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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?"

China: Angry Youth

July 30, 2008

The new generation's neocon nationalists.
by Evan Osnos
New Yorker
July 28, 2008

On the morning of April 15th, a short video entitled "2008 China
Stand Up!" appeared on Sina, a Chinese Web site. The video's origin
was a mystery: unlike the usual YouTube-style clips, it had no host,
no narrator, and no signature except the initials "CTGZ."

It was a homespun documentary, and it opened with a Technicolor
portrait of Chairman Mao, sunbeams radiating from his head. Out of
silence came an orchestral piece, thundering with drums, as a black
screen flashed, in both Chinese and English, one of Mao's mantras:
"Imperialism will never abandon its intention to destroy us." Then a
cut to present-day photographs and news footage, and a fevered sprint
through conspiracies and betrayals—the "farces, schemes, and
disasters" confronting China today. The sinking Chinese stock market
(the work of foreign speculators who "wildly manipulated" Chinese
stock prices and lured rookie investors to lose their fortunes).
Shoppers beset by inflation, a butcher counter where "even pork has
become a luxury." And a warning: this is the dawn of a global
"currency war," and the West intends to "make Chinese people foot the
bill" for America's financial woes.

A cut, then, to another front: rioters looting stores and brawling in
Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. The music crescendos as words flash
across the scenes: "So-called peaceful protest!" A montage of foreign
press clippings

The video, which was just over six minutes long and is now on
YouTube, captured the mood of nationalism that surged through China
after the Tibetan uprising, in March, sparked foreign criticism of
China's hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Citizens were greeting
the criticism with rare fury. Thousands demonstrated in front of
Chinese outlets of Carrefour, a French supermarket chain, in
retaliation for what they considered France's sympathy for
pro-Tibetan activists. Charles Zhang, who holds a Ph.D. from M.I.T.
and is the founder and C.E.O. of Sohu, a leading Chinese Web portal
along the lines of Yahoo, called online for a boycott of French
products "to make the thoroughly biased French media and public feel
losses and pain." When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi denounced
China's handling of Tibet, Xinhua, China's official news service,
called her "disgusting." State-run media revived language from
another age: the magazine Outlook Weekly warned that "domestic and
foreign hostile forces have made the Beijing Olympics a focus for
infiltration and sabotage." In the anonymity of the Web, decorum
deteriorated. "People who fart through the mouth will get shit
stuffed down their throats by me!" one commentator wrote, in a forum
hosted by a semi-official newspaper. "Someone give me a gun! Don't
show mercy to the enemy!" wrote another. The comments were an
embarrassment to many Chinese, but they were difficult to ignore
among foreign journalists who had begun receiving threats. (An
anonymous letter to my fax machine in Beijing warned, "Clarify the
facts on China . . . or you and your loved ones will wish you were dead.")

In its first week and a half, the video by CTGZ drew more than a
million hits and tens of thousands of favorable comments. It rose to
the site's fourth-most-popular rating. (A television blooper clip of
a yawning news anchor was No. 1.) On average, the film attracted
nearly two clicks per second. It became a manifesto for a self-styled
vanguard in defense of China's honor, a patriotic swath of society
that the Chinese call the fen qing, the angry youth.

Nineteen years after the crackdown on student-led protests in
Tiananmen Square, China's young élite rose again this spring -- not
in pursuit of liberal democracy but in defense of sovereignty and
prosperity. Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of M.I.T.'s Media
Laboratory and one of the early ideologists of the Internet, once
predicted that the global reach of the Web would transform the way we
think about ourselves as countries. The state, he predicted, will
evaporate "like a mothball, which goes from solid to gas directly,"
and "there will be no more room for nationalism than there is for
smallpox." In China, things have gone differently.

A young Chinese friend of mine, who spends most of his time online,
traced the screen name CTGZ to an e-mail address. It belonged to a
twenty-eight-year-old graduate student in Shanghai named Tang Jie,
and it was his first video. A couple of weeks later, I met Tang Jie
at the gate of Fudan University, a top Chinese school, situated on a
modern campus that radiates from a pair of thirty-story
steel-and-glass towers that could pass for a corporate headquarters.
He wore a crisp powder-blue oxford shirt, khakis, and black dress
shoes. He had bright hazel eyes and rounded features -- a baby face,
everyone tells him—and a dusting of goatee and mustache on his chin
and upper lip. He bounded over to welcome me as I stepped out of a
cab, and he tried to pay my fare.

