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Saturday, May 17, 2008

On Rising Chinese Nationalism

Here in Chengdu, signals of China’s rising nationalism are everywhere.

In Sichuan University, Chinese flags hang from the windows of college dorms. Until recently, this was something one rarely ever saw.

A middle school student of mine told me he and his classmates want to plaster “Made in China” across their chests, as a symbol of pride, an inversion of the label commonly found on consumer goods available overseas. Another student of mine, who works for Nokia in Chengdu, told me that before the recent Tibet flare-up, many young Chinese didn’t feel particularly nationalistic, until they realized, following the Western coverage of Tibet and the torch relay, that there were “so many unfriendly nations” against China.

Rising Chinese nationalism is a common motif of Western foreign correspondents, up there alongside food and product safety scares and Tibet. They often talk about how nationalism has replaced Marxism as the country’s ideology, and of its rising potency as a force for democratic liberalization and a subsequent weakening of the Party. They also describe a sort of intense furor, one that infers future aggression in its relations with outsiders, such as through the country’s foreign policy.

The Olympics in China is, as one might imagine, a huge deal. I’ve never lived in a country during the Olympics and it’s to be expected that they would make a fuss over it, but the Olympics logo can be seen plastered on everything from ice-cream wrappers to television cartoons starring the Olympic mascots. For China, its government and its people, the Olympics is their coming-out party of sorts, in which it announces to the world its place as a global superpower, celebrating its rapid rise from poverty to prominence.

In addition, perhaps more so than people in other countries, Chinese take criticism of their own nation personally. A colleague of mine estimates that 80 percent of Chinese genuinely, passionately love their country, far more I would say than those from many Western countries. This is instilled at a young age in school, when students learn the “We Love China” pledge and reasons are plastered up on classroom walls. To me such nationalism is similar in zeal to the sort taught in American schools, both of which are far heavier than the comparatively cynical Australia.

So, in a situation such as this, where the Olympics has involved such enormous investment of national pride and international “face”, this more recent burst of negative press in the Western media was taken as a serious insult. The biggest case in point: when a Chinese wheelchair-bound athlete carrying the Olympic torch was attacked by protesters in France.

Following this, a nationwide boycotting of the French supermarket chain Carrefour took place on May 1st, a national holiday in China. According to a local, people stood outside the store encouraging potential patrons to shop elsewhere, and pictures were posted online of empty supermarket aisles.

Some might wonder what’s the big deal they’re making? It’s not like they were attacked and had thousands of people die, such as with 9-11, right?

Though true, I think that gives a severely reductive, almost mathematical explanation to a much more complex force. Nationalism is inherently emotive, and in China, it feels to many people like much of the world, not just a group of fundamental Muslims or a terrorist organization, are out to get them. In such circumstances, considering how ethnically homogenous and often ethnocentric (all non-Chinese are often lumped together in discussion as “waiguoren” – “foreigners”) China can be, it’s no wonder the tides of opinion towards the outside turns so quickly.

I’ve not heard of any actual incidents of violence. One widely reported story of an American volunteer being attacked outside a Carrefour was later found to be false, when the alleged victim wrote into the newsblog himself, in order to correct the sensationalist version of the incident being reported.

But what does seem more common is for Caucasians in China to be treated much more wearily: whilst shopping, a British friend overheard a sales assistant say “I can’t believe that Frenchman has the nerve to show his face here,” and “I’m going to kill that Frenchman” from a man when in a public bathroom. He hasn’t been attacked, however, and does not fear it occurring. Outside my apartment complex, a Caucasian and a Chinese man were involved in a crowd-drawing shouting match, before the police took the Caucasian man away--to where I’m unsure.


From discussions with locals and following online discussions, I think the major issue that irks young, educated Chinese about foreign relations is the ignorance and faux-sympathy of Westerners towards China. They’re agitated by the way may Westerners smugly hold that Chinese citizens are controlled by state media, mere blind pawns being drummed into a nationalistic fervor by their evil leaders. More so than anything else, it is this stripping of any sort of individual agency, as if they were passive machines, that outrages them.

They remind me that whilst they read both Chinese (state-run but also independent blogs and independent media) and Western (English-language) outside media, most Westerners do not read Chinese media (many are incapable of doing so).

They talk about how many of them have studied, traveled to and are reasonably knowledgeable about the West, but how little Westerners know about China, beyond the negative coverage they read about human rights and trade deficits.

One student said she used to believe that Western media was more trustworthy and balanced as a source of news, but following the Tibet coverage, her opinion was greatly lowered. Now she considers it not much different from Chinese media.

These young professionals are the more intellectually nuanced and well informed of Chinese society. Surely, other segments of the population are less thought-out and more non-discriminatingly angry and weary of the West at present. Much, one might notice, like it is in the United States or other Western nations.


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