Chinas nationalism shows nation connected but wary

Beijing, Apr 29 | Updated: Apr 30 2008, 05:50am hrs
Chinese scholars and officials listened with polite curiosity in mid-March when public relations expert Wu Xu warned the worst risk to the Beijing Olympics could be political shocks from protests over Tibet.

They and the rest of the world are listening much more closely now. One day after Wu made his warning in a March 13 lecture in Beijing, riots in Lhasa and unrest across Tibet ignited international protests against Chinese policy and then Chinese counter-protests that have cast a shadow over the Games.

Wu, an Arizona State University professor whose speciality is Chinese "cyber-nationalism", worries the volatile public mood over the Tibet unrest could spill into Games venues in August.

"This could linger on and trigger some unpredictable events - booing at teams, ugly confrontations if an athlete protests - that we don't want," Wu said by telephone recently. He has been invited back to Beijing to train officials in handling the Games' potential PR nightmares.

Yet even if the stadiums are as friendly as officials hope, China's surge of popular patriotic anger has exposed powerful currents set to play an increasing role in its politics and diplomacy.

The campaign to boycott the French supermarket chain Carrefour - seized on as a symbol of Western sympathy for Tibetan independence - ferocious verbal attacks on Western media, and rallying around the Olympic torch reflect citizens willing to speak out, when allowed by a cautious Communist Party, but also worried about their country's standing in a wary world.

"China is becoming in many ways more liberal, but a more liberal China doesn't want to be a small China, and a liberal China will be more confident, not more humble," said Shi Yinhong of the People's University in Beijing.

"But the Western response to Tibet has ignited this sense that although we've become richer, they still treat us like it's the 19th century."

China's current tide of patriotism builds on a pattern of nationalist protest that has flared when sensitivities about the country's standing nurtured by the Communist Party have collided with international events.

"To a certain extent, China is reaping what it sowed by making nationalism, along with economic growth, the basis for legitimacy," said Allen Carlson of Cornell University. "It's a genie that once let out of the bottle is hard to put back."

In 1999, demonstrators assailed the US embassy in Beijing after NATO forces mistakenly bombed China's embassy in Belgrade during the war against Serbia, killing three Chinese. The protesters called the bombing deliberate. In 2005, rows over Japan's bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and memories of World War Two sparked widespread marches, boycotts and occasional violence.

This time the Western protests and calls to boycott the Games dismayed a public that had little idea of widespread international support for Tibetan independence, said Wu Jiaxiang, a Beijing political commentator who was a senior government aide in the 1980s.

"The Tibet issue brings together two of the most sensitive issues for Chinese people - sovereignty - and the Olympics, a moment of great pride for most people, so it's no surprise that we are where we are," he said. The protests also reflect changes coursing through Chinese society as it becomes more prosperous, connected and assertive.

China now claims more Internet users than any other country in the world - 221 million or some 16 % of the population. News is strictly controlled by the Communist Party, but the sprawling web and an increasingly commercial media have given citizens more scope to voice opinions. Those changes have been reflected in Internet-driven protests, petitions and denunciations more diffuse and widespread than previous bursts of nationalist anger, said Wu Xu, the PR expert.

"It is so scattered, so decentralised, with so many fronts, so many 'enemies', and thus so unpredictable," he said.

"The government has tried to catch up and then control and tame the emotions. But it didn't create them itself."

As public anger swelled, the Party sought to surf the wave of patriotism by loosening some censorship controls and putting public voices to the fore, said an editor at a Party newspaper.

"Initially the message went out to open up the media and the public," said the editor, who asked to remain anonymous, fearing punishment for talking about policy. "Since then officials have tried to guide the public reaction without becoming too overt."