Tang spends most of his time working on his dissertation, which is on
Western philosophy. He specializes in phenomenology; specifically, in
the concept of "intersubjectivity," as theorized by Edmund Husserl,
the German philosopher who influenced Sartre, among others. In
addition to Chinese, Tang reads English and German easily, but he
speaks them infrequently, so at times he swerves, apologetically,
among languages. He is working on his Latin and Ancient Greek. He is
so self-effacing and soft-spoken that his voice may drop to a
whisper. He laughs sparingly, as if he were conserving energy. For
fun, he listens to classical Chinese music, though he also enjoys
screwball comedies by the Hong Kong star Stephen Chow. He is proudly
unhip. The screen name CTGZ is an adaptation of two obscure terms
from classical poetry: changting and gongzi, which together translate
as "the noble son of the pavilion." Unlike some élite Chinese
students, Tang has never joined the Communist Party, for fear that it
would impugn his objectivity as a scholar.

Tang had invited some friends to join us for lunch, at Fat Brothers
Sichuan Restaurant, and afterward we all climbed the stairs to his
room. He lives alone in a sixth-floor walkup, a studio of less than
seventy-five square feet, which could be mistaken for a library
storage room occupied by a fastidious squatter. Books cover every
surface, and great mounds list from the shelves above his desk. His
collections encompass, more or less, the span of human thought: Plato
leans against Lao-tzu, Wittgenstein, Bacon, Fustel de Coulanges,
Heidegger, the Koran. When Tang wanted to widen his bed by a few
inches, he laid plywood across the frame and propped up the edges
with piles of books. Eventually, volumes overflowed the room, and
they now stand outside his front door in a wall of cardboard boxes.

Tang slumped into his desk chair. We talked for a while, and I asked
if he had any idea that his video would be so popular. He smiled. "It
appears I have expressed a common feeling, a shared view," he said.

Next to him sat Liu Chengguang, a cheerful, broad-faced Ph.D. student
in political science who recently translated into Chinese a lecture
on the subject of "Manliness" by the conservative Harvard professor
Harvey Mansfield. Sprawled on the bed, wearing a gray sweatshirt, was
Xiong Wenchi, who earned a Ph.D. in political science before taking a
teaching job last year. And to Tang's left sat Zeng Kewei, a lean and
stylish banker, who picked up a master's degree in Western philosophy
before going into finance. Like Tang, each of his friends was in his
twenties, was the first in his family to go to college, and had been
drawn to the study of Western thought.

"China was backward throughout its modern history, so we were always
seeking the reasons for why the West grew strong," Liu said. "We
learned from the West. All of us who are educated have this dream:
Grow strong by learning from the West."

Tang and his friends were so gracious, so thankful that I'd come to
listen to them, that I began to wonder if China's anger of last
spring should be viewed as an aberration. They implored me not to
make that mistake.

"We've been studying Western history for so long, we understand it
well," Zeng said. "We think our love for China, our support for the
government and the benefits of this country, is not a spontaneous
reaction. It has developed after giving the matter much thought."

In fact, their view of China's direction, if not their vitriol, is
consistent with the Chinese mainstream. Almost nine out of ten
Chinese approve of the way things are going in the country -- the
highest share of any of the twenty-four countries surveyed this
spring by the Pew Research Center. (In the United States, by
comparison, just two out of ten voiced approval.) As for the more
assertive strain of patriotism, scholars point to a Chinese petition
against Japan's membership in the U.N. Security Council. At last
count, it had attracted more than forty million signatures, roughly
the population of Spain. I asked Tang to show me how he made his
film. He turned to face the screen of his Lenovo desktop P.C., which
has a Pentium 4 Processor and one gigabyte of memory. "Do you know
Movie Maker?" he said, referring to a video-editing program. I
pleaded ignorance and asked if he'd learned from a book. He glanced
at me pityingly. He'd learned it on the fly from the help menu. "We
must thank Bill Gates," he said.

When people began rioting in Lhasa in March, Tang followed the news
closely. As usual, he was receiving his information from American and
European news sites, in addition to China's official media. Like
others his age, he has no hesitation about tunnelling under the
government firewall, a vast infrastructure of digital filters and
human censors which blocks politically objectionable content from
reaching computers in China. Younger Chinese friends of mine regard
the firewall as they would an officious lifeguard at a swimming pool
-- an occasional, largely irrelevant, intrusion.

