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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Beijing has become the guardian of the Chinese brand

April 21, 2008

The Globe and Mail
April 19, 2008

LONDON — On Monday morning, I awoke to discover that I had become a
media hero in China. My inbox contained three interview requests from
Chinese media outlets, all of them wanting to know how I had managed to
unearth the truth about Germany's secret plan to ruin the Olympics.

"Many Chinese people all over the world appreciate your work," wrote
Xiaode, a reporter from the state-owned International Herald Leader in
Beijing. "Would you like to say something to them?"

Most people in China have heard little about the protests and boycotts
about the Olympics. They do know, from government websites inside the
national Internet firewall, that "terrorists" and Tibetan "splittists"
have been causing some trouble in the West and that they're coming from
hostile governments, not from ordinary citizens.

And now they also know, thanks to a report carried on the state-owned
Xinhua News Agency, that "according to a news report by Canadian
journalist Doug Saunders," these attacks on China were orchestrated in a
Washington-Berlin conspiracy that began when the German state-run
Friedrich Naumann Foundation organized a conference in Brussels,
attended by the U.S. State Department, where the whole anti-China plot
was launched.

And, furthermore, according to an article in the China Daily that cites
me, Chinese readers have learned that "the Lhasa riots" were "planned
and organized long ago" by this same government-backed band of activists.

I went back to look at what I'd written, and it had very little to do
with what China Daily's "Doug Saunders" said. The Brussels conference in
question, which was a regular event for Tibet-rights groups, was not
attended by the State Department or any government, and it was not
organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, which in turn is not
owned or controlled by the German government. And the torch-relay
protests that arose from that conference, whatever you may feel about
them, have no relationship to the riots and uprisings inside Tibet.

It tells you something about the current dangerous state of events that
millions of people inside China are willing to believe that there is a
vast Western plot against them, and to congratulate me for "proving"
this. But it tells you even more that hundreds of thousands of people
living outside China are apparently willing to believe the same thing,
despite having full access to free media — in fact, the
social-networking sites of Web 2.0 have created a worldwide explosion of
ethnic-Chinese nationalism.

What has taken people by surprise has been the willingness of a great
many Westerners of Chinese descent to adopt the Communist Party of
China's view of the Olympic standoff.

One typical e-mail came to me from a young man named Bin Wang, born to
Chinese parents in a New England town, married to a white American
woman, holding an advanced degree, well-travelled, fluent in English but
not Chinese — that is, fairly typical of the pro-China movement. I know
this because I actually phoned him to see if he was real and not a
product of a back office in Beijing.

The protesters, he wrote, "ought to be ashamed of themselves. … This one
strikes and wounds deep. … China disputes the West's self-given
authority to draw a single, objective, moral line that China must toe. …

"What other government, in 60 years, can say it's done even half as much
for 1.3 billion people as the Chinese Communist Party? Economic
improvement is key. When the outlines are done, when the house is built,
then you put away the broad brush for the finer one, then you worry
about the wallpaper and light fixtures."

How, I asked him, could he so easily adopt the voice, the identity and
even the phrases of an authoritarian government of a foreign country?
Was he one of those many second-generation kids, from many cultures, who
romanticize their parents' homeland to the point of embracing and
embodying its worst qualities?

But Mr. Wang does not entirely fit this description. He happens to be
critical of Chinese excesses, and he's definitely not a communist. But
Beijing isn't communist any more, either; the CCP is now largely a
nationalist party, and its main line of defence during this Olympic
crisis to promote an ethnic-nationalist pride among members of the Han
majority, who make up 90 per cent of China's population. It has been an
alarmingly successful tactic, because it has tapped into a hidden well
of ethnic pride, and given it a name.

I asked Mr. Wang how he and his friends could possibly identify with a
party whose cruelties drove their parents to leave the country, and
which seems to me like the greatest enemy of the Chinese people.

"Being Chinese," he replied, "is not something easily forgotten when you
move to a new land. Perhaps we don't assimilate as well as others. But
Chinese Americans are much more Chinese than Irish Americans are Irish.
For them, it's neat to discover their past. For us, it is very much a
part of who we are. And the CCP is responsible for bringing pride back
into being who we are. And that is why Western Chinese still consider
themselves very much Chinese and would use the term 'we' to connect
ourselves to China."

But, I asked, isn't this giving in to a paternalistic myth? His view of
the Beijing's regime as a kindly house builder portrays the Chinese as
too weak to be trusted with the candy bowls and matchbooks of civil
society without the helping hand of a strongman party.

To my surprise, he agreed with me, and turned this argument on its head,
describing "paternalism" as exactly what the Chinese in his circle
wanted and needed: Yes, he said, we need a paternal force ruling
Beijing. For, without it, this ethnic nationalism will become more
profound, more loud, more dangerous, and it will become a deadly menace.

Beijing, in other words, has become the guardian of the Chinese brand,
the protector of the Han trademark: Without its dubious leadership, Mr.
Wang and many others feel, the overseas Chinese will end up damaging
their own hard-earned public image by going even further down the road
of ethnic heavy-handedness.

It's a strong belief, and I don't think change will happen in China
until someone else can claim ownership of this suddenly valuable brand.
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