Chinese Nationalism: Flame on

Apr 24th 2008
From The Economist print edition

Rather than shout themselves hoarse, maybe foreign and Chinese protesters could try talking

WHATEVER hopes there were that this August’s Beijing Olympics would be a festival of fun and friendship with a bit of sport thrown in are fading fast. The event was intended to mark China’s reintegration into the world, and re-emergence as a great power. Instead, preparations for the games have degenerated into some of the ugliest verbal confrontations for years between China and its critics. Passions and tempers are running high on both sides. On China’s, even those suggesting something as innocuous as a dialogue are being pilloried as “traitors”. Foreign journalists have received death threats. Far from being a celebration of China’s new openness, the Olympics risk vindicating those abroad who argued it was not a fit host and those at home who think a fearful, envious world will never give a resurgent China its due.

As in 1999, after NATO‘s bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade, or in 2005, when anti-Japanese protests in China threatened to get out of hand, China’s government finds itself in an awkward fix. It wants to rein in the popular anger before it descends into violence, or turns on the government itself. Yet its own policies and its control of information have stoked the anger in the first place.

That is not to deny that the angry Chinese nationalists who have deluged the internet with their splenetic outpourings and staged protests in China (see article) have a point. Coverage in the Western press of unrest in Tibet has been rather one-sided. It has stressed the harsh Chinese crackdown on peaceful protests and tended to overlook the violence by Tibetans. For most Chinese observers, what happened was an outburst of vicious racist thuggery directed at ethnic Han Chinese in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. And the authorities, incomprehensibly, tolerated it until 19 people had been killed.

Similarly, views of the protests attracted by the round-the-world tour on which China is taking the Olympic flame differ sharply. In the West most attention has been paid to the exploits of pro-Tibetan protesters, such as hanging banners high above the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, and the menacing behaviour of the Chinese torch guards. In China, the defining moment was when a protester in France tried to grab the flame from a female torchbearer in a wheelchair. How dare the outside world, runs the refrain of a legion of Chinese bloggers, lecture China about uncivilised behaviour?

Of course, the antics of unruly demonstrators in Paris cannot be used to condone or justify Chinese repression in Tibet. Although it remains unclear exactly what happened in Lhasa, it is certain that Chinese police shot protesters in neighbouring Sichuan; that thousands of Tibetans have been detained; and that others are forced to undergo hated “patriotic re-education”, which many see as aimed at obliterating their own culture. Tibetans have real grievances, after decades of cultural discrimination and economic marginalisation.

All over bar the shouting

China’s government cannot admit that. Nor, having blamed the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, for the unrest, is it easy to open talks with him. So it has closed the obvious path to reconciliation with its Tibetan minority. Having lied to its people about Tibet for so long, how could it explain to them a new, less hostile policy? It seems also to have convinced many of its people of the truth of two other egregious lies: that criticism of China’s government is an attack on the Chinese people, and that dialogue is a sign of weakness. In fact, both foreign and Chinese protesters might learn something from each other. But it is hard to learn with one hand holding a megaphone and the other clenched into a fist.


4 thoughts on “Chinese Nationalism: Flame on

  1. A Chinese

    I think you should understand, Chinese protests first started outside China.

    It is those oversea Chinese who are exposed to Western media that first took to the streets

    To average Chinese, Tibet issue is not about human rights, not even Olympic, it is about the very existence of our country, it is about territory integrity.

    you can argue we invaded Tibet of course, but we do not see it that way, further more, since we have been in there for more than 50 years, it is ridiculous to ask us to pack and leave.(Did anyone bother to ask pakeha to go back to Europe,and stop coming?)

    One reason why Chinese all over the world become so angry is like that of post 911 American. When our country is attacked, being in danger of torn apart, instead of showing concern, these pro-tibet groups simple side themselves with attackers.