To get around it, Tang detours through a proxy server -- a digital
way station overseas that connects a user with a blocked Web site. He
watches television exclusively online, because he doesn't have a TV
in his room. Tang also receives foreign news clips from Chinese
students abroad. (According to the Institute of International
Education, the number of Chinese students in the United States --
some sixty-seven thousand -- has grown by nearly two-thirds in the
past decade.) He's baffled that foreigners might imagine that people
of his generation are somehow unwise to the distortions of censorship.

"Because we are in such a system, we are always asking ourselves
whether we are brainwashed," he said. "We are always eager to get
other information from different channels." Then he added, "But when
you are in a so-called free system you never think about whether you
are brainwashed."

At the time, news and opinion about Tibet was swirling on Fudan's
electronic bulletin board, or B.B.S. The board was alive with
criticism of foreign coverage of Tibet. Tang had seen a range of
foreign press clippings deemed by Chinese Web users to be misleading
or unfair. A photograph on CNN.com, for instance, had been cropped
around military trucks bearing down on unarmed protesters. But an
uncropped version showed a crowd of demonstrators lurking nearby,
including someone with an arm cocked, hurling something at the
trucks. To Tang, the cropping looked like a deliberate distortion.
(CNN disputed this and said that the caption fairly describes the scene.)

"It was a joke," he said bitterly. That photograph and others
crisscrossed China by e-mail, scrawled with criticism, while people
added more examples from the Times of London, Fox News, German
television, and French radio. It was a range of news organizations,
and, to those inclined to see it as such, it smacked of a conspiracy.
It shocked people like Tang, who put faith in the Western press, but,
more important, it offended them: Tang thought that he was living in
the moment of greatest prosperity and openness in his country's
modern history, and yet the world still seemed to view China with
suspicion. As if he needed confirmation, Jack Cafferty, a CNN
commentator, called China "the same bunch of goons and thugs they've
been for the last fifty years," a quote that rippled across the front
pages in China and for which CNN later apologized. Like many of his
peers, Tang couldn't figure out why foreigners were so agitated about
Tibet—an impoverished backwater, as he saw it, that China had tried
for decades to civilize. Boycotting the Beijing Games in the name of
Tibet seemed as logical to him as shunning the Salt Lake City
Olympics to protest America's treatment of the Cherokee.

He scoured YouTube in search of a rebuttal, a clarification of the
Chinese perspective, but he found nothing in English except pro-Tibet
videos. He was already busy -- under contract from a publisher for a
Chinese translation of Leibniz's "Discourse on Metaphysics" and other
essays -- but he couldn't shake the idea of speaking up on China's behalf.

"I thought, O.K., I'll make something," he said.

Before Tang could start, however, he was obligated to go home for a
few days. His mother had told him to be back for the harvest season.
She needed his help in the fields, digging up bamboo shoots.

Tang is the youngest of four siblings from a farming family near the
eastern city of Hangzhou. For breaking China's one-child policy, his
parents paid fines measured in grain. Tang's birth cost them two
hundred kilos of unmilled rice. ("I'm not very expensive," he says.)

Neither his mother nor his father could read or write. Until the
fourth grade, Tang had no name. He went by Little Four, after his
place in the family order. When that became impractical, his father
began calling him Tang Jie, an abbreviated homage to his favorite
comedian, Tang Jiezhong, half of a popular act in the style of Abbott
and Costello.

Tang was bookish and, in a large, boisterous household, he said
little. He took to science fiction. "I can tell you everything about
all those movies, like 'Star Wars,' -- he told me. He was a good,
though not a spectacular, student, but he showed a precocious
interest in ideas. "He wasn't like other kids, who spent their pocket
money on food -- he saved all his money to buy books," said his
sister Tang Xiaoling, who is seven years older. None of his siblings
had studied past the eighth grade, and they regarded him as an
admirable oddity. "If he had questions that he couldn't figure out,
then he couldn't sleep," his sister said. "For us, if we didn't get
it we just gave up."

In high school, Tang improved his grades and had some success at
science fairs as an inventor. But he was frustrated. "I discovered
that science can't help your life," he said. He happened upon a
Chinese translation of a fanciful Norwegian novel, "Sophie's World,"
by the philosophy teacher Jostein Gaarder, in which a teen-age girl
encounters the history of great thinkers. "It was then that I
discovered philosophy," Tang said.

