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Chinese Nationalism Fuels Tibet Crackdown

April 1, 2008

The New York Times
March 31, 2008

BEIJING — Like so many Chinese, Meng Huizhong was horrified by the
violent Tibetan protests in Lhasa. She cringed at videos of Tibetan
rioters attacking a Chinese motorcyclist. Her anger deepened as Tibet
dominated her online conversation groups, until it settled on what might
seem like an unlikely target: the Communist Party.

“We couldn’t believe our government was being so weak and cowardly,”
said Ms. Meng, 52, an office worker, who was appalled that the
authorities had failed to initially douse the violence. “The Dalai Lama
is trying to separate China, and it is not acceptable at all. We must
crack down on the rioters.”

For two weeks, as Chinese security forces have tried to extinguish
continuing Tibetan protests, Chinese officials and state news media have
tried to demonstrate the party’s resolve to people like Ms. Meng. They
have blasted the foreign news media as biased against China, castigated
the Dalai Lama as a terrorist “jackal” and called for a “people’s war”
to fight separatism in Tibet.

If the tough tactics have startled the outside world, the Communist
Party for now seems more concerned with rallying domestic opinion — both
by responding to the deep strains of nationalism in Chinese society and
by stoking it. Playing to national pride, and national insecurities, the
party has used censorship and propaganda to position itself as defender
of the motherland, and at the same time to block any examination of
Tibetan grievances or its own performance in the crisis.

But the heavy emphasis on nationalism is not without risks. With less
than five months before the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, the
sharp criticism of the foreign news media comes precisely when it wants
to present a welcoming impression to the outside world. Instead, Chinese
citizens, including many overseas, are posting thousands of angry
messages on Web sites and making crank calls to some foreign news media
offices in Beijing.

The Chinese state news media also have inundated the public with so many
reports from Lhasa about the suffering of Han Chinese merchants and the
brutal deaths of Chinese victims — but with no coverage of Tibetan
grievances — that critics have accused the government of fanning racial
hatred. In the recent past, nationalist upsurges have focused on
outsiders, especially the Japanese, but Tibet is part of China, so the
effect is to sharpen domestic ethnic tensions.

“When a big crisis happens here, they show their true nature,” said Liu
Xiaobo, a liberal dissident and government critic. “I am really shocked
by the language they used concerning the Dalai Lama. They are talking
about a ‘people’s war.’ That is a phrase from the Cultural Revolution.”

Analysts have long debated how often the Communist Party steers and
inflames nationalism, versus how often nationalist public attitudes are
beyond its control. As the Olympic Games approach, the steady criticism
of China on issues like Darfur, global warming, air pollution and human
rights abuses has increasingly been interpreted by many Chinese,
including those overseas, as an unfair attempt to undermine China’s
Olympic moment.

But the Tibet crisis has touched directly on the raw nerve of separatism
at the core of Chinese nationalism. Tibet is usually a low-profile issue
within China, especially compared with Taiwan. But most Chinese,
influenced by the government, are interpreting the Tibetan crisis as an
attempt to split China.

For now, public anger about the Tibetan protests is mostly confined to
the Internet, but the enormous domestic media attention on Tibet has
also focused the public on how the issue is being treated abroad.

“If Bush meets the Dalai Lama right now, or if the Congress does
anything, the Chinese people might do something,” said Tong Zeng, who is
not active on the Tibet issue but who helped organize anti-Japanese
protests in the last major nationalism campaign in 2005. Mr. Tong said
the Internet was filled with angry comments about the recent meeting
between the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and the Dalai Lama.

“My thinking is that if there is anything passed in the House, the
Chinese people will take to the streets,” Mr. Tong predicted.

The French news media have noted an anti-French sentiment on Chinese Web
sites, including calls for boycotts of French goods as well, in the days
since President Nicolas Sarkozy publicly left open the possibility of
boycotting the Olympic Games.

Communist Party leaders have hoped the Olympics would showcase China as
a modern, confident and nonthreatening emerging world power, while also
validating the party’s hold on power. President Hu Jintao has advocated
a “harmonious society” to signal a new government effort to address
inequality. At the same time, China’s soft power abroad is rising, with
its bulging foreign exchange reserves and its increasingly active
diplomatic role on issues like the North Korea nuclear problem.

But the Tibet crisis has shown a leadership that has seemingly stepped
back into the party’s harsher past. Buddhist monks in Tibet are being
subjected to punitive “patriotic education” campaigns. The paramilitary
police and soldiers have swept across huge areas of western China as
part of a broad crackdown. Party leaders, including Prime Minister Wen
Jiabao, have vilified the Dalai Lama and accused the “Dalai clique” of
trying to sabotage China’s Olympic moment.

