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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Nationalist fervor in China is backed by anger

June 30, 2008

By Ted Plafker
The International Herald Tribune (France)
June 27, 2008

BEIJING -- They came at the worst possible moment: Deadly riots, harshly repressed, in Tibet, followed by a traveling melodrama as China's international Olympic torch relay was swamped in a global wave of protest.

Instead of a celebration, China faced the prospect of tens of thousands of foreign visitors attending a Beijing Olympic festival soured by external reproaches and simmering national resentment.

The devastating earthquake last month in Sichuan Province brought an international mood switch from confrontation to solidarity. But it has done nothing to diminish the increasingly patriotic and nationalist tenor of Chinese responses to the outside world.

Wrought from several sets of interwoven strands, the Chinese impulse toward nationalism is an intricate fabric. Love of country is mixed with a sometimes venomous ethnic chauvinism. Pride - in both China's distant past and its current achievements - mingles with shame and resentment over humiliations suffered for most of the past two centuries.

Nationalist sentiment is often both fervid and genuine; but it is also sometimes channeled and manipulated by an adept Chinese government for political ends.

When rioting Tibetans killed 21 Han Chinese and other non-Tibetans in the streets of Lhasa in March, many Chinese were baffled by foreign media coverage and international commentary that focused less on the behavior of the rampaging Tibetans than on the Chinese government's post-riot crackdown.

Many in China were outraged by what they saw as distortion, bias and double standards in reporting by the media of developed countries that ignored centuries of Western colonial conquest and oppression but criticized China and questioned the ethics of its rule over Tibet.

Chinese anger was intensified as, in city after city around the world, China's long-planned international Olympic torch relay was the target of demonstrators challenging not only Chinese rule in Tibet but also the government's human rights record at home and its support for the government of Sudan amid the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

The disruption of what was supposed to be a feel-good global road show incited bitter responses that the government at least tacitly condoned. Fierce rhetoric was allowed to rage in closely monitored Chinese Internet chat rooms. On the streets of many Chinese cities the police tolerated nonviolent anti-foreign demonstrations.

Because the Olympic torch met one of its rudest receptions in Paris and because the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, spoke openly of possibly boycotting the Olympic opening ceremony, the French retail chain Carrefour, with more than 100 stores in China, became a special target.

Boisterous protesters called for a boycott of its stores. Many of the goods sold by Carrefour around the world are made in China, but anyone pointing that out typically was shouted down as a traitor.

Xenophobia and nationalism have long roots in China. In the past century, the ending of the imperial system in 1911; China's aggrieved reaction to the political order imposed by Western powers after World War I; its resistance to invasion by Japan in the 1930s; and the rise to power of the Communist Party under Mao Zedong in 1949 were all driven largely and explicitly by a sense of nationalism.

More recently, in 1999, the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade led to four days of rioting in Beijing by an angry mob that was allowed to pelt the U.S. Embassy with paving stones and paint bombs, despite Washington's apology and its explanation that the hit had been an accidental consequence of using an outdated map.

Anger erupted again in 2001 when a Chinese military pilot died after a collision with a U.S. spy plane.

Still, according to Peter Hays Gries, author of a 2004 book, "China's New Nationalism," the backlash this year is a significant escalation from previous anti-foreign outbursts because it is not only the leading Western powers that are being cast as sources of grievance.

"Western criticisms of China generate feelings of anger and insecurity precisely because so many Chinese desire Western recognition and respect," said Gries, director of the University of Oklahoma's Institute for U.S.-China Issues.

This spring, though, trouble came from further afield. Torch relay disruptions occurred not only in the United States and Europe but also in India, Australia and Indonesia. Even African governments have criticized China over its relationship with Sudan.

"As a result, I believe the events of this spring had a stronger impact on many Chinese, creating a bit of a siege mentality that sees the outside world as out to keep China down and deny China its rightful place atop the community of nations," Gries said.

China's government, while not notable for public accountability, pays close attention to popular opinion and recognizes that nationalism is a double-edged sword.

From primary school teaching materials to made-for-television historical dramas, the state-monopolized information system has force-fed generations of Chinese on a diet of nationalist bluster aimed at strengthening allegiance to the regime.

But since resentment and victimization are integral components of the nationalist impulse, anger against a foreign offender can quickly turn against any perceived weakness in a leadership that appears to have allowed China to be bullied or violated.

After the Belgrade embassy bombing, the authorities finally stepped in to halt the anti-U.S. demonstrations; but only after protesters started to deride the government's weakness, saying that Mao would never have tolerated such an attack.

The issue also factors into economic policy. As China has grown less dependent on foreign capital - and sometime more suspicious of the motives of foreign companies operating in China - it has shown signs of tipping into a mood of economic nationalism.

Chinese policy makers were happy to use foreign economic participation as a catalyst "but want such participation only as long as it is necessary and beneficial," said one investment consultant in Beijing, who asked not to be identified because of the topic's sensitivity.

Reflecting that approach, and China's now-abundant supply of capital, foreign investors are meeting less receptivity than they did just a few years ago, especially in sectors with potentially strategic value, like railroads and power generation.

"Tightening of the Open Door policy has always been just a matter of time," the consultant said.
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