Patriotism was not a particularly strong presence in his house, but
landmarks of national progress became the backdrop of his
adolescence. When Tang was in junior high, the Chinese were still
celebrating the country's first major freeway, completed a few years
before. "It was famous. We were proud of this. At last we had a
highway!" he recalled one day, with a laugh, as we whizzed down an
expressway in Shanghai. "Now we have highways everywhere, even in Tibet."

Supermarkets opened in his home town, and, eventually, so did an
Internet café. (Tang, who was eighteen at the time, was particularly
fond of the Web sites for the White House and NASA, because they had
kids' sections that used simpler English sentences.) Tang enrolled at
Hangzhou Normal University. He came to credit his country and his
family for opportunities that his siblings had never had. By the time
he reached Fudan, in 2003, he lived in a world of ideas. "He had a
pure passion for philosophy," Ma Jun, a fellow philosophy student who
met him early on, said. "A kind of religious passion."

The Internet had barely taken root in China before it became a vessel
for nationalism. At the Atlanta Olympics, in 1996, as the Chinese
delegation marched into the stadium, the NBC announcer Bob Costas
riffed on China's "problems with human rights, property right
disputes, the threat posed to Taiwan." Then he mentioned "suspicions"
that Chinese athletes used performance-enhancing drugs. Even though
the Web in China was in its infancy (there were just five telephone
lines for every hundred people), comments spread instantly among
Chinese living abroad. The timing couldn't have been more opportune:
after more than fifteen years of reform and Westernization, Chinese
writers were pushing back against Hollywood, McDonald's, and American
values. An impassioned book titled "China Can Say No" came out that
spring and sold more than a hundred thousand copies in its first
month. Written by a group of young intellectuals, it decried China's
"infatuation with America," which had suppressed the national
imagination with a diet of visas, foreign aid, and advertising. If
China didn't resist this "cultural strangulation," it would become "a
slave," extending a history of humiliating foreign incursions that
stretched back to China's defeat in the first Opium War and the
British acquisition of Hong Kong, in 1842. The Chinese government,
which is wary of fast-spreading new ideas, eventually pulled the book
off the shelves, but not before a raft of knockoffs sought to exploit
the same mood ("Why China Can Say No," "China Still Can Say No," and
"China Always Say No").

Xu Wu, a former journalist in China who is now a professor at Arizona
State University, says in his 2007 book "Chinese Cyber Nationalism"
that groups claiming to represent more than seventy thousand overseas
Chinese wrote to NBC asking for an apology for the Costas remarks.
They collected donations online and bought an ad in the Washington
Post, accusing Costas and the network of "ignominious prejudice and
inhospitality." NBC apologized, and Chinese online activism was born.

Each day, some thirty-five hundred Chinese citizens were going online
for the first time. In 1998, Charles Zhang's Sohu launched China's
first major search engine. The following spring, when a NATO
aircraft, using American intelligence, mistakenly dropped three bombs
on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the Chinese Web found its voice.
The United States apologized, blaming outdated maps and inaccurate
databases, but Chinese patriotic hackers -- calling themselves
"honkers," to capture the sound of hong, which is Chinese for the
color red -- attacked. As Peter Hays Gries, a China scholar at the
University of Oklahoma, details in "China's New Nationalism," they
plastered the home page of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing with the
slogan "Down with the Barbarians!," and they caused the White House
Web site to crash under a deluge of angry e-mail. "The Internet is
Western," one commentator wrote, "but . . . we Chinese can use it to
tell the people of the world that China cannot be insulted!"

The government treated online patriots warily. They placed their
pride in the Chinese nation, not necessarily in the Party, and
leaders rightly sensed that the passion could swerve against them.
After a nationalist Web site was shut down by censors in 2004, one
commentator wrote, "Our government is as weak as sheep!" The
government permitted nationalism to grow at some moments but strained
to control it at others. The following spring, when Japan approved a
new textbook that critics claimed glossed over wartime atrocities,
patriots in Beijing drafted protest plans and broadcast them via chat
rooms, bulletin boards, and text messages. As many as ten thousand
demonstrators took to the streets, hurling paint and bottles at the
Japanese Embassy. Despite government warnings to cease these
activities, thousands more marched in Shanghai the following week—one
of China's largest demonstrations in years—and vandalized the
Japanese consulate. At one point, Shanghai police cut off cell-phone
service in downtown Shanghai.

