and tendency toward binary thinking – dividing the world into “good” actors (people who share our values and are thus deserving of our support) and “bad” actors (enemies, not to be trusted). Since western Ukraine is geographically adjacent to Europe, it’s assumed that it must also be closer to European values than people living farther east.

One problem with this binary narrative of Ukrainian politics was that it could not account for the appearance of radical nationalist groups – who are primarily based in western (i.e. “good”) Ukraine. The presence of government ministers from the ranks of extremist parties such as Svoboda and Right Sector does not fit the standard account of Maidan as the triumph of Western, democratic values.

2. Language does not equal ethnicity

The people of Ukraine are not bifurcated into two distinct groups. Rather they have at least two overlapping identity divisions – language use and ethnic identity. You cannot take language use as an indicator of ethnic identity or political loyalty. In the census, some Ukrainians claimed Ukrainian as their “mother language” even though they may not actually speak it at home, as a way of expressing their identity. On the other hand, some Ukrainians who speak Russian at home express a desire for their children to learn Ukrainian.

Moreover, the language options do not fall into simply two categories – Ukrainian-speaking versus Russian-speaking. There is a third category, people who speak surzhuk. This is a dialect sometimes described as Ukrainian vocabulary with Russian grammatical structure. Surzhuk is not an option in the census, but it is spoken by about 30 percent of the population, mainly from villages and small towns.

3. The west-east split is a product of the political process

Without a doubt, the east-west split in Ukrainian political behavior has deep roots and many aspects. It is the product of a centuries-old history of shifting imperial and state boundaries, and rests on linguistic, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic cleavages.

However, it only emerged in such a stark binary form – and became a threat to the existence of Ukraine as a nation-state – as a result of a series of polarized elections, beginning with the Orange Revolution in 2004.

In reality, Ukrainian public opinion – like the electorate in any country – is split across multiple dimensions, and the east-west divide along the alleged ethno-linguistic gap is not the only possible variant of Ukrainian politics.

Back in the 1990s, economic policy was an important factor driving political competition, and on that issue voters were not always split along east-west lines. True, Leonid Kuchma, a factory director from eastern Ukraine, won election as president in 1994 as the “pro-Russian” candidate. However, he won re-election in 1999 against a Communist opponent by running on his pro-market economic policies (he boasted that he had brought inflation down from 10,000 percent to 25 percent). The electoral map in 1999 was not divided into two neat blocs. Rather, it was a mosaic, with many eastern and southern regions voting against Kuchma, and a couple of western provinces – now Svoboda‘s bulwark – supporting him strongly.

4. The triumph of patronage politics

The party system changed after the Orange Revolution in 2004 with the downfall of the Communist Party (whose support fell from 25 percent in 1998 to 4 percent in 2006). The demise of the Communists undermined the left-right dimension of the political debate, and the party system shifted from one between competing programs and ideologies to a clientilistic system built around personal leaders trading favors.

The new leaders – Viktor Yushchenko, Yulia Tymoshenko, and Viktor Yanukovych – used the west-east divide as a way to consolidate their electoral base. The politically divided Ukraine that we see today is as much the product of the evolution of the party system as of a “naturally” divided electorate.

This helps explain one of the many puzzles of the Ukrainian crisis – why support for Yanukovych collapsed overnight on 21 February. Lawmakers from his own Party of Regions deserted him en masse once they realized that he had agreed to leave office. Added to which they agreed to revert to the 2004 constitution, which weakened the powers of the president, which meant that there was nothing to be gained from backing Yanukovych even for the transitional period.

Implications for the future

Over the 23 years of an independent Ukraine no single group within the elite has been able to defeat and dominate the others – but nor was any one faction strong enough to set up rules that would survive the next elite battle. Instead, each round of the political struggle has led to a rewriting of the rules of the game, which means that distrust and deceit have become institutionalized.

The different historical experiences of different parts of Ukraine certainly affect the present political culture. But Ukrainian politicians need to learn the art of compromise, of stitching together coalitions across different groups of interests. It is an important part of the drama unfolding before our eyes that Ukrainian elites over the past decade played the most dangerous of all available cards – the ethno-linguistic card – in mobilizing supporters when competing for power. As history has demonstrated many times, this kind of political tactic runs the risk of blowing up any civilized rules of the political game, giving way to violence and civil war.

