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Greater China - China's pride versus Western prejudice

May 2, 2008

By Da Wei
Asia Times
May 2, 2008

No one anticipated the dynamics triggered by the riots in Tibet on March
14. The focus of attention has shifted from the rioters battling armed
police on the streets of Lhasa, to activists harassing Olympic torch
bearers in London, Paris, and San Francisco and finally to average
Chinese anger towards those who, from a Chinese perspective, "hurt the
feelings of the Chinese people". Fairly or not, the list of "bad guys"
(from a Chinese perspective) includes "the Dalai clique", CNN and
Carrefour, a French supermarket chain, among others.

New wave of Chinese nationalism

This is at least the fourth outbreak of Chinese patriotism or
nationalism in the last decade: previous triggers include the bombing of
the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999, the EP-3 US electronic
surveillance plane incident in 2001, and protests against the Japanese
prime minister's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in 2005.

The latest wave of nationalism has new characteristics. First, from a
Chinese perspective, it was not triggered by an isolated incident like
the EP-3 case, when the US Navy spy plane crashed on Hainan island.
Tibetan organizations in exile prepared carefully to use the Beijing
Summer Olympic Games to draw international attention; Western
human-rights activists began politicizing the Olympics with issues like
Darfur several years ago. Second, it is not a conflict with a single
country. Chinese feel that they face a choir of the entire West. Third,
the "chorus" is not made up of just Western governments, but includes
Western media and civil society.

All this has made many Chinese feel that they face, for the first time
in many years, Western ideology. Thus, this situation has greater
implications than previous waves of nationalism. This confrontation
should not be oversimplified as mere right versus wrong, as occurred
during the US-Soviet ideological conflict in the Cold War. Rather, it is
about the pride of China and the prejudice of the West.

In response, younger Chinese mobilized on the Internet with an
unprecedented speed and scale. And for the first time in 10 years,
overseas Chinese played a major role. Overseas Chinese held
demonstrations and rallies to support China in Paris, London, Los
Angeles and other cities. Their speed was dramatic. On April 16, in one
day, more than 2 million Chinese MSN messenger users (mainly young
white-collar professionals in major cities) adopted a red heart with the
word "China" (which means "love China") as their MSN signature. This
"hearting China" movement was organized by netizens and soon spread

Short term: A lose-lose-lose situation

As the sound and fury have diminished, we can examine the gains and
losses of the Dalai Lama, China, and Western countries.

Obviously, the Dalai Lama and his supporters have successfully drawn
international attention to the Tibet issue. But winning international
attention is not the only way to get a solution in their favor. A
permanent solution of the Tibet issue that satisfies all concerned
parties can only be achieved with the support of ordinary Chinese.
However, the riots and the agitation around the Olympic torch relay
pushed the Dalai Lama, his government-in-exile, and organizations like
the Tibetan Youth Congress, away from the majority of Chinese.

For human-rights activists and sympathizers of the Dalai Lama in Western
countries, their actions can be called a failure. The controversy
surrounding the Olympic torch relay changed the focus from the Tibet
issue to the cleavage of ideologies. Their only achievement was
humiliating the Chinese government. At the same time, they disappointed
the majority of Chinese because extinguishing the Olympic torch, which
embodies the hopes and goodwill of the Chinese people, humiliated and
offended ordinary Chinese.

It is a big loss for Beijing. The Chinese government did not expect the
Olympic Games to be politicized to this extent. It also damaged severely
the image of China's "peaceful development" and its "harmonious society".

Tibet and nation-building in China

The key to understanding the common Chinese response to these dynamics
is to view the Tibet issue from the lens of China's nation-building process.

Ancient East Asia was basically a "small world" defined by Chinese as
Tian Xia or "All under Heaven". Different political and ethnic
authorities interact with each other in the sphere of Tian Xia: it is
oversimplified to use modern European concepts of the nation-state and
international relations to describe relations among those authorities.

