BEIJING — Xie Jun, 23, is a modern Chinese patriot. On Thursday, when thousands of soldiers and rows of tanks and caissons move in perfect order past Tiananmen Square to commemorate 60 years of Communist Party rule, his heart will skip a beat and a lump will rise in his throat.
“I’ve learned from textbooks the history of China — how we were invaded in the past by foreigners,” he said this week as he sold bananas and persimmons from a fruit cart in a leafy downtown neighborhood. “How, in order to survive, we had to band together in love of country. I’m proud that China has turned from a backward country into a country with international standing in such short time.”
Few would deny him his pride in China’s miracle. But ask Mr. Xie to explain China’s core values — not what his country achieved, but what it stands for — and he is dumbstruck, a student called on in class to report on the book he forgot to read.
“The ability of China to adapt,” he said after a long silence. “To learn from the West.” And, in a phrase that sounds plucked from a pamphlet, “the diligence and industriousness of the laboring masses.”
China’s ruling Communist Party is throwing itself a huge and meticulously choreographed anniversary party on Thursday, a celebration whose overarching theme echoes the words Mao spoke after forcing the Nationalists to surrender Beijing in 1949. “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation,” Mao said. “We have stood up.”
From the displays of advanced weaponry to the celebration posters highlighting Shanghai’s forest of skyscrapers, the unmistakable message of this celebration is that Mao was right and that the Communist Party is carrying all China to prosperity and worldwide respect.
But prosperity is a condition, not a value. And on the eve of a great patriotic celebration, at least a few Communist leaders must be wondering whether lashing patriotism to eternal prosperity is not, at least a little, like riding a tiger.
“There is no ideology in China anymore,” Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at Renmin University in Beijing, said in an interview on Wednesday. “The government has no ideology. The people have no ideology. The reason the government is in power is because they can say: ‘I can make your lives better every day. I can give you stability. And I have the power.’ As long as they make people’s lives better, it’s O.K. But what happens on the day when they no longer can?”
The issue is not whether the Chinese people have reason to love their country. Beijing residents, asked this week about why they love their country, frequently talked about its economic strength and rise in global status, but they also often referred to China’s 5,000 years of history, a vibrant culture and the ethnic unity of a nation in which 9 of 10 citizens are of Han descent.
Those are national narratives that bind Chinese just as surely as melting-pot Americans are bound by Thomas Jefferson’s stirring calls for liberty and the transformative experience of the Civil War.
But despite insistent effort — patriotism is a staple of the education system, and citizens are exhorted to equate the state and the homeland — none of the Chinese narrative bears on the Communists and their government.
And the official ideology of socialism and the revolutionary struggle against capitalist roaders, though still taught in universities and factory halls, is treated as dull propaganda by all except a dwindling number of true believers.
Historians and sociologists say that socialist ideology once was a bedrock of Chinese patriotism and support of the government. Paradoxically, it was killed by the reform and opening of China that began 30 years ago and brought the economic miracle of today.
What inspires loyalty today is not ideology, but the government’s competence at raising China from poverty.
“I am not a member of the party,” said Rao Jin, a writer whose Web site, Anti-CNN, is a symbol of Chinese nationalism and rejection of Western criticism. “But I believe that you should love the party at the same time as loving your country. Everything that China has right now is because of the C.C.P.,” the Chinese Communist Party.
“History has proved that no other regime can govern China,” he said. “If you change the ruling entity, if the C.C.P. were suddenly not in power, most people agree that it would be total chaos.”
It is a view embraced by most Chinese patriots interviewed this week, within limits.
“The party is doing a pretty good job of running the country, so we’re pretty happy with it,” Li Yuqian, a 30-year-old student at Capital Sports University, said as he munched French fries in a local McDonald’s. “But what we love is this country — and loving this country is very different thing from loving the party.”
Which didn't mean, he hastened to add, that he was not loyal. “Don’t write that I don’t love the party,” he added. “O.K.?”