Petra Stykow is a professor of politics at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich. Peter Rutland is a professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

Getting Russia Wrong

published in the Moscow Times, 9 April 2014

A lead article in the March 7 New York Times argued that the U.S. failure to predict Putin’s actions in Crimea is due in part to a dearth of experts in Russian politics. Since the end of the Cold War, political scientists have deserted Russian studies, and a new generation of specialists has not emerged to replace their Cold War predecessors.

There is some truth to that argument. Only three out of the eight Ivy League universities have appointed a tenured professor in Russian politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and none of them has appointed a Russia expert in economics or sociology. There is a similar situation in Germany. While there are 43 professors of Russian or East European history, there are only three professors of Russian politics, and one each in economics and sociology.

But that is only part of the story. In fact, there are plenty of Russia specialists out there in U.S. academia. There are even some former Sovietologists still at their desks, including yours truly. At the same time, however, there is also a new generation of young experts who are extremely well informed about contemporary Russian politics — better informed than their Cold War predecessors because they have more opportunity to travel there and conduct research and because they can draw on the findings of new Russian scholarship.

The problem is that this academic expertise is not being tapped by the mass media, nor by government agencies for that matter. The few exceptions would include Michael McFaul, who before serving as the U.S. ambassador to Russia was President Barack Obama’s top adviser on Russia, or Celeste Wallander, now serving on the National Security Council.

Academics who try to portray Russia in a more nuanced way — that is, beyond the primitive, good-versus-evil binary — have a hard time getting their point across. Take my own case, for example. In my 30-year career as a Russia specialist in the U.S., I have managed to publish an opinion piece in The New York Times or International Herald Tribune three times. One was on the Islamic insurgency in Mali, a second was on the chances for an Arab Spring in China, and the third was on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. I am not an academic expert on Mali, China, Armenia or Azerbaijan, and I do not speak the languages of those countries. But on the topic in which I am actually proficient, Russia, I have never once been published in The New York Times — and it is not for lack of trying, I assure you.

The media have their own stable of authoritative commentators on Russia to whom they repeatedly turn when a quote or op-ed is needed. And this group of experts, mostly located within the Washington Beltway, tend conveniently to fall into two camps. The majority are contemptuous of Russia, seeing it as an irrelevant, declining power at best. At worst, they see Russia as a dangerous, authoritarian regime that poses a threat to its neighbors and plays a destabilizing role on the international stage. At the same time, there is a minority of observers who insist that Russia is a normal country, on the way to integrating with the West. Debate consists of an exchange of comments between the camps of pessimists and optimists.

The two low points where misunderstanding of the situation in Russia has been most damaging are 1993 and 2009. In 1993, the U.S. government supported President Boris Yeltsin’s decision to illegally dismiss the parliament and then shell it into submission when protesting deputies refused to disband. The U.S. media rallied behind the pro-Yeltsin position, and very few critical voices got a hearing.

In April 2009, on the eve of his first visit to Moscow, Obama undiplomatically declared in an interview that Putin had “one foot in the past [Soviet Union]” and that Obama would concentrate his efforts on then-President Dmitry Medvedev. That diplomatic faux pas was based on a misunderstanding of the “tandem leadership” in which then-Prime Minister Putin was still, in fact, calling all the shots. Obama’s gross misread of the country’s power structure set his Russian policy on a flawed track from which it never recovered.

Crimea now provides us with a third example of how a shallow and schematic understanding of Russian politics can lead us to be taken by surprise by the turn of events. This is somewhat ironic since Russian policy is itself overwhelmingly shaped by their analysis of what the U.S. is doing to Russia. The U.S. has consistently ignored Russia’s legitimate interests in the post-Soviet space. For example, no complaints were raised when Estonia and Latvia denied citizenship to their Russian minorities after these two countries gained their independence in the 1990s. At the same time, Slovakia and Romania were obliged to protect the language rights of their Hungarian minorities as a condition for European Union entry.