This system began its transformation into a Westphalian-style nation
state when the Qing Dynasty was defeated by the Europeans in the
mid-19th century. Intellectuals and revolutionaries redefined the word
Zhong Guo and used it as the name of the new nation state. Similarly
reconceptualized was the "Chinese nation" (Zhong Hua Min Zu), by which
Dr Sun Yat-sen referred to all major ethnic groups in China. All these
creations were based on the political and territorial facts of the late
19th century when Tibet was a part of the community that later developed
into modern China.

The importance of the Tibet issue reflects Tibet's role in the concept
of China as a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nation state. This
nation-building process is the product of the collective efforts of
Chinese - including Tibetan Chinese - for generations. Thus, the Tibet
issue is a litmus test and proving ground for the nation state of China.

Could crisis become opportunity?

There are reasons for hope, however. The Dalai Lama, the Chinese
government, and the West can have win-win-win interactions when all
sides think and act under a shared acknowledgement that China is a
multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and integrated nation state.

The founding theory of both Sun Yat-sen's Republic of China (PRC) and
the current People's Republic of China goes beyond "one ethnic group,
one state" thinking. The PRC has gone further by establishing three
levels of autonomous regions and practicing the policies of "ethnic
regional autonomy". Obviously, a lot remains to be done.

On one hand, the Chinese government needs more efficient governance on
the local level. This policy could include protecting and expanding
human rights, and adopting new affirmative action in areas like
employment that are designed to adjust to the developing market economy
in Tibet.

The Chinese government also needs to strengthen the status of Tibetan
and other ethnic minorities in the official political discourse of the
country. For example, research and education into ethnic history are
needed. Quite simply, if Tibetans feel proud to be part of China, the
independence movement will lose its bedrock.

As for the Olympics, ordinary Chinese need to better understand that
Americans and Europeans are not out to deliberately hurt them. When
different cultures meet and people do not have a deep understanding of
the other, conflict is inevitable. The urgent task for Chinese
intellectuals and the younger generation is to find and elaborate an
ideology that fits China. In particular, they have to identify
convergent and divergent values between the ideology of China and that
of the West. What kind of ideas can China contribute to the world?

If the Dalai Lama is genuine when he said he does not seek Tibet
independence, he and people around him ought to realize that requests
for a "greater Tibet" or "peaceful zone" are neither workable nor
helpful for building a multi-ethnic nation state. These requests will
have but one effect: making other Chinese feel that they are a
springboard for future independence. If the Dalai Lama really cares
about Tibet's religious and cultural heritage, he could talk more about
those policies rather than China's administration and jurisdiction. If
he genuinely thinks that Tibet is part of China, then it would be better
for him to leave historical issues to historians and stop arguing that
Tibet was not part of China in the past.

Americans and Europeans should not be scared of Chinese nationalist
sentiment. Nationalism is not a negative value. All nation states
including the US and European countries were founded by nationalist
movements. Of course, it would be better if Western countries had a more
profound and sophisticated understanding of China; but it will be
helpful for Western observers to keep the following three points in mind:

# Was Tibet part of China? There is no easy answer to this question
since there was no nation state as we call "China" in history. People
with different suppositions can find evidence to support their views.
But it is undeniable that Tibet has close historical links with other
parts of China. So, to argue that Tibet was not part of China is not
only against all Western (and not just Western) government positions,
but also lacks intellectual depth.

# There is a human rights problem in Tibet, as in other areas in China
and other parts of the world. But the human rights problem in Tibet is
mainly a problem of governance, not that of ethnicity or culture.
Neither communism nor any other ideology has anything to do with that.

# The concept of China covers the whole of China; the concept of Chinese
covers all ethnic groups in China. So, please stop using the dichotomy
of Tibet versus China and Tibetan versus Chinese. Tibetan Chinese are
Chinese just as African Americans are Americans.

Da Wei ( is an associate research professor of
China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). He is
currently a visiting associate at the School of Advanced International
Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed in this
essay are the author's personal views and do not reflect those of any
organization with which he is affiliated.

(Used by permission of Pacific Forum CSIS)
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