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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."

Anti-French Boycott Stumbles in China

May 4, 2008

The New York Times
May 2, 2008

BEIJING — They came. They expressed patriotic fervor. Then they shopped.

On Thursday, the first day of a planned boycott against Carrefour, a
French department store chain here, there were a
few low-key protests around the country but most Carrefour outlets did a
brisk business in peanut oil, petit fours and
family packs of lychee juice.

The boycott call, publicized through text messages and popular websites,
has been urging Chinese consumers to avoid
the stores as a way to punish France for what China considers its shabby
reception of the Olympic torch. During the
Paris leg of the relay last month, pro-Tibetan agitators lunged at a
wheelchair-bound Chinese torch bearer. The images
that captured her shocked and wounded expression have fueled a backlash
against Western countries that many here
believe are seeking to spoil China’s Olympic moment of glory.

It did not help that the Paris City Council followed up by making the
Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader-in-exile, an
honorary citizen. Many Chinese believe the Dalai Lama was responsible
for anti-Chinese rioting in Tibet last month.

On Thursday, the start of a three-day national holiday here, there were
reports of small rallies at a dozen Carrefour
outlets around the country but the absence of any mammoth groundswell,
coupled by the throngs of unapologetic
shoppers, suggested that nationalistic fury may be fading. “Politics is
one thing but the people have to eat,” said
Zheng Wu, 55, a Beijing housewife whose shopping cart was loaded with a
12-roll bundle of toilet paper, two large
sacks of rice, a box of corn flakes, three pairs of pink flip flops and
a plunger.

The government has also been working hard to dampen the anti-French
zealotry. In recent days, government ministers
have gone on television reminding people that the 40,000 employees at
the nation’s 112 Carrefour stores are Chinese.
Newspaper editorials have hinted that bygones might as well be bygones,
urging citizens to heartily embrace foreign
friends, about 1.5 million of whom will be arriving here in August for
the Olympics. “We Smile to the World” read an
editorial headline in the People’s Daily celebrating the 100-day
countdown to the games.

In case that did not do the trick, state censors made it hard for
organizers to get the word out. In recent days, some
text messages championing the boycott have also been blocked; on
Thursday, typing Carrefour into Chinese-language
search engines returned blank pages explaining that such results “do not
conform to relevant law and policy.”

Still, a few protests drew hundreds of people to Carrefour stores in
Xian, Chongqing, Shenyang and Changsha,
although the police made sure the rallies were brief. A demonstration in
Fuzhou reportedly drew 400 people,
according to Xinhua, the official news agency, with students carrying
Chinese flags and banners saying “Oppose Tibet
Independence” and “Love China.” The authorities quickly dispersed the
crowds and hauled away those who refused to
yield, Xinhua said.

Here in Beijing, which has nine Carrefour outlets, store clerks said the
crowds were noticeably thinner, especially for a
holiday. The only reported protest in the capital was at a Carrefour
near city’s university district, where despite a heavy
police presence, a young man rushed up to the entrance holding aloft a
sign that said, “Boycott Carrefour, Denounce
CNN.” (The reference to CNN reflected popular anger here over what the
Chinese consider its unfair coverage of the
Tibet protests.)

The man, who wore a white face mask and a t-shirt covered in
nationalistic slogans, was quickly bundled away by
police. A few people in the crowd grabbed his sign and struggled against
the police to hold it up. Onlookers cheered
them on with chants of “Go China!” and “Go Beijing!”

But as a few hundred others looked on with evident curiosity, the police
managed to wrest the sign away and lead
several young men into white police vans. Then they told the crowd to
disperse, saying it was for “everyone’s safety.”

At the opposite end of town, shoppers at another Carrefour were happy to
fill their carts without interference. A
handful of older people said they had not heard of the boycott call but
others, clearly taken aback by a reporter’s
questions, insisted they had only purchased a few low-cost necessities.
“We should oppose Westerners who try to
bring down China,” said Li Chen, 22, a biology student, as he left the
store with a week’s worth of staples. He then
opened his bags to prove he had avoided foreign-made goods. Asked about
the bottles of Pepsi, he said, “These days,
everything is made in China.”

Many shoppers, however, said they were opposed to the protests and
condemned those who they blamed for
fomenting xenophobia at a time when China is eager to embrace the
outside world. Guo Sheng Zhang, 26, who
recently quit his job as a hotel worker, said a boycott would only
damage China’s image and potentially mar the
Olympics. “This is so stupid,” he said. “We’re only hurting ourselves.
And what about the Chinese employees who will
lose their job?”

Shi Anbin, a professor of media studies at Tsinghua University in
Beijing, said he thought anti-French sentiment would
quickly subside, and not just because of government intervention. He
noted that French officials have tried to make
amends for the torch debacle by dispatching French Senate President
Christian Poncelet to personally apologize to the
disabled fencer who was attacked in Paris. President Nicolas Sarkozy
also invited the athlete, Jin Jing, to a state visit.
In recent days Carrefour executives have given interviews in the China
press expressing their horror at the incident and
denying rumors that their company provides financing for Tibetan
independence groups.

Noting the long-standing and warm relationship between China and France,
Professor Shi attributed the anti-French
outburst to the acute rage one feels when insulted by a friend. “I think
the French understood that what happened
with the torch in Paris was a loss of face,” he said. “And they made
sure to resolve it quickly.”

As she stood in the checkout line of a Carrefour in Beijing, Wang Junyu,
41, a waitress enjoying her day off, said she
works too hard to pay attention to boycott campaigns and anti-foreign
demonstrations. She was, however, quite
pleased with her shopping excursion. “Look at this,” she said, holding
aloft a tub of ice cream. “I don’t know much
about the French but this is a really good price.”
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