Senior U.S. diplomats such as Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland seemed to be more interested in playing the role of freedom fighter than trying to work toward a peaceful solution to the crisis. With Russian propaganda stressing that the protests in Kiev were orchestrated by the West, it was unwise to be photographed on Maidan Square handing out food to riot police or to boast that the U.S. has spent $5 billion on promoting democracy in Ukraine. Such steps were a red rag to the Russian bull — and Moscow responded in kind.

What is Putin thinking?

His incursion into Crimea could be muscle-flexing, expansionism, desperation over losing Ukraine, or none of the above.

Transitions Online, 5 March 2014

Vladimir Putin’s decision to teach the West a lesson by a show of force in Crimea has stunned observers around the world. Commentators are struggling to make sense of his actions. This essay is a speculative excursion into competing explanations for Putin’s behavior.

Russia’s attitudes toward Ukraine have always been deeply ambivalent. Even as they acknowledge Ukraine is a separate country, they are likely to assert that Ukrainians are “just like us.” Russian media are sending a mixed message: are Russian forces going in to save the ethnic Russians living there from the Ukrainians, or to save the Ukrainians themselves from the “fascists”?

Just as the U.S. officer in the Vietnam War famously said, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” so Putin seems bent on breaking up Ukraine in the name of saving it – from fascism, Western domination, or whatever.

Things did not become much clearer after Putin’s press conference on 4 March – his first public statement since Russia’s Federation Council authorized the deployment of troops on 1 March. Putin twisted himself into knots trying to justify the legality of his actions, but he failed to clarify what his real objectives are. It was hard to explain why, if it was a legitimate peacekeeping operation, Russian troops were not wearing any identifying insignia – a clear violation of the centuries-old laws of war, let alone the laws of peacekeeping.

Putin signaled no desire to go to war with Ukraine, saying, “I am sure that Russian and Ukrainian troops will not be on opposite sides of the barricades.” At the same time, however, he said the people of Crimea have the right of self-determination.

From a Hobbesian point of view, Putin’s unilateral display of military muscle would seem a classic example of a state rationally pursuing self-preservation, using the means at its disposal. As a result of the political standoff in Kyiv, Ukraine had fallen into a state of anarchy, a condition in which, Hobbes argued, “force and fraud” become “the two cardinal virtues.” Force and fraud certainly describes Putin’s behavior toward Ukraine over the past week.

Russia enjoys overwhelming military superiority against Ukraine, a bankrupt country with no military allies, no nuclear weapons, and an army a tenth the size of Russia’s. The only thing holding Russia back from taking advantage of this superior position was its recognition of international norms restraining its behavior. For Putin, however, the toppling of the duly-elected president of Ukraine and the tearing up of an internationally brokered agreement to form a transitional government amounted to the breakdown of the established rules of the game. In a state of anarchy, states (or individuals) will do whatever they can to survive.

However, this Hobbesian logic is completely inadequate to explaining the problem at hand. Ukraine posed no threat to Russian national survival. Russian media reports of attacks on Russians living in Ukraine are nonsense. Threats to infringe on the language rights of Russians – in the form of parliament’s hasty move 27 February to effectively revoke the status of Russian as an official language in some regions – have been part of the usual ebb and flow of Ukrainian politics over the previous two decades. In the past Russia has never acted as if this were a vital concern.

Is Putin’s goal the annexation of Crimea? Russia would gain some nice beaches and a naval base in perpetuity. But it would face tremendous international opprobrium, and it would drive the rump Ukrainian state to seek even closer ties with the West. So from a cost-benefit point of view, it does not look particularly attractive. But after witnessing two revolutions in a decade, perhaps Putin has simply lost patience with Kyiv and given up on the idea of a Eurasian Union including Ukraine. Crimea therefore is a consolation prize.

To try to head off international condemnation, he may leave Crimea as an independent statelet, rather than incorporate it into the Russian Federation. This would be consistent with Russia’s treatment of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both Georgian breakaway territories that it formally recognized as sovereign states in the wake of the 2008 Georgian war.

