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China's 'rational' nationalism

May 4, 2008

Beijing lights a dangerous patriotic torch as the Olympic torch heads
its way.

The Christian Science Monitor.
May 2, 2008

Next week, China's majority ethnic group, the Han, will celebrate the
Olympic torch's arrival on Mt. Everest. It will be a pinnacle
experience, literally, for a people who see the Beijing Games as their
ascendency to restored world glory. One problem, though: Everest's peak
is in Tibet.

China's bursts of Han nationalism – often resulting in violent
indignation – have been marked by such contradictions. Popular calls to
boycott Western imports over the recent pro-Tibet actions against the
torch, for instance, have been squashed by officials – to prevent
boycotts of Chinese exports.

A more worrisome conundrum for China's leaders is that their own past
attempts to incite domestic anger at other countries – mainly Japan and
the US – have now opened the door to grass-roots protests that can
quickly escalate with private mobilization over the Internet. The
Communist Party, which has intensified "patriotic" indoctrination since
1994, has lately insisted on what they term "rational" nationalism.

Two weeks ago, for instance, Internet-driven protests almost got out of
hand in several Chinese cities against French-owned Carrefour
supermarkets. People were upset at actions in Paris against the torch
relay and a famous Chinese athlete. A follow-up protest against
Carrefour May 1 was contained by officials who banned online searches
for the word Carrefour.

The real rub for the party: Unfettered nationalism might cause people to
turn against it. Officials are busy enough suppressing hundreds of local
protests a year by farmers and workers increasingly venting anger at
misrule, inflation, land grabs, or graft. And during the Tibet crisis of
the past few weeks, China has seen zealous protesters turn on fellow
Chinese who don't take a hard line. One Chinese student at Duke
University who tried to mediate between pro-Tibet and pro-China
activists on campus was called a traitor back home, and her family there
was threatened.

The party's difficulty lies in defining a "rational" identity for a
country that suppresses non-Han minorities (about 8 percent of the
population) and floods the Muslim west and Tibet with Han Chinese (thus
the anti-Han riots in March).

Near-xenophobic nationalism is a useful tool to unify a land of 1.3
billion people. It provides cover for official mistakes and jailing of
dissidents. But aggressive action against foreigners only portrays China
as a bully, hurting its "peaceful rise" to power – especially just
before the Olympics. A recent poll showed that Europeans now see China
as the world's biggest threat to world stability.

Foreign talk of boycotting the Olympics, and thus marring China's
"coming out" party as an economic giant, only fuels nationalist anger
and revives memories of past humiliations by foreign powers. Beijing
might become less cooperative on trade, nuclear proliferation, and other
issues, and not be a "stakeholder" in global affairs.

China's potential to implode under its nationalism is, ironically, a
result of the party's insecure grip on power and thus its need to
command authority by lighting a patriotic torch. But love of country
should not mean hatred of others.

When the Olympic torch finally reaches Beijing Aug. 8, will the Chinese
see it as the world's? Or as their own?
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