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Igniting Nationalist Fires

October 26, 2008

'China Pride' swelled in the run up to the Olympics Games, but the
Chinese government watches nervously as nationalist fires threaten to
burn out of control.
By PETER WINTER
US-China Today
USC U.S.-China Institute
October 24, 2008

The cheers were deafening.

Red and gold flags enveloped the Bird's Nest as Chinese sprinter Liu
Xiang lined up for the 110-meter hurdles. The poster boy of the
country's Olympic hopes, Liu had become more than a runner since his
success in Athens four years earlier "he was the athletic face of New
China, a strong and renewed nation ready to take its place on the
world stage. Painted from head to toe in their homeland's colors, his
fans watched with burning anticipation as the "Flying Man" prepared
for takeoff. The crack of the starting pistol."

The silence was heartbreaking.

Liu was injured, his hamstring unwilling to permit him to continue.
As he limped away from the line, the stadium grew quiet, fans looking
on as an Olympic dream died on the blocks.

One CCTV broadcaster wept as she delivered news of Liu's injury to
her countrymen. Sun Haiping, the runner's coach, sobbed
uncontrollably during a post-race press conference, his emotions
symbolic of national sentiment. The blow hit China
hard--a  tremendous blow to their Olympic success.

"Despite the fact that China won 51 gold medals at this year's
Olympic Games, [without] a gold medal from Liu Xiang, the picture is
definitely not perfect," said Xu Guoqi, author of Olympic Dreams:
China and Sports, 1895-2008. "[Liu] represents everything Chinese
want to convey to the world: confidence, a can-do spirit and
forward-looking. When Liu withdrew from the event, most Chinese were
devastated."

Even China's top leaders were quick to comment on the national
implications of Liu's race. Vice President Xi Jinping penned a letter
to China's General Sports Administration, expressing his condolences.

"We all understand that Liu quit the race due to injury," Xi wrote.
"We hope he will relax and focus on recovery. We hope that after he
recovers, he will continue to train hard and struggle harder for the
national glory."

The fervor surrounding Liu's run had become commonplace in the run up
to the August Games. As the country embraces its newfound status in
international society, a national pride has grown among the public.
With decades of economic prosperity, the country's rise has been
mesmerizing, astounding even the fiercest critics.

J. H. Santana Wulsin, an American expatriate now working in Beijing,
found the wave of "China Pride" captivating.

"In restaurants, subways and offices--everywhere--there were groups
of enthusiastic Chinese watching the Games, cheering wildly for the
good and sighing with resignation for the bad," he said. "The events
truly did consume every waking moment of the entire city."

Recent surveys conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project prior to
the Games found nearly that 96% of Chinese believed the Olympics
would be an overwhelming success, helping to strengthen China's image
around the world.

In the months prior to the Games, however, the enormity of that pride
unsettled some foreign onlookers, troubled by the prospect of fervent
nationalism driving China's policies toward other countries.

"The legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party is based on three
legs: economic growth, nationalism and social stability," Xu said.
"Unfortunately, these three legs are not completely compatible. To
stay in power, the Party has to be champions of nationalism. But the
rise of nationalism can be a double-edged sword which can hurt the
party as well if the rise of nationalism leads to social unrest or
negatively influences Sino-foreign relations."

Provoking nationalism for political support is nothing new.
Politicians, including Chinese ones, have long appealed to their
people's sense of self to garner support for policies. The extent,
however, to which China's nationalist furor erupted in recent months
has become the primary concern.

The reaction to riots in and near Tibet earlier this year provided a
glimpse into this dark side of nationalism. Chinese television
audiences did not see and were not told that the initial protests
were peaceful ones. Instead, they only saw images of Tibetans
violently clashing with security forces. When international leaders
and organizations condemned the conditions that provoked the initial
protests and urged the Chinese government to act with restraint, many
Chinese were outraged. They attacked news organizations as biased.
State-run news sources inundated the Internet with their side of the
Tibetan story. Xinhua hosted one website featuring videos,
commentary, pictures and articles on the ruthlessness of the Tibetan
movement, China's economic development of the region and biased
foreign media reports. Chinese netizens took to online discussion
boards, condemning foreign intervention in national affairs. The
song, "Don't be Too CNN" by Murong Xuan, became a popular hit by
lampooning CNN and other international media for what they saw as
false reports.

At Duke University, Chinese student Grace Wang stood between
pro-China and pro-Tibet protest groups and called for dialogue and
understanding. The next day, an image of Wang appeared on Chinese
student Internet forums with the words, "Traitor to your country,"
emblazoned in Chinese across her forehead. Wang's name, government
issued-identification number and contact information were included,
along with directions to her parents' apartment in Qingdao. One
netizen threatened,  "If you return to China, your dead corpse will
be chopped into ten thousand pieces."

Suisheng Zhao, director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at
the University of Denver, explained in a recent article that China's
hosting of the Olympics has brought a certain amount of unexpected
attention to the country.

