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A New Book Reveals Why China Is Unhappy

March 23, 2009

By AUSTIN RAMZY
TIME
March