"Up to now, the Chinese government has been able to keep a grip on
it," Xu Wu told me. "But I call it the 'virtual Tiananmen Square.'
They don't need to go there. They can do the same thing online and
sometimes be even more damaging."

Tang was at dinner with friends one night in 2004 when he met Wan
Manlu, an elegantly reserved Ph.D. student in Chinese literature and
linguistics. Her delicate features suited her name, which includes
the character for the finest jade. They sat side by side, but barely
spoke. Later, Tang hunted down her screen name -- gracelittle -- and
sent her a private message on Fudan's bulletin board. They worked up
to a first date: an experimental opera based on "Regret for the
Past," a Chinese story.

They discovered that they shared a frustration with China's unbridled
Westernization. "Chinese tradition has many good things, but we've
ditched them," Wan told me. "I feel there have to be people to carry
them on." She came from a middle-class home, and Tang's humble roots
and old-fashioned values impressed her. "Most of my generation has a
smooth, happy life, including me," she said. "I feel like our
character lacks something. For example, love for the country or the
perseverance you get from conquering hardships. Those virtues, I
don't see them in myself and many people my age."

She added, "For him, from that kind of background, with nobody
educated in his family, nobody helping him with schoolwork, with
great family pressure, it's not easy to get where he is today."

They were engaged this spring. In their years together, Wan watched
Tang fall in with a group of students devoted to a charismatic
thirty-nine-year-old Fudan philosophy professor named Ding Yun. He is
a translator of Leo Strauss, the political philosopher whose admirers
include Harvey Mansfield and other neoconservatives. A Strauss
student, Abram Shulsky, who co-authored a 1999 essay titled "Leo
Strauss and the World of Intelligence (By Which We Do Not Mean
Nous)," ran the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans before the
invasion of Iraq. Since then, other Strauss disciples have vigorously
ridiculed suggestions of a connection between Strauss's thought and
Bush-era foreign policy.

I saw Mansfield in Shanghai in May, during his first visit to China,
at a dinner with a small group of conservative scholars. He was
wearing a honey-colored panama and was in good spirits, though he
seemed a bit puzzled by all the fuss they were making about him. His
first question to the table: "Why would Chinese scholars be
interested in Leo Strauss?"

Professor Ding teaches a Straussian regard for the universality of
the classics and encourages his students to revive ancient Chinese
thought. "During the nineteen-eighties and nineties, most
intellectuals had a negative opinion of China's traditional culture,"
he told me recently. He has close-cropped hair and stylish
rectangular glasses, and favors the conspicuously retro loose-fitting
shirts of a Tang-dynasty scholar. When Ding grew up, in the early
years of reform, "conservative" was a derogatory term, just like
"reactionary," he said.

But Ding and others have thrived in recent years amid a new vein of
conservatism which runs counter to China's drive for integration with
the world. Just as America's conservative movement in the
nineteen-sixties capitalized on the yearning for a post-liberal
retreat to morality and nobility, China's classical revival draws on
a nostalgic image of what it means to be Chinese. The biggest
surprise best-seller of recent years is, arguably, "Yu Dan's
Reflections on the Analects," a collection of Confucian lectures
delivered by Yu, a telegenic Beijing professor of media studies. She
writes, "To assess a country's true strength and prosperity, you
can't simply look at GNP growth and not look at the inner experience
of each ordinary person: Does he feel safe? Is he happy?" (Skeptics
argue that it's simply "Chicken Soup for the Confucian Soul.")

Professor Ding met Tang in 2003, at the entrance interview for
graduate students. "I was the person in charge of the exam," Ding
recalled. "I sensed that this kid is very smart and diligent." He
admitted Tang to the program, and watched with satisfaction as Tang
and other students pushed back against the onslaught of
Westernization. Tang developed an appetite for the classics. "The
fact is we are very Westernized," he said. "Now we started reading
ancient Chinese books and we rediscovered the ancient China."

This renewed pride has also affected the way Tang and his peers view
the economy. They took to a theory that the world profits from China
but blocks its attempts to invest abroad. Tang's friend Zeng smiled
disdainfully as he ticked off examples of Chinese companies that have
tried to invest in America.

"Huawei's bid to buy 3Com was rejected," he said. "C.N.O.O.C.'s bid
to buy into Unocal and Lenovo's purchase of part of I.B.M. caused
political repercussions. If it's not a market argument, it's a
political argument. We think the world is a free market""

Before he could finish, Tang jumped in. "This is what you -- America
-- taught us," he said. "We opened our market, but when we try to buy
your companies we hit political obstacles. It's not fair."