“The language they are using about everything has been Cultural
Revolution hyperbole,” said Susan Shirk, a former assistant secretary of
state for East Asian affairs and author of “China: Fragile Superpower.”
“This does not look like the reaction of a strong, confident leadership.”

Last week, a group of prominent Chinese intellectuals offered a rare
contrary voice by issuing a petition that called on the government to
allow Tibetans to express their grievances and to respect freedom of
religion and freedom of speech.

Mr. Liu, who helped draft the petition, said the government’s attacks on
the Dalai Lama and its censorship of state news media coverage is the
same strategy it used during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations
when it jailed pro-democracy leaders as “black hands” and did not
televise video of soldiers firing on students.

“You can see the propaganda machine operating in full gear,” Mr. Liu
said. “That shows the true nature of the government. It hasn’t changed
at all.”

Scholars often describe nationalism as China’s state religion, now that
the Communist Party has shrugged off socialist ideology and made
economic development the country’s priority. Dibyesh Anand, a Tibet
specialist, said modern Chinese nationalism could be traced to Sun
Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary who described the country’s main
ethnic groups — the Han, Manchu, Hui, Mongolian and Tibetan peoples — as
the “five fingers” of China.

Today, Han Chinese constitute more than 92 percent of the population,
but without one of those five fingers, China’s leaders do not consider
the country whole.

“The Communist Party has used nationalism as an ideology to keep China
together,” said Mr. Anand, a reader in international relations at
Westminster University in London. He said many Chinese regarded the
Tibetan protests “as an attack on their core identity. It’s not only an
attack on the state, but an attack on what it means to be Chinese. Even
if minorities don’t feel like part of China, they are part of China’s

This logic helps explain why Chinese nationalist sentiment has been
inflamed by perceived Western sympathy for the Tibetan protests — an
anger that has mostly focused on the foreign news media.

Chinese media commentators have accused foreign news coverage of being
more sympathetic to Tibetans in Lhasa than to Chinese who lost their
lives and property in the riots. Meanwhile, Chinese from around the
world were infuriated when several Western news organizations mislabeled
photographs of police officers beating pro-Tibet protesters in Nepal as
being from China.

Last week, Qin Gang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, described the foreign
coverage of Tibet as a “textbook of bad examples” — even as the
government refused to allow journalists free access to Tibet or other
restive regions in western China to investigate the crackdown.

There are a few signs that party leaders are becoming concerned about
the effect of their harsh statements. Last week, China Daily, the
official English-language newspaper, switched tone and ran a front-page
article highlighting that some Tibetans had also died at the hands of
rioters in Lhasa. And Sunday, Mr. Wen, the prime minister, made a more
conciliatory comment toward the Dalai Lama, according to reports in Hong

Party leaders know the volatility of nationalism from 2005. The
government tried to control — some would say manipulate — the
anti-Japanese protests that escalated during a tense diplomatic tussle
between China and Japan. But the protests became violent and grew so
rapidly that the government finally forced them to end.

Mr. Tong, the organizer, said the anti-Japanese movement is continuing
today, if modestly at a time when the government is trying to improve
relations with Japan. But he said the nationalism that infused the
anti-Japanese movement was deeply rooted and transcended divisions that
could separate people in China.

“In our group, we have the right, we have the middle and we have the
left,” Mr. Tong said. “It is similar to the Tibet issue. For most
Chinese people, the bottom line is, ‘You should never divide China.’ ”

Many Chinese people know little about Tibet’s different interpretation
of its history, partly because China’s textbooks reflect only its
version of events. They also regard Tibetans as having been granted
special subsidies and benefits from the government because of their
ethnic status. For many Chinese, the protests come across as ingratitude
after years in which China has built roads, a high-altitude railroad and
other infrastructure for Tibet.

“Our country is very tolerant to all kinds of religions,” said Ms. Meng,
the office worker. “And the Tibetans are taking advantage of this.”

Ms. Meng said she got her information about Tibet from state media and
various postings on the Internet. After the Lhasa riots, she was
infuriated when she saw a photograph of policemen cowering behind riot
shields without fighting back. But she said her attitude toward the
government’s response began to change when she saw Mr. Qin, the Foreign
Ministry spokesman, take a tough line on Tibet and also accuse the
foreign news media of distorted coverage.

She said she was also pleased to see that Mr. Hu had rejected a request
from President Bush to open a new dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Still,
she said she wanted even tougher action.

“I want the killers to be executed,” she said. “Well, I know it is just
my wish because the government will not go that far because of the
ethnic issue.”

Zhang Jing contributed research.
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