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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Nationalism at core of China's reaction to Tibet unrest

March 31, 2008

By Jim Yardley
The International Herald Tribune
Sunday, March 30, 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 Meng, 52, a mother and office worker, who was appalled that the
authorities had initially failed to 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 have tried to demonstrate
the party's resolve to people like Meng. They have blasted the foreign
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 by
using and responding to the deep strains of nationalism in Chinese
society. Playing to national pride, and national insecurities, the party
has used censorship and propaganda to position itself as defender of the
motherland - and 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, China's sharp
criticism of the foreign press 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 media offices in Beijing.

The Chinese state media have also inundated the public with so many
reports from Lhasa about the suffering of Han Chinese merchants and the
brutal deaths of Chinese victims - with no coverage of Tibetan
grievances - that critics have accused the government of "fanning racial
hatred." 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 in China versus how often nationalist public
attitudes are beyond the party's control. In the Olympic prelude, the
steady attacks against China on issues like Darfur, global warming and
human rights abuses have increasingly angered 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
that lies at the core of Chinese nationalism. For now, public anger is
mostly confined to the Internet, where many postings about Tibet are
angry pronouncements that China must not be divided. But the enormous
domestic media focus on Tibet has also turned public attention to how
the issue is being treated abroad.

Tong Zeng, who helped organized anti-Japanese protests in 2005, said the
anger about Tibet on the Internet is more pronounced than the broader
feeling on the streets. But Tong, who is not active on the Tibet issue,
predicted that that inaction could change.

"If Bush meets the Dalai Lama right now, or if the Congress does
anything, the Chinese people might do something," Tong said. He added
that the Internet is filled with angry comments about a recent meeting
by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House, with the Dalai Lama.

Communist Party leaders had hoped to use this Olympic moment to showcase
how China has become a modern and nonthreatening emerging world power.
President Hu Jintao has advocated a "harmonious society" as a
catchphrase to signal a new government emphasis on addressing inequality
in society. At the same time, China's soft power abroad is rising with
its bulging foreign exchange reserves, its aid programs to poor
countries and its increasingly active diplomatic role on issues like the
North Korea nuclear crisis.

But the Tibet crisis has revealed a leadership that has seemingly
stepped back into its harsher past. Buddhist monks in Tibet are now
being subjected to punitive "patriotic education" campaigns.
Paramilitary police officers and soldiers have swept across huge areas
of western China in a crackdown that is under way, if unseen. Party
leaders, including Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, have vilified the Dalai
Lama and blamed a "Dalai clique" for orchestrating the protests to
sabotage China's Olympic moment.

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

Last week, a group of prominent Chinese intellectuals offered a rare
contrarian 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.

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

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

Scholars often describe nationalism as the state religion in China 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 can 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 Anand, a reader in international relations at
Westminster University in London. He said many Chinese regard 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," he said. "Even if minorities don't feel like part of China,
they are part of China's nationality."

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 media.

Commentators in Chinese state media have said foreign news reporting has
been more sympathetic to Tibetans in Lhasa than to the 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 the police beating pro-Tibet protesters in
Nepal as being from China.

Last week, Qin Gang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, jousted with foreign
reporters about their coverage, describing the Tibet coverage 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 signs that the government does not want to push nationalist
anger too far. On Friday, in a shift, China Daily, the official
English-language newspaper, ran a front-page story under the headline,
"Tibetans also among riot victims."

Most Chinese people know little about Tibet's different interpretation
of its history and regard Tibetans as having been granted special
subsidies and benefits from the government to lift their economy. 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 Meng, the
office worker. "And the Tibetans are taking advantage of this."

Meng said she gets her information about Tibet from the state media and
various postings on the Internet. After the Lhasa riots, she was
infuriated when she saw a photograph of police officers cowering behind
riot shields without fighting back.

But she said she was pleased to see that the president had rejected a
request from President George W. Bush to open a new dialogue with the
Dalai Lama. Still, she said she wants 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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