Their view, which is popular in China across ideological lines, has
validity: American politicians have invoked national-security
concerns, with varying degrees of credibility, to oppose Chinese
direct investment. But Tang's view, infused with a sense of
victimhood, also obscures some evidence to the contrary: China has
succeeded in other deals abroad (its sovereign-wealth fund has stakes
in the Blackstone Group and in Morgan Stanley), and though China has
taken steps to open its markets to foreigners, it remains equally
inclined to reject an American attempt to buy an asset as sensitive
as a Chinese oil company.

Tang's belief that the United States will seek to obstruct China's
rise -- "a new Cold War" -- extends beyond economics to broader
American policy. Disparate issues of relatively minor importance to
Americans, such as support for Taiwan and Washington's calls to raise
the value of the yuan, have metastasized in China into a feeling of
strategic containment. In polls, the Chinese public has not
demonstrated a significant preference for either Barack Obama or John
McCain, though Obama has attracted negative attention for saying
that, were he President, he might boycott the opening ceremony of the
Olympics. Tang and his friends have watched some debates online, but
the young patriots tend to see the race in broader terms. "No matter
who is elected, China is still China and will go the way it goes,"
one recent posting in a discussion about Obama said. "Who can stand
in the way of the march of history?"

This spring, Tang stayed at his family's farm for five days before he
could return to Shanghai and finish his movie. He scoured the Web for
photographs on the subjects that bother him and his friends,
everything from inflation to Taiwan's threats of independence. He
selected some of the pictures because they were evocative -- a man
raising his arm in a sea of Chinese flags reminded him of Delacroix's
"Liberty Leading the People" -- and chose others because they
embodied the political moment: a wheelchair-bound Chinese amputee
carrying the Olympic flame in Paris, for instance, fending off a
protester who was trying to snatch it away.

For a soundtrack, he typed "solemn music" into Baidu, a Chinese
search engine, and scanned the results. He landed on a piece by
Vangelis, a Yanni-style pop composer from Greece who is best known
for his score for the movie "Chariots of Fire." Tang's favorite
Vangelis track was from a Gérard Depardieu film about Christopher
Columbus called "1492: Conquest of Paradise." He watched a few
seconds of Depardieu standing manfully on the deck of a tall ship,
coursing across the Atlantic. Perfect, Tang thought: "It was a time
of globalization."

Tang added scenes of Chairman Mao and the Olympic track star Liu
Xiang, both icons of their eras. The film was six minutes and sixteen
seconds long. Some title screens in English were full of mistakes,
because he was hurrying, but he was anxious to release it. He posted
the film to Sina and sent a note to the Fudan bulletin board. As the
film climbed in popularity, Professor Ding rejoiced. "We used to
think they were just a postmodern, Occidentalized generation," Ding
said. "Of course, I thought the students I knew were very good, but
the wider generation? I was not very pleased. To see the content of
Tang Jie's video, and the scale of its popularity among the youth,
made me very happy. Very happy."

Not everyone was pleased. Young patriots are so polarizing in China
that some people, by changing the intonation in Chinese, pronounce
"angry youth" as "shit youth."

"How can our national self-respect be so fragile and shallow?" Han
Han, one of China's most popular young writers, wrote on his blog, in
an essay about nationalism. "Somebody says you're a mob, so you curse
him, even want to beat him, and then you say, We're not a mob. This
is as if someone said you were a fool, so you held up a big sign in
front of his girlfriend's brother's dog, saying 'I Am Not a Fool.'
The message will get to him, but he'll still think you're a fool."

If the activists thought that they were defending China's image
abroad, there was little sign of success. After weeks of patriotic
rhetoric emanating from China, a poll sponsored by the Financial
Times showed that Europeans now ranked China as the greatest threat
to global stability, surpassing America.

But the eruption of the angry youth has been even more disconcerting
to those interested in furthering democracy. By age and education,
Tang and his peers inherit a long legacy of activism that stretches
from 1919, when nationalist demonstrators demanded "Mr. Democracy"
and "Mr. Science," to 1989, when students flooded Tiananmen Square,
challenging the government and erecting a sculpture inspired by the
Statue of Liberty. Next year will mark the twentieth anniversary of
that movement, but the events of this spring suggest that prosperity,
computers, and Westernization have not driven China's young élite
toward tolerance but, rather, persuaded more than a few of them to
postpone idealism as long as life keeps improving. The students in
1989 were rebelling against corruption and abuses of power.
"Nowadays, these issues haven't disappeared but have worsened," Li
Datong, an outspoken newspaper editor and reform advocate, told me.
"However, the current young generation turns a blind eye to it. I've
never seen them respond to those major domestic issues. Rather, they
take a utilitarian, opportunistic approach."