"The 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing have brought not only the
celebration but also intense international scrutiny of China's
weaknesses," he said. "The scrutiny has focused on many of China's
domestic and external challenges, including pollution, human rights,
media freedoms, along with the issues of Tibet and Taiwan."

This oversight has fueled the Chinese nationalist response,
highlighted at each stop of the Olympic torch relay. Chinese students
studying in the United States mobilized to support their government
and the Olympics, turning out at the torch relay stop in San
Francisco and at an anti-CNN rally outside the network's Los Angeles offices.

Following massive protests in Paris, London, San Francisco and New
Delhi, outraged Chinese citizens took to the streets, angered by the
perceived foreign malevolence. After protesters in Paris assailed
Chinese Paralympic fencer Jin Jing during her leg of the torch relay,
a mob in Qingdao gathered outside the French-owned supermarket
Carrefour, burning French flags and calling for a boycott of foreign
goods. During the South Korean leg of the relay, thousands of Chinese
foreign students gathered on the streets of Seoul. Reports of several
clashes between the students and pro-Tibet elements soon followed.

Daniel Bell, professor of philosophy at Tsinghua University, explains
that the Chinese reaction has largely been a response to one-sided
Western attitudes.

"The international protests during the torch relay were partly, if
not mainly, the product of the dominant Western response to the Tibet
riots," Bell said. "The riots [in Tibet] targeted Chinese civilians
at random, and most Chinese were genuinely puzzled by the surge in
sympathy for the Tibetan cause and apparent lack of sympathy for the
Chinese victims [killed or injured during the rioting] in the West."

Bell notes that the Chinese public's understanding of the situation
in Tibet is perhaps deeper than many Western viewers believe.

"I think most educated Chinese are aware that there are repressive
policies in Tibet, and many Chinese students were upset at tightened
Internet controls after the riots, but they were still puzzled by the
dominant response in the West," he explained. "It should also be said
that Chinese students abroad are often more jingoistic than the ones
in China. In China, they are often critical of their own government,
but they become more defensive when faced with criticisms by
ill-informed outsiders."

The Beijing Games has also fueled extreme reactions from others in
the region, bringing out fringe groups to protest the country's host
status. In Nagano, Japan, ultra-nationalists crowded onto streets,
blasting messages of hate across loudspeakers. According to the Times
Online, Japan's nationalists have used the pretext of the Tibetan
crackdown to push their anti-China message. Reporter Leo Lewis
captured the scene:

"China is not qualified to hold a festival of peace because it is a
country that murdered Tibetans," one protestor shouted. "We must
establish a true national army to protect against China," another screamed.

The unpredictability of a nationalist public has aroused concern in
the Chinese government. Its immediate and potential long-term effect
on foreign relations clearly apparent, the Communist Party now
worries about its consequences at home.

"Although the Chinese government has relied on nationalism to bolster
support since communism disappeared as a unifying principle,
expressions of strong nationalist sentiment can also lead to protests
against the communist government," Zhao writes. "The increasing
assertiveness of popular nationalism has thus posed a daunting
challenge to a communist government clinging to its monopoly on power."

Still, the benefit of nationalism as a legitimizing force for the
Communist Party is not unappreciated.

"Despite its lip services to nationalism, the government so far has
been largely passive responding to events," Xu said of the CCP's
reaction to outbursts of nationalism. "External pull, not internal
push, explains the Chinese government's behavior pattern."

Xu, however, does not dismiss the importance of keeping nationalism
under check.

"Of course, the government has to also pay delicate attention to
domestic public opinion," he said. "After all, it is the Chinese
people who can take the mandate of heaven away from the Party."

Xu said that the government was effective, however, in suppressing
any overtly nationalist outpourings during the Games.

"Although Beijing hosted a quite impressive Games, it succeeded at
the cost of stealing fun away from regular citizens in the name of
security. There were no public and spontaneous [large-scale]
celebrations or rallies, which took place regularly in the past," Xu
said, highlighting the effect such events might have on foreign
opinion. "A possible reason for the government to discourage average
Chinese from public gathering is to prevent any possible impression
of the rise of Chinese nationalism to the rest of the world."

Bell is hopeful about China's continued development following the Olympics.

"My impression is that the games have been widely [regarded] as
successful in China," Bell said. "The relatively civil Olympics
should have improved U.S. perceptions. Predictions of jingoistic
nationalism during the Olympics proved to be wrong."

Bell concludes that while Beijing's need for a successful Olympic
Games did create somewhat artificial social and political controls,
he expects the broad trend towards openness in Chinese society to continue.

"In a way, the Western governments and human rights groups that
expected the Olympics, per se, to bring out openness had it
backwards," he said. "For the Chinese government, and I think there
was substantial popular support for this view, the overriding
priority was to secure a stable social and political environment
during the Olympics, but there will likely be more pressure for
opening up social and political debate after the Olympics."

* Peter Winter is a graduate student in Public Diplomacy at the USC
Annenberg School for Communication. He is deputy editor of US-China Today.

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