Friday, May 2, 2008

Conversations about China and nationalism

An American friend and I had a conversation last night about the Chinese government's obligations to its people. The crux of his argument, in his words, was that, "I just think Chinese pride and nationalism are being appropriated and used by the government... [and] being taken advantage of." I countered, begrudgingly at times, that the majority of Chinese citizens have benefited from the current party in power, and that considering historical context, China's better off now than ever before. The Tibet question was raised, which I hesitated to answer due to ignorance and ambivalence -- that discussion ended rather quickly with me answering in the negative to his question, “You think it would be worse if Tibet had regional autonomy?"

Of course, I expressed a very Western idea, and even though I'm embedded deep in the middle of China, I didn't realize at the time I said "no..." exactly how far removed I was from the popular opinion here. This afternoon, on an outdoor basketball court, I met a guy my age currently studying for his Master's who expressed what I believe is the prevailing belief among Chinese citizens concerning the Tibet question. He said, in English as if to make sure his point would be fully absorbed: "Was, is, forever part of China." What could I do but nod?

Later we discussed the press, and he conceded that a free press has its advantages, mainly in its function as a wellspring for human knowledge -- he surmised I was more worldly because of my ability to access information with a click of the mouse. But he also stated -- correctly, I think -- that a free press would be disastrous for China at this juncture, not because the press would necessarily do a bad job, but because the citizens would create so much chaos as to render government impossible. "Five thousand years of turmoil," he said. Yes, 5,000 years of that might tend to make one a bit hesitant to allow opinions to flow uninhibited.

Also, I mentioned ESPN The Magazine is the second-largest in the U.S., behind Sports Illustrated, which gets all its profit from the swimsuit issue, a point that made him reply, "But you could find pictures [of girls in bikinis] easily there." Yes, I agreed, I have no idea why the swimsuit issue still matters. Then I mentioned China's version of FHM.

I bring this up so that I have an excuse to link to this, via Danwei. I'm sorry for this digression.

It's hard to describe how deep nationalism runs in this country. The form of nationalism the basketball player displayed is not the kind the government takes advantage of, and it isn't the kind the government instills. It's innate, I think, passed along in the same way that Confucian virtues are passed along. It wasn't so long ago that China, with its long and proud history, was made to suffer the indignity of what amounts to international serfdom. Now the country at last has the might to make its voice heard, and the people want you to understand that they want an audience. That they have more to offer than inferior goods and cheap labor.

The nationalism isn't always healthy, of course. Just this morning, the newest Economist passed through my inbox, and wouldn't you know, the cover story is titled "Angry China." It's a startling but grounded take on the nature of Chinese nationalism, and it's a highly recommended read:

For three decades, having shed communism in all but the name of its ruling party, China's government has justified its monopolistic hold on power through economic advance. Many Chinese enjoy a prosperity undreamt of by their forefathers. For them, though, it is no longer enough to be reminded of the grim austerity of their parents' childhoods. They need new aspirations.

The government's solution is to promise them that China will be restored to its rightful place at the centre of world affairs. Hence the pride at winning the Olympics, and the fury at the embarrassing protests during the torch relay. But the appeal to nationalism is a double-edged sword: while it provides a useful outlet for domestic discontents (see article), it could easily turn on the government itself.


Let me relay an anecdote. Shushu’s wife told me a story today of a Westerner getting scolded by a cab driver for being one of those “anti-Chinese media supporters," though he had done nothing to elicit this condemnation. This sort of thing borders awfully close to xenophobia. When I assured her that the American media is large and less an empire than a sprawling metropolis (I didn't use those words), and that if one looks hard enough one could dig up anti-anything rants from notarized media members, she postulated that Chinese reactions to CNN’s Jack Caffrey and other perceived anti-China bias was more like the country's defense mechanism against anti-Chinese sentiment -- the equivalent of a preadolescent throwing a tantrum despite knowing better. It wasn't personal, basically. Perhaps that means the Chinese have a victim mindset, I don't know. Simon Elegant of Time filed a dispatch about just this issue.

While my American friend and I were embroiled in our discussion, another friend – an American-born Chinese nicknamed Nuprin – messaged me about the Olympics. "Don't you think China's going a little overboard? ...There is a line between nationalism and patriotism, and I think China has crossed that line." I told him I didn't agree. Eventually the conversation turned into a discussion over China's role in the future world. I'll reproduce a snippet of the conversation here:

Nuprin: As China gets more powerful, its citizens are emboldened by (nationalism). At least that is the impression I got from my students. [I should mention here that Nuprin taught in Nanjing for a year.]
Me: Emboldened to do what though? They're not an aggressive country. Never have been. The worst that'll happen is they'll resent foreigners. And that's bad, granted, but it's not bombing the Middle East.
Nuprin: All of my students thought that a powerful China and United States could not co-exist. So with the rise of China, they were convinced that we would see a power struggle and war and they felt like it was inevitable.
Me: No one in either government wants war.
Nuprin: I know. But I think Chinese citizens feel animosity towards the U.S. and other powerful Western countries. It would be dumb to go to war, and I tried to tell my students that but they didn't believe me.

At this point I told him there are idiots everywhere, and it's true: the Chinese boycott of the French retail giant Carrefour calls to mind the renaming of French fries in the U.S. (what is it, exactly, about the French that makes them so hateable?). Still, the question should be addressed: war? Between the U.S. and China? That would be the ultimate doomsday scenario for life as we know it. Nothing would ever be the same, and it would prove that the fate of human beings lies with extinction. But need we be worried? China is not ready to challenge the U.S., not with its restive citizenry -- “China, like India, is a land of a million mutinies now,” the Economist writes -- and America has other worries on the global stage, where they've held court for the past 50 years. It goes without saying that a conflict between the two nations is in no one’s best interest. As the Economist puts it, “the world and China have to learn to live with each other.”

For China, that means learning to respect foreigners' rights to engage it even on its “internal affairs”. A more measured response to such criticism is necessary not only to China's great-power ambitions, but also to its internal stability; for while the government may distract Chinese people from their domestic discontents by breathing fire at foreigners, such anger, once roused, can run out of control. In the end, China's leaders will have to deal with those frustrations head-on, by tackling the pollution, the corruption and the human-rights abuses that contribute to the country's dangerous mood. The Chinese people will demand it.

In other words: they don't need Westerners demanding it for them.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

how to make independent state into chinese? say in a state media that singapoure has chinese resque teams.

how to make international games into chinese. kick into world face and say "olimpic is chinese".

how to get peace in the world for next 20 years?
1: send all chinese immigrants home and close the border for them.
2: tell the world a truth about Han-china and its 50 years old history.
3: kick chinese busines when they will not to respect you.

you dont like it? but its a right

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