Understanding Asian Youth in the “Asian Century”: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Materialism

In cultivating closer business bonds, countries in East Asia have steadily expanded their cooperation on issues related to economic, financial, environmental and human security. Intra-Asian geopolitics nevertheless remains conflictual, challenging the development of regionalism in this globally important area. Yet while East Asia continues to battle commonly reported obstacles to the formation and evolution of its regional institutions and identity, a new, but related problem has begun to pick up traction in recent years. This problem is the trend of explosive outbursts of nationalistic anger and ethnocentric sentiments among young Asians.

Many of these “angry youths” are in fact seen as being apolitical. Also, emerging from “Generation Me”, they do not appear predisposed to prioritising their nationalist agendas at the expense of their materialistic middle-class dreams. But they are well-educated and empowered by the internet. They are thus able readily to create skilfully-argued, provocative messages and widely publicise them through social media channels for mass hate agitations. Strong nationalist sentiments they help mobilise radicalise domestic politics, affect the rational construction and management of their countries’ relations with the region and the world, and in turn cast more shadows on regional interactions.

There are many well-appreciated studies on governments’ making risk-return trade-offs in deciding whether to repress, tolerate, or encourage nationalistic breakouts. Much has also been said about potentials and impacts of militant nationalist sentiments holding national foreign policy making hostage. Plenty of emphatic appeals have meanwhile been made to Asian governments not to succumb to domestic nationalist outbreaks or adopt hard-line positions in their bilateral or multilateral relations in the region and beyond. There seems, however, little discussion on how assertive young Asian nationalists interrelate with other forms of local opinions and interests, and how their demands are featured in domestic political debates.

How do young Asian nationalists manage to use the internet’s in-born characteristics for their own expressions? How do they interact with other interest and opinion groups online and in other socio-political spheres? This project will approach these questions through examinations of domestic discussions in Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines. Through these empirical studies, the project aims at enriching the on-going research on rising nationalist contentions in Asia. Focusing on popular nationalism among the young, the project is intended particularly to help fill gaps in the existing literature on shifting geopolitics in Asia. The research findings from this project may in turn shed fresh conceptual light on and providing empirical data to the academic and policy discussions on the regional project to build an integrated East Asian community.