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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."

China's Sea Turtles

August 26, 2008

Asia Sentinel (Hong Kong)
August 25, 2008

I came across this interesting article entitled "The Rise of the Sea
Turtles" on the China Elections and Governance website, written by
Melinda Liu and Duncan Hewitt.

The article seeks to analyse the reasons for the chauvinistic
sentiments among the young generation of Chinese who are studying or
have studied overseas and returned to China.

"Such sentiments are common on the mainland. But people like
(Charles) Zhang were supposed to be different: he's what Chinese call
a hai gui -- 'sea turtle'--referring to someone who has lived
overseas. (The phrase is a pun on haiwai guilai, meaning 'returned
from overseas'.) Their numbers are growing by the tens of thousands
every year, and as the sons and daughters of the elite, they have an
outsize influence once they move back to China. In the West there's
long been an assumption that this cohort would import Western values
along with their iPods. They were envisioned as the bridge to a more
open, liberal, Western-friendly China."

But as things turn out, that assumption is proven flawed. The "sea
turtles" are found to be no less jingoistic than those who have never
gone abroad.

David Zweig, an academic researcher, attributes such kind of
nationalistic fervor to the success of China's post-1989 policy of
patriotic education. Others say that it has something to do with
their homesickness and a yearning to be attached to their homeland.
Some "sea turtles" themselves blame it on the ignorance of Westerners
which cause them to lose their patience. There are still others who
say that it is not nationalism, but rather, a sense of assertiveness
and reluctance to conform that is felt by these young people. Of
course, the Internet has been acting as a catalyst to the build-up of
these sentiments.

While those may all be legitimate reasons, one wonders if the
jingoistic (bordering on xenophobic) sentiments could plausibly be
linked to an attitude problem of these "sons and daughters of the
elite", at least in some cases?

It may be safe to assume that many of the "sea turtles" come from
relatively well off backgrounds (apparent from the fact that they can
afford an overseas education). Their relative affluence as well as
their anticipation of eventually returning to China to land lucrative
jobs may have unwittingly lessened their willingness to tolerate or
even try to understand the societies they live in. It may also have
brewed conceit and hostility in their attitude towards foreigners,
especially when they face adversity or feel humiliated, easily
causing them to harbor resentment which could be amplified by
cultural differences between foreigners and themselves (this story
tells of one such case). They only need an excuse for an outlet for
such resentment. As it happened, a perfect chance emerged when the
Western media began covering the Tibet riots, as it did again when
the Olympic torch relay got disrupted in France. It seems easy to
conflate patriotism with unleashing of anger for personal reasons.

While the previous generations of "sea turtles" are noted for their
sense of mission, who wanted to help with educating their countrymen
on their return to their homeland, young returnees nowadays, with a
few exceptions perhaps, are preoccupied with gratifying their own
personal desires and ambitions under a predatory capitalistic system
which rewards corruption rather than punishes it (except for a few
showcase examples). Thus, it is not surprising that the richest
people tend to be the most anti-Western (or the most "patriotic"), as
noted in the article.

The "sea turtles" belong to a solipsistic generation as described in
the Times article entitled "China's Me Generation." Young urban
Chinese are the chief beneficiaries of her economic success and they
have a stake in upholding the status quo in China. It is the first in
the world's history in which the majority are single children as a
result of China's one-child policy. They have known nothing but peace
and prosperity since their birth and may be too obsessed with
consumerism to have any interest in issues that don't concern their
own immediate material well being, issues like human rights, social
justice and equality.

It seems therefore that the West's assumption that a freer, more open
and more democratic China will naturally follow her success with
instituting a free market economy is off the mark by a long shot.
Having said that, perhaps a silver lining may still exist despite
all, and it is, as Zweig pointed out, that as young Chinese spend
more time outside the country, their thinking will become more
nuanced and more internationalist.

Charles Zhang, a typical "sea turtle" and a successful entrepreneur
(he's the founder of the internet portal Sohu.com), says it's time
for China to prove that it can do things right and he expects that as
China gains more respect in the world, Chinese people will gain more
self-respect too and so should become more responsible.

Let's just hope that he is referring to a responsibility that is
directed firstly towards Chinese society as a whole, in which rampant
corruption, abuses of power in local governments, abject rural
poverty and gross injustices need to be urgently addressed, and
secondly towards the world. Being patriotic, after all, means
pledging loyalty to one's countrymen collectively and not oneself.
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