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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Why China's Burning Mad

April 30, 2008

A virulent nationalism sweeps the country as Chinese feel slighted - by
foreign media, pro-Tibet protestors, even France. Is this any way to
welcome the world to the Olympics?

By Simon Elegant/Beijing
TIME Magazine
Thursday, May 5, 2008

Like all other foreign journalists in China, I get my share of criticism
from Chinese readers, mostly about my stories on TIME's website or my
posts on our China Blog. Some of the criticism can be pretty sharp--that
comes with the territory. But the opprobrium has taken on a distinctly
unpleasant edge in recent weeks as a wave of nationalist anger has
roiled China. "Simon, you will be hated by 1.3 billion Chinese," someone
wrote in response to my blog post about the chaotic progress of the
Olympic torch through London. "Hope someday someone will spit on your
face. Your name will be recorded in Chinese history book forever as one
of cold blooded, Hitler-type, murder's assistant."

Overkill? Fellow foreign correspondents in Beijing have received much
worse, including death threats credible enough to prompt some of them to
move offices. The explosion of rage was initially sparked by what many
Chinese perceive as biased international coverage of the bloody riots in
Tibet on March 14 and the continuing crackdown by Chinese security
forces that followed. Then, as the Olympic-torch relay was greeted by
pro-Tibet demonstrations in London, Paris and San Francisco, many
Chinese felt their national honor had been besmirched. Recently, their
ire has been focused specifically on France. Over the weekend of April
19 and 20, thousands of anti-French demonstrators took to the streets in
cities across China. They were apparently of the belief that French
authorities had deliberately left security lax when the Olympic torch
transited through Paris--out of a desire to humiliate China and
interfere with Beijing's hosting of the 2008 Games. (Although the relay
in London was similarly dogged by protests, the British have not been
subject to such specific hostility.) The Paris city council poured oil
on the flames by making the Dalai Lama an honorary citizen.

The anti-French protesters are not simply a noisy, hysterical minority;
many Chinese are deeply angry about what they see as a global conspiracy
to blacken their nation's good name and ruin the Olympics. That makes
for a perilous moment for a country that hoped to display its best side
to the world this summer, and is now displaying something uglier.
Chinese are immensely proud of what their country has achieved in the
past two or three decades and of the prestige conferred by the Olympics.
But many are still insecure about the permanence of China's new position
in the world and haunted by memories of past humiliations by foreigners
that have been drummed into them since childhood by a government
increasingly dependent on nationalism for its legitimacy.

It's testament to the fever pitch of nationalism that even iconic
figures can suddenly find themselves under attack. The Paralympic fencer
Jin Jing became a national hero (dubbed "the wheelchair angel" by the
Chinese media) for her attempts to protect the Olympic torch from
pro-Tibet protesters in Paris. But after she questioned the wisdom of a
call by some nationalists on the Internet to boycott the French retail
giant Carrefour, Jin found herself the subject of Internet attacks
branding her "unpatriotic" and a "traitor."

So, what explains the furor? The ferocity with which the protesters turn
on anybody who disagrees with them reminds some older Chinese of the
dark days of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, which convulsed China
from 1966 to '76. Today's protesters have one thing in common with Mao's
revolutionaries: years of indoctrination in a highly nationalistic--some
would say xenophobic--credo that imagines a hostile and perfidious world
determined to undermine China. "Maybe kids today know more about
computers, about the Internet," says Dai Qing, an environmental activist
who was imprisoned after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, "but when
it comes to history, the education they get is the same."

The doctrine was reinforced after the Tiananmen protests. Deng Xiaoping,
then China's leader, declared in a speech to the nation's military
leadership that the cause of the unrest was that political education had
been ignored. In the months and years that followed, the government
created new textbooks that emphasized both the glories of Chinese
culture and the century of humiliation at the hands of foreigners that
began with the Opium War in 1839. That patriotic education extended
beyond schools to include television, film and the news media. "Whenever
there's a crisis, the same narrative of Chinese history emerges," says
William Callahan, an expert on Chinese nationalism at the University of
Manchester in the U.K. "Not just in the official statements but now in
the popular responses as you saw in Tibet. [The Chinese say,]
'Foreigners can't intervene, because we were humiliated before.'"

Having effectively abandoned the Marxist-Leninist ideology that was once
its bedrock, China's Communist Party now draws its mandate to govern
from two sources--economic growth and nationalist pride. The trouble
with nationalism, though, is that it's difficult to control. What starts
as criticism of the foreign can quickly swing to domestic targets. One
of modern China's defining events was the May 4, 1919, student protest,
which began as an expression of nationalist ire over China's treatment
by foreign powers in the run-up to the Versailles Treaty but then turned
into an antigovernment movement. Could today's protests take a similar
turn? Plenty of Chinese have grouses about their rulers. Huang Jing, a
visiting China scholar at the National University of Singapore's East
Asian Institute, says public dissatisfaction could spill over into
issues ranging from soaring inflation, the plunging stock market and
rampant official corruption. If the government "lets nationalism keep
rising unchecked, it could suddenly find its own position threatened,"
Huang says.

An immediate risk is that China could still be awash in antiforeigner
sentiment in August, when Beijing will welcome the world for the Olympic
Games. It would take only a couple of instances of violence against
foreigners to undo years of official campaigns to make the capital
extra-hospitable--coaxing Beijingers to learn English and stop spitting
in the streets, for example.

The danger isn't just domestic. Susan Shirk, an expert on Chinese
politics at the University of California at San Diego and the author of
the 2007 book China: Fragile Superpower, believes that the protests in
China radically reduce the room Chinese leaders have to compromise when
it comes to international issues. If Beijing is constantly under
pressure to show its domestic audience that it is the dominant partner
in foreign relations, "it will be difficult for China to go back to
being a calm, cooperative, mature, responsible power," says Shirk.

This is an especially bad time for China to be showing a hostile face to
the world. Polls indicate that China's international reputation has
taken a beating recently. A Financial Times/Harris poll of Europeans
revealed that China is considered the biggest threat to world stability,
replacing the U.S. And a Zogby Interactive poll found that 70% of
Americans surveyed believed that because of China's poor human-rights
record, it was wrong to give the Games to Beijing.

Well aware of the dangers that uncontrolled nationalism poses both
domestically and internationally, Beijing has already begun clamping
down, with senior ministers appealing for calm on radio and television.
Will angry Chinese calm down simply because their leaders tell them to?
So far, Beijing has been spared the most visible displays of rage seen
in secondary cities like Wuhan and Qingdao. But on April 19, a convoy of
a dozen cars bearing banners condemning France and opposing Tibetan
independence slowly cruised by the French school in Beijing, where
students were inside taking exams. My children are at a different
school, but the display still gave me the chills. With China's
nationalist tiger untethered, a foreign journalist may have more to fear
than angry messages on a blog.

With reporting by With Reporting by Austin Ramzy/Beijing
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