Maybe Putin’s ambitions do not stop at Crimea, however. He might want to peel off more Ukrainian provinces where Russians form a majority, or even a plurality. This will be a lot trickier to engineer than Crimea, however. Russia does not have military assets on the ground, and it is not clear that the Russians living in Donetsk or Lugansk want to give up on the Ukrainian state. Yes, living standards in Russia are higher – but would you want your sons to be drafted into the Russian army and sent to Dagestan? (Ukraine has been free of Islamist terrorism and in December abolished the draft.) But the idea of a state of “New Russia,” perhaps even extending around the northern coast of the Black Sea to Odessa, is appealing to Russian nationalists.

One thing is clear – Russia has no plan for putting Ukraine back together. At his press conference, Putin bluntly acknowledged that Viktor Yanukovych “has no political future.” Putin anyway had always found him a prickly customer to deal with. It seems to have been personal. One senior U.S. diplomat suggested that their antipathy rested in the fact that Putin was an ex-cop and Yanukovych was an ex-con.

Some strategists of the Realist school, especially those sitting in Washington, D.C., have searched for some still deeper, nefarious master plan. Some argue that Putin’s real agenda is the restoration of the Soviet empire. Cue at this point Putin’s 2005 statement that the Soviet collapse was “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.” Less quoted is his remark that “he who does not regret the fall of the Soviet Union has no heart, and he who thinks it can be put back together has no head.”

Other analysts argue that Putin’s strategy is to undermine the European Union by showing its impotence, and to sow discord between the EU and United States. The latter was greatly aided by the intercepted phone conversation of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, in which she interjected “F**k the EU.” This was gleefully promoted on Twitter by the Russian Foreign Ministry, in a strange meeting of 19th-century realpolitik with 21st-century hipster communications. But rather than quit while they were ahead, Moscow subsequently launched Operation Crimea, thereby uniting the EU and United States in a common cause to contain Russian aggression.

Grand strategy aside, maybe one can find a more mundane explanation for Russian behavior. As things were falling apart in Kyiv, Putin had to be shown to be doing something – anything – even if it did not make much sense from the point of view of Russia’s national interests. The military and security services had some contingency plans in their office drawers – to secure the Crimean peninsula, and to trigger an ersatz nationalist uprising in the Donbas.

Back in 1971 Graham Allison published a classic account of the 1963 Cuban missile crisis titled Essence of Decision, in which he demonstrated that the strategic bargaining between the national leaders was overtaken by events as they developed on the ground. The U.S. Navy set the blockade farther offshore than President Kennedy had anticipated, triggering a premature confrontation with approaching Russian vessels. (Since the Soviet Union lacked the naval forces to break the blockade, they turned back.) On the Soviet side, they had installed tactical nuclear missiles to defend Cuba from a U.S. invasion before they started building the strategic missile sites – something the United States was not aware of as it threatened military action against Cuba.

A similar pattern of bottom-up initiatives seems to have driven the extraordinary political developments in Ukraine. Time and again in Kyiv it was clear that political leaders in both the government and the opposition found themselves upstaged by developments on the street. Similarly, Putin may find himself vulnerable to the spontaneous actions of Russian nationalists in Crimea or Donbas.

The Cuban Missile Crisis ended, thankfully, without war. One can only hope that the messy evolution of the Crimean crisis will similarly educate world leaders about the dangers of confrontation.

Peter Rutland

Pluralism and nationalism: the legacy of Robert Dahl

Earlier this month venerable political scientist Robert Dahl passed away at the age of 98. His work has important implications for the study of nationalism in the contemporary world – with the Ukrainian crisis being a case in point.

Best known for his later writings on American democracy, one of his most important works is a study in comparative politics, Polyarchy, published back in 1971. Based on a systematic study of the 34 democracies he identified operating in the world at that time (out of 104 countries examined), Dahl looked for the conditions which seemed conducive to the flourishing of democracy.

Dahl was defending a pluralist interpretation of democracy – the idea that democracy is best served if there are several fairly well-organized blocs of interests competing for power, with no single group guaranteed a majority in every election. Ideally, there would be several dimensions of cleavage (ethnicity, religion, region, class) which would be “cross-cutting,” so that someone might belong to one group on one issue, and another on a second.

