Over the past few months, reports on Chinese mainlanders hurling curses at Hong Kong protesters have disturbed people around the world. These self-appointed guardians of Beijing’s authority have appeared in Australia, where they shouted profane insults in Mandarin about the mothers of a group of Hong Kong supporters. In Canada, mainland students driving their Ferraris and Aston Martins to “demonstrate force” derided Hong Kongers as poor and added an expletive for good measure.

As a mainlander who lives overseas, these accounts were shocking to me. The overseas Chinese students I’ve met, to be clear, are nothing like these protesters; I was both sad and horrified to see images of a young Chinese man holding a sign telling Hong Kong sympathizers in London to “kneel down” in front of their “master.” (He, too, used more profane language.)

But when I read these accounts, I thought about the last time I was back home in Shanghai over the summer. While I was there, I watched television in the evenings with my mother. From 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., there were only two options: shows focused on food, or TV dramas set during the Sino-Japanese war. We often opted for the latter, and so our nights were spent watching well-dressed Communist Party members outsmarting the Japanese invaders on every occasion. “If they had been as invincible as they were portrayed on the television,” my mother commented once, “why would the war have lasted eight years?”

I thought about the connection between what I’d watched and what I was now reading about — a generation shaped by shows like these, designed to convert the human cost we paid for today’s prosperity into nationalist zeal and to send the message that we should feel anger toward Japan and others, while believing firmly in China’s current path.

The first thing to note about Chinese patriotism is that it was born out of conflict. Unlike in a democratic country where the people vote to elect their leaders, the Chinese Communist Party first claimed the mantle of legitimacy after the Sino-Japanese War. That is, the party led the Chinese people to eventually overthrow “the rule of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism,” and “founded the People’s Republic of China,” as the preamble of our Constitution puts it. As a result, to love the state means to endorse the party. “Without the Communist Party, there would be no New China,” the famous “red” song goes.

And it was also born out of shame. Growing up, we learned that the Qing government was so weak that it signed many unfair treaties with the Western and Japanese colonizers over the course of the 19th century. We learned that even after the empire fell apart in 1911, the new government, dominated by warlords, was corrupt enough to let Japan occupy Shandong province after World War I. We learned that millions of our countrymen had been killed during the Sino-Japanese War. We internalized the trauma of the Nanjing Massacre in 1937-38.

We were steeped in this before we were even old enough to understand the messages we were supposed to be absorbing. Today, it is almost funny to recall that the first naked woman I saw on the big screen was from “Red Cherry,” one of the patriotic movies we watched as a mandatory part of our curriculum. In one scene, a Chinese teenager was forced to walk on the dinner table naked, showing a giant Nazi tattoo on her back to a group of German officers. Looking back, it’s a good antiwar movie, but I was only a primary school student. Sitting in the movie theater with my class, I had no idea what a Nazi was. What I remember was that it shocked me to see the girl’s bare body, and later to see a different girl trying to burn herself to remove a similar tattoo.

In other movies, we saw the famous 14-year-old Communist Party hero, Liu Hulan, walk courageously up to a fodder chopper, refusing to save her life by betraying the other party members in her village. We witnessed Chinese people being lynched, raped and buried alive by the Japanese, and watched as some of them still managed to chant patriotic slogans all the way to the end. When we returned to school from the movie theater, the teachers asked us to learn their spirit of “ningsibuqu” — to prefer to die than to surrender.

After years of schooling, every Chinese national is left with a wardrobe of collective enemies: the Western countries and Japan. No sensible adult would be foolish enough to adopt this completely black-and-white view. But a hostile mind-set can still get the better of us when nationalistic sentiments are involved.

To many mainlanders, for example, the recent protests in Hong Kong brought back humiliating memories of the Chinese Empire at its weakest. When I saw pictures of Hong Kong protesters hanging a British colonial flag in the legislative building, I could feel, even in my own blood, the fury slowly gathering. The next day, I happened to talk to a Chinese friend, who had been forwarding sympathetic posts about the protests only a few days before. “If they want to kiss up to the previous colonizer,” she said, “leave them alone.”

When more violent pictures of the Hong Kong protests filled Chinese social media, I was having dinner with an old friend in Shanghai, a consultant trained in both China and America. “How can the protests,” he asked me, “be so well-organized if they are not orchestrated by the United States in the first place?” The logic was flawed, I thought. The Hong Kong protests were a leaderless movement, organized through the internet. But I didn’t want to say so, because I didn’t want to quarrel.

Of course we should remember our history. But when I try to understand my friends in China, and those horrible overseas Chinese nationalists, I think about the way lessons about our colonized past have morphed into a crackdown on voices that differ from Beijing’s. We have been victims in the past, and so now Chinese people must share “one heart” and “one faith.” We must all want to see China grow into a strong nation, one that defies the best efforts of our collective enemies to thwart us — and anyone who criticizes government policy or doubts a government narrative is “un-Chinese,” a “running dog” of foreign forces.

We are trapped in this rhetoric. Nobody wants to seem unpatriotic, so in the increasingly tense political climate in China, moderate patriotism is silenced and extreme patriotism is becoming the loudest, if not the only, voice.

Most of us love our country. It’s almost an instinct, like the attachment we bear toward our kin. Perhaps the bigger question is how to make patriotism a matter of education, not indoctrination. There is a lesson here for every country, not just China. If patriotism is taught first and foremost to perpetuate power, to control people, to prepare them as soldiers for potential conflict and war, the result is the same: It is a young man, holding a sign, telling another person to kneel down in front of his master.

Jianan Qian is a fiction writer from Shanghai.

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