    Hope you can view this as an attempt to talk

  2. Otto Kerner

    Based on my experience talking to Chinese netizens on the internet, when both sides sit down to talk they are not likely to find much common ground unless they are willing to make digressions into history, the role of the state, the philosophical basis of human rights, etc., etc. There seems to be the common belief that if two people can simply sit down and discuss things, they will discover their common ground. However, if the two parties have fundamental beliefs that incompatible, they are much more likely to end the conversation having gained nothing but the conviction that the other side is crazy or completely impossible to understand.

  3. snowlionsroar

    It seems to me that the most common thing the Chinese side expresses, whether it be netizens or politicians, is that the Dalai Lama is a splittist, and that Tibet is indefinitely a part of China.
    I used to insist on disproving this claim by digging it up from its roots, but really it’s just plain and simple. Even if Tibet was a part of China, it seems that China paid little attention to it until it was time for new resources and more land. What does this say about the actual cause?
    Tibet obviously had a time where it was autonomous, if not very close to being independent, and thus they have a right to stand up for themselves when their land is being destroyed and taken, no matter what way you look at it.
    There’s no excuse for destroying the culture, land and language of a people, let alone the people themselves. Overall, China cannot argue against the utter reality that it has denied many, many Tibetans (and that in itself is an understatement) their basic human and civil rights, and have done nothing but act for their own profit.
    You can go ahead and rant about how the industrialization of Tibet has lead to much prospering, but that’s not entirely true, either. For the most part, China seems to be focusing on only the numbers, and not what’s really at stake here. Additionally and unquestionably, the Tibetan people are and have been clearly maltreated by the PRC.

    I don’t agree with the violent riots, and I understand China’s concern over its land, but so far I have yet to see any real evidence that it deserves Tibet, autonomous or not. Furthermore, aside from the recent talks with the envoys (which many think is just a facade),I have yet to see any real evidence that China can handle this issue in a fair and mature manner.

    Moreover, I seriously don’t understand why China is reacting so seemingly oblivious when they’ve clearly oppressed a civilization for over fifty years, whether they admit it or not.

  4. snowlionsroar

    I understand that my previous comment centered much on China, but I would like to make a point that many seem to be avoiding. I made this post not too long ago, and I think it’s pretty relevant:

    “It’s really pathetic how people keep bringing up American history, as it’s not only history, but also a lame excuse. The US isn’t the only one objecting to China’s human rights violations, and today an unspeakable amount of Americans do realize that the way early settlers treated natives was anything but proper. Additionally, America is a melting pot, a lot of people in the US aren’t even related to the early settlers. More importantly, China’s violations are current events, not historic ones.
    In short, what many people fail to realize is that even though the past is full of wrong-doings, it’s still the past, you can’t change that. But this is in the present, and we know better, so why not do something about it now? Granted, saying the past is the past is rather frank, but it’s the truth. You can’t simply justify these actions by citing history and/or pointing out the saying “history repeats itself,” because it doesn’t have to happen that way, and it shouldn’t.
    If we, the humans, couldn’t tell that such acts were wrong before, we can at least tell now from experience. It’s a bittersweet fact to both endure and indulge in, but being persistent in ignoring past lessons does nothing but feed the fire, bringing it one step closer to consuming us all before burning us and leaving behind nothing but a trail of soot.
    Too many people fully confide in their sources, allowing no room for outside opinion. Even though this is a constant factor, the recent attention being paid towards China has done nothing but amplify the static of irrationality, illegitimacy, egocentricity and utter bias, drowning out the voice of reason and equality.
    The whole concept of claiming land is both ridiculous and preposterous by itself, let alone having human rights violations attached.”

    I can’t guarantee that everything I say will be unbiased, I’m only human. In saying that, I’d also like to mention that I’m not trying to come off as a hostile person. I’m more than open to anyone’s input as long as it’s (relatively) constructive, because if it wasn’t I wouldn’t really be able to go anywhere with it, as the opposite party/parties would be the one(s) that was/were closed off.

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