As a concept “pluralism” peaked in the 1950s and fell out of favor in the 1960s, under attacks from the Left who argued that it failed to notice the systematic exclusion of some groups from the political process, such as blacks and women. The Right were not interested in pluralism since they focused on individual rights. Dahl came up with the new term “polyarchy” as a replacement for “pluralism,” but it never caught on.

In his 1971 work, Dahl was rather doubtful about whether ethnic pluralism was good for democracy. He divided the countries into four groups based on their degree of ethnic fragmentation, and he found that 58% of the 26 most ethnically homogeneous countries were democratic, compared to just 18% of the 33 most ethnically diverse countries. Dahl concluded that “a competitive political system is less likely in countries with a considerable measure of socio-cultural pluralism.” (p. 111)

There were nevertheless six countries in that most diverse group that were functioning polyarchies as of 1970 (Sierra Leone, Ceylon, Malaya, India, Canada and Switzerland); and three in the next group of fairly high ethnic pluralism countries (Belgium, Lebanon and the Philippines). Looking back 44 years later, we see that out of that short list of 9 ethnically diverse polyarchies, three collapsed in war (Sierra Leone, Lebanon and Ceylon); Belgium is frozen in political deadlock; the Philippines battles a persistent Muslim insurrection; and even Canada narrowly escaped the secession of Quebec in 1995.

The implication is clear: ethnic pluralism makes it hard, but not impossible, for democracy to thrive.

Empirical political scientists have yet to reach a consensus on whether the data shows a consistent relationship between ethnic fragmentation and democracy. As Mark Beissinger points out, the data on ethnic pluralism is inconsistent and it is hard to isolate the impact of ethnicity from other variables such as poverty. In a 2012 study Wolfgang Merkel and Brigitte Weiffen found that ethnic fragmentation was low in established democracies (0.28) but twice as high in failed democratizers (0.58) and authoritarian regimes (0.49). (Table 3) They conclude that “most facets of heterogeneity do not hinder democratic transition[but] most of them complicate democratic consolidation.” That is, ethnic pluralism may weaken autocratic regimes, but in the longer term may make it more difficult for a functioning democracy to emerge.

We see this sadly illustrated by the case of Ukraine. Ukraine as is well known is a country divided between a Europe-oriented West and a Russia-oriented East, with an ambiguous tranche running through the middle of the country. This ethnic pluralism seems to have aided the emergence of a quasi-democratic, parliamentary system of government in the 1990s – certainly a system that was more democratic than that in neighboring Russia. Lucan Way described this as “pluralism by default,” referring to the case of Moldova – which like Ukraine was split between two language groups, a Russophone minority and a Romanian-speaking majority.

However, short-run gains seem to come at the expense of long-term stability. The divided electorate meant that neither side could achieve a commanding majority in free elections, so power oscillated between the Westerners (who won the re-run election in 2004) and the Easterners (who won in 2010). Dahl warned back in 1970 that a binary division seems more unstable than having three or more groups, since this allows for coalition bargaining.

Looking at the rest of the post-soviet space, we see that democracy did well in the Baltic states, which were quite ethnically homogeneous. Lithuania was demographically homogeneous, while Estonia and Latvia were engineered to be homogenous by denying citizenship to the non-Estonians and Latvians who made up half their population. But it did badly in some other ethnically homogenous countries, such as Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the former Yugoslavia, democracy has been established in post-Yugo republics that were ethnically homogenous, but not in Bosnia, where the three rival ethnic groups have not been able to trust each other sufficiently to engage in the sort of bargaining that makes pluralist democracy work.

Advocates of democracy promotion tended to ignore ethnicity while assuming that a common national identity will magically appear once democratic institutions are installed. From Bosnia to Iraq, the evidence suggests that democratizers ignore national identity at their peril.

The Sochi Olympics and Russian national identity

A Putinkin Opening Ceremony in Sochi

The Moscow TImes, 13 February 2014

The spectacular opening ceremony at the Sochi Olympics confounded Western critics who were expecting a bombastic display of Soviet nostalgia and muscular nationalism, a showcase for President Vladimir Putin’s embrace of “traditional values.”