One caricature of young Chinese holds that they know virtually
nothing about the crackdown at Tiananmen Square—known in Chinese as
"the June 4th incident"—because the authorities have purged it from
the nation's official history. It's not that simple, however. Anyone
who can click on a proxy server can discover as much about Tiananmen
as he chooses to learn. And yet many Chinese have concluded that the
movement was misguided and naïve.

"We accept all the values of human rights, of democracy," Tang told
me. "We accept that. The issue is how to realize it."

I met dozens of urbane students and young professionals this spring,
and we often got to talking about Tiananmen Square. In a typical
conversation, one college senior asked whether she should interpret
the killing of protesters at Kent State in 1970 as a fair measure of
American freedom. Liu Yang, a graduate student in environmental
engineering, said, "June 4th could not and should not succeed at that
time. If June 4th had succeeded, China would be worse and worse, not better."

Liu, who is twenty-six, once considered himself a liberal. As a
teen-ager, he and his friends happily criticized the Communist Party.
"In the nineteen-nineties, I thought that the Chinese government is
not good enough. Maybe we need to set up a better government," he
told me. "The problem is that we didn't know what a good government
would be. So we let the Chinese Communist Party stay in place. The
other problem is we didn't have the power to get them out. They have the Army!"

When Liu got out of college, he found a good job as an engineer at an
oil-services company. He was earning more money in a month than his
parents—retired laborers living on a pension --earned in a year.
Eventually, he saved enough money that, with scholarships, he was
able to enroll in a Ph.D. program at Stanford. He had little interest
in the patriotic pageantry of the Olympics until he saw the fracas
around the torch in Paris. "We were furious," he said, and when the
torch came to San Francisco he and other Chinese students surged
toward the relay route to support it. I was in San Francisco not long
ago, and we arranged to meet at a Starbucks near his dorm, in Palo
Alto. He arrived on his mountain bike, wearing a Nautica fleece
pullover and jeans.

The date, we both knew, was June 4th, nineteen years since soldiers
put down the Tiananmen uprising. The overseas Chinese students'
bulletin board had been alive all afternoon with discussions of the
anniversary. Liu mentioned the famous photograph of an unknown man
standing in front of a tank -- perhaps the most provocative image in
modern Chinese history.

"We really acknowledge him. We really think he was brave," Liu told
me. But, of that generation, he said, "They fought for China, to make
the country better. And there were some faults of the government.
But, finally, we must admit that the Chinese government had to use
any way it could to put down that event."

Sitting in the cool quiet of a California night, sipping his coffee,
Liu said that he is not willing to risk all that his generation
enjoys at home in order to hasten the liberties he has come to know
in America. "Do you live on democracy?" he asked me. "You eat bread,
you drink coffee. All of these are not brought by democracy. Indian
guys have democracy, and some African countries have democracy, but
they can't feed their own people.

"Chinese people have begun to think, One part is the good life,
another part is democracy," Liu went on. "If democracy can really
give you the good life, that's good. But, without democracy, if we
can still have the good life why should we choose democracy?"

When the Olympic torch returned to China, in May, for the final
journey to Beijing, the Chinese seemed determined to make up for its
woes abroad. Crowds overflowed along the torch's route. One
afternoon, Tang and I set off to watch the torch traverse a suburb of Shanghai.

At the time, the country was still in a state of shock following the
May 12th earthquake in the mountains of Sichuan Province, which
killed more than sixty-nine thousand people and left millions
homeless. It was the worst disaster in three decades, but it also
produced a rare moment of national unity. Donations poured in,
revealing the positive side of the patriotism that had erupted weeks earlier.

