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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The dangers of unleashing the dragon

May 5, 2008

Pradeep Taneja
The Age
May 5, 2008

BACK in 1983 when I was an exchange student in China, a small band of
left-leaning foreign students, including some Americans, wanted to stage
a small demonstration outside the United States embassy in Beijing to
mark International Labour Day and to condemn capitalism. The Chinese
campus authorities were horrified and they denied permission and quickly
moved to identify the "troublemakers" so their activities could be
monitored in the future.

A few years later, Chinese students in Australia faced no such
resistance from university authorities here when they decided to protest
against China's military crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen
Square in June 1989. Until recently that was the only time a large
number of young Chinese had marched in Australian cities, and mostly
without the red flag of their motherland.

But the recent display of nationalism by flag-waving Chinese students in
Canberra was a different kind of protest: it was not aimed against their
own Government but rather against Tibetans and their supporters, who the
demonstrators believed were seeking to split the motherland. It was also
targeted at what they saw as the Western media's biased coverage of the
Tibet question. And, of course, it was to protect the Olympic torch.

But what was fascinating about the protest was what is said about the
demonstrators and their growing self-awareness as citizens of a new
world power (that China is still ruled by an authoritarian communist
party was secondary to their concerns).

There has been a resurgence of nationalism in China in recent years.
Much of this can be attributed to the periodic "patriotic education
campaigns" launched by the Chinese Communist Party since the Tiananmen
Square crackdown. The Chinese education system has always been an
important medium used by the party to instil whatever ideology it seeks
to promote.

The decision by the leadership in Beijing to further open China's
economy following the events in Tiananmen Square confounded many experts
who were expecting China to turn inwards. However, the decision also
exposed an ideological vacuum in Chinese society. With Marxism no longer
able to provide an adequate explanation for the market-oriented and
decisively unequal economic policies, the party turned to nationalism
and the promotion of traditional Chinese culture as alternative sources
of legitimacy.

When combined with the spectacular economic success of the country over
the past 30 years, this formula seems to have worked extremely well for
the party.

The Chinese education system accentuates past injustices against China
by foreign powers but it does not allow a critical examination of the
country's own recent political history. Consequently, the younger
generation of Chinese do not have a sophisticated understanding of their
political past.

While they are taught that there would be no new China without the
Communist Party, they are less aware of the party's transgressions
against its own people. Not having experienced any of Mao Zedong's often
violent political campaigns and the poverty that accompanied his policy
of self-reliance, China's youth have grown up in an era of high growth
and consumption. They are clearly proud of China's economic progress and
its rising international standing.

While exposure to Western-style education and a vibrant media in
countries such as Australia can come as a shock to Chinese nationals
unaccustomed to having their domestic political and social problems
analysed in the open, it can also be educational, and for those Chinese
living abroad, it gives them a fresh perspective on their own country
and the opportunity to express their views.

Clearly, Chinese nationals worldwide are finding a new voice, but it is
a double-edged sword. This new voice has been raised in support of the
Beijing Olympics and the unity of the country, but on another day it
could as easily be used to express disapproval of their own government.

The Communist Party is acutely aware of this. The party itself is a
product of the last major wave of nationalism that swept the country
about the time of the generally unsuccessful nationalist revolution of
1911. The same Chinese people, who today demonstrate to protect their
country's image and to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial
integrity, could again take to the streets if and when the economic
juggernaut begins to run out of steam.

They could also turn against their government if they perceive it to be
unable to prevent official corruption or to control rising food and
housing prices.

There are so many issues that must keep China's leaders awake at night.
The growing rural unrest, environmental degradation, water shortages,
human rights problems, and the disappearing public health system are
just some of the issues that could, if not handled properly, spell
trouble for the party.

This is not to suggest that the Chinese Government has done nothing to
deal with these challenges. Indeed, its capacity to deal with serious
economic, social and environmental problems is perhaps the strongest in
the developing world. But the people always want more than governments
are able to deliver. This is why we should expect the Communist Party to
keep a lid on militant nationalism while simultaneously attempting to
harness the positive energy that patriotism generates to legitimise its
authority.

Dr Pradeep Taneja lectures in Chinese politics at the University of
Melbourne.
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