Instead, viewers saw a whimsical, poetic and restrained paean to Russian high culture — art, music and ballet. The title was “Russia’s Dreams.” It was an impressive show, combining stunning special effects with old-fashioned sentimentality and emotion.

Westerners, who were prepared to see the Olympics as Putin’s Games, seemed to have overlooked the surprising gap between the ceremony’s idealized narrative and the “traditional values” that Putin has been trying to promote over the past few years.

Russian nationalists were confused and incensed by the ceremony. Where, they asked, was the reference to World War II, the clear centerpiece of Russian political identity? Blogger Chernosotenets complained that “The [early] Soviet period was shown as red combines grinding people.” Why was the Leonid Brezhnev period represented by dancing, pony-tailed and smiling hipsters? And where was the past 20 years of post-Soviet history? Blogger kolobok1973 wrote: “There is no new Russia, the past 20 years did not exist. It melted away like a vision, a bad dream.”

Instead, the spectacle showcased emigres such as writer Vladimir Nabokov, composer Alfred Schnittke and inventor Igor Sikorsky, who found success abroad, not inside Russia. The works of artist Kazimir Malevich or composer Igor Stravinsky’s “Rit es of Spring,” are little-known to ordinary Russians.

Nationalists complained that Putin had contracted out the country’s national narrative to a cosmopolitan intellectual elite. Indeed, Vladimir Gomelsky, deputy director of state-controlled Channel One, explained that “Our ceremony was designed for an international audience.” Producer Konstantin Ernst, general director of Channel One, insisted that the show was an “expression of love for our homeland” on behalf of “real Russians, untainted by decades of propaganda and the Cold War.” But surely all those decades of propaganda and Cold War are part of Russian identity, for better or for worse.

It turns out that Ernst relied on international experts to script and stage much of the show. They included the New York-based George Tsypin, production designer for “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark,” who presented a tableau of dancing puppets at the 2002 Venice Biennale. Costumes were designed by Kim Barrett, another “Spiderman” veteran. Two producers had worked on the London Olympics ceremony, three aerialist experts came from the Cirque du Soleil and a director of the Shanghai circus choreographed the gymnastics.

The special effects were themselves fabricated outside Russia. The flying troika came from Sweden, and the mascot puppets were made in Australia.

Journalist Olga Kabanova wrote in Vedomosti: “This has happened throughout Russian history. The main monuments were built by foreigners in accordance with an ideological commission.”

According to arts critic Grigory Revzin, the disjunction between the ceremony and Putin’s current policies is partly due to the fact that planning began three years ago — before the political protests of December 2011 and before Putin’s big push toward conservative values. Andrei Malgin reported in The Moscow Times that the producers wanted to incorporate a commemoration of World War II, including a minute of silence, but this was nixed by International Olympic Committee officials.

The Sochi Olympics look set to be a resounding success and will undoubtedly boost Putin’s standing on the international stage. The debate over the content of the opening ceremony may be little more than a storm in a samovar, but it does illustrate the continuing ambiguities around Russian political identity.

Chinese Nationalism in Song, 1949 to present

(A guest post by Charmagne Eckert)

Music as a reflection of nationalistic ideas is particularly clear in the case of China where the rapidly changing internal and external influences that have shaped the Chinese concept of nationalism have had a consistent expression through song.

In the late 19th and early 20th century a movement to forge a common Chinese ethnicity was developed by intellectuals, as a counter measure to Western and Japanese imperialism.  A Chinese identity based upon the Han culture was defined, based on a specific common history, culture and clear geographic territory.

In 1949 at the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong famously said “China has stood up” (though there is some debate over whether he actually uttered that phrase.) March of the Volunteers was declared the official National Anthem of China.  “Arise! Arise! Arise! Millions of hearts with one mind.” (Lyrics here.) Originally a movie song, Tian Han wrote the lyrics while in a nationalist prison in 1935. Although the musical structure is Western, it clearly reflects Mao’s concept that music, film and other media were to be a vehicle for the proletarian revolution. Tragically, its author was arrested during the Cultural Revolution and died in prison.