The initial rhetoric of that nationalist outcry contained a spirit of
violence that anyone old enough to remember the Red Guards—or the
rise of skinheads in Europe—could not casually dismiss. And that
spirit had materialized, in ugly episodes: when the Olympic torch
reached South Korea, Chinese and rival protesters fought in the
streets. The Korean government said it would deport Chinese
agitators, though a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman stood by the
demonstrators' original intent to "safeguard the dignity of the
torch." Chinese students overseas emerged as some of the most vocal
patriots. According to the Times, at the University of Southern
California they marshalled statistics and photographs to challenge a
visiting Tibetan monk during a lecture. Then someone threw a plastic
water bottle in the monk's direction, and campus security removed the
man who tossed it. At Cornell, an anthropology professor who arranged
for the screening of a film on Tibet informed the crowd that, on a
Web forum for Chinese students, she was "told to 'go die.' -- At Duke
University, Grace Wang, a Chinese freshman, tried to mediate between
pro-Tibet and pro-China protesters on campus. But online she was
branded a "race traitor." People ferreted out her mother's address,
in the seaside city of Qingdao, and vandalized their home. Her
mother, an accountant, remains in hiding. Of her mother, Grace Wang
said, "I really don't know where she is, and I think it's better for
me not to know."

Now in summer school at Duke, Grace Wang does not regret speaking up,
but she says that she misjudged how others her age, online but
frustrated in China, would resent her. "When people can't express
themselves in real life, what can they do? They definitely have to
express their anger toward someone. I'm far away. They don't know me,
so they don't feel sorry about it. They say whatever they want." She
doesn't know when she'll return home (she becomes uneasy when she is
recognized in Chinese restaurants near campus), but she takes comfort
in the fact that history is filled with names once vilified, later
rehabilitated. "This is just like what happened in the Cultural
Revolution," she said. "Think about how Deng Xiaoping was treated at
that time, and then, in just ten years, things had changed completely."

In the end, nothing came of the threats to foreign journalists. No
blood was shed. After the chaos around the torch in Paris, the
Chinese efforts to boycott Carrefour fizzled. China's leaders,
awakening to their deteriorating image abroad, ultimately reined in
the students with a call for only "rational patriotism."

"We do not want any violence," Tang told me. He and his peers had
merely been desperate for someone to hear them. They felt no
connection to Tiananmen Square, but, in sending their voices out onto
the Web, they, too, had spoken for their moment in time. Their fury,
Li Datong, the newspaper editor, told me, arose from "the accumulated
desire for expression -- just like when a flood suddenly races into a
breach." Because a flood moves in whatever direction it chooses, the
young conservatives are, to China's ruling class, an unnerving new
force. They "are acutely aware that their country, whose resurgence
they feel and admire, has no principle to guide it," Harvey Mansfield
wrote in an e-mail to me, after his visit. "Some of them see . . .
that liberalism in the West has lost its belief in itself, and they
turn to Leo Strauss for conservatism that is based on principle, on
'natural right.' This conservatism is distinct from a status-quo
conservatism, because they are not satisfied with a country that has
only a status quo and not a principle."

In the weeks after Tang's video went viral, he made a series of
others, about youth, the earthquake, China's leaders. None of his
follow-ups generated more than a flicker of the attention of the
original. The Web had moved on -- to newer nationalist films and
other distractions.

As Tang and I approached the torch-relay route, he said, "Look at the
people. Everyone thinks this is their own Olympics."

Venders were selling T-shirts, big Chinese flags, headbands, and
mini-flags. Tang told me to wait until the torch passed, because
hawkers would then cut prices by up to fifty per cent. He was
carrying a plastic bag and fished around in it for a bright-red scarf
of the kind that Chinese children wear to signal membership in the
Young Pioneers, a kind of Socialist Boy Scouts. He tied it around his
neck and grinned. He offered one to a passing teen-ager, who politely declined.

The air was stagnant and thick beneath a canopy of haze, but the mood
was exuberant. Time was ticking down to the torch's arrival, and the
town was coming out for a look: a man in a dark suit, sweating and
smoothing his hair; a construction worker in an orange helmet and
farmer's galoshes; a bellboy in a vaguely nautical getup.

Some younger spectators were wearing T-shirts inspired by China's
recent troubles: "Love China, Oppose Divisions, Oppose Tibetan
Independence," read a popular one. All around us, people strained for
a better perch. A woman hung off a lamppost. A young man in a red
headband climbed a tree.

The crowd's enthusiasm seemed to brighten Tang's view of things,
reminding him that China's future belongs to him and to those around
him. "When I stand here, I can feel, deeply, the common emotion of
Chinese youth," he said. "We are self-confident."

Police blocked the road. A frisson swept through the crowd. People
surged toward the curb, straining to see over one another's heads.
But Tang hung back. He is a patient man.
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