The period of Communist construction in the 1950s saw uplifting songs such as Lei Feng’s Good Example. Despite its revolutionary message it was still predominantly Western in musical structure. The song illustrates Mao’s practice of emphasizing the story of the common worker as a standard for all. Lei Feng was a young soldier whose accidental death in the line of duty was utilized as a model for ideal behavior. The song reflects faith in communist ideals, political warm heartedness for the party and the socialist cause, the revolutionary will to work arduously for self-improvement, the moral quality and self-cultivation of showing fraternal unity and taking pleasure in assisting others.

As a time of purging of all things ‘un-communist’ the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) produced a plethora of revolutionary and political songs. A new form of People’s Opera tried to express the revolutionary fervor of the masses, as in the “The East is Red.” With a melody derived from a folk song, it became a de facto national anthem during the Cultural Revolution.

Deng Xiaoping’s opening to the West created a new economic nationalism which was influenced by the interaction of the Chinese state, democratic movements and exposure to artists from Taiwan and Hong Kong. A leading example is the 1982 song My Chinese Heart by Cantopop lyricist Wong Jim. The music reflects a romanticized imagery of the countryside, culture and tradition, and emotional pride. A strong influence of folk music is evident and traditional Chinese instruments were used alongside western.

The 1980’s brought a growing struggle between nationalism and internationalism with dissatisfaction and the desire for change finding ever bolder expression through the rock music culture that was rapidly developing in the PRC. In A Piece of Red Cloth Cui Jian (referred to as the ‘Father’ of Chinese rock) openly challenges the contradiction between the “open door” policy and the Communist dogma. Additionally, he fully incorporates traditional Chinese instruments into the standard blend of rock guitar, bass, and keyboards. The lyrics include the line “That day you took a piece of red cloth, covered up my eyes and covered up the sky.”

In the 1990s, an anticipation of the return of Hong Kong to the PRC was reflected in a surge of consumerism. Ai Jing’s My 1997 looks forward to the material benefits that access to Hong Kong seems to offer. The song includes the line “Come quick 1997! What kind of clothes do they sell at Yaohan?” There is a paradoxical reflection of the desire for Chinese unity along with an interest in Western style consumerism expressed in the blending of Chinese instruments alongside Western pop tempos, lyric structure and instrumentation. In 1997, Ai Jing herself moved to the United States.

By the year 2000 the PRC state only intervened with popular music if it was thought to be directly contrary to its interests. When the immensely popular pop Taiwanese singer A-Mei sang Taiwan’s national anthem at the inauguration of its President Chen Shuibian, it was seen by the mainland government as her endorsement of Taiwanese independence and thus a direct challenge to the state’s authority. The response of the Chinese government was instantaneous – billboards with A-Mei’s image, a Sprite commercial she stared in and all other popular images of her were removed from public view. Only a year later the ban was removed; perhaps with the intention of appearing more tolerant to the International Olympic Committee.

Now in 2013 A-Mei is a mega rock/pop star throughout Asia and arguably a powerful symbol of the new Chinese international nationalism: eclectic, commercially aware, and blending traditional Chinese and Taiwanese imagery with Western and world culture.

In the Inner Mongolian region of China that borders Russia and Mongolia, a new Rap movement addresses the tension between ethnic nationalism, Chinese identity and international culture, opening the possibility of even greater musical complexities both artistically and as a socio-political vehicle of communication.

For more on this topic, see:

Ho, Wai-Chung, “Social change and nationalism in China’s popular songs”, Social History, Taylor & Francis, Vol. 31, No. 4 (2006) (Primary source)

Gao, Helen, “Diaoyu in our heart: The revealing contradictions of Chinese nationalism”, The Atlantic, (2012)

Steen, Andreas, “The history of Chinese popular music,” website:

Bougainville, the forgotten struggle

We don’t hear much about Bougainville, an island struggling to win independence from Papua New Guinea, which itself won independence from Australia in 1975. The opening of a giant copper mine in 1972 led to a doubling of the population from 80,000 to 180,000 and had severe social and environmental consequences. In 1988 the Bougainville Revolution Army launched an uprising that succeeded in closing the mine. 15,000 died before peace was negotiated in 2001, which included a promise of an independence referendum by 2020. This imovie was made by a student in my Nationalism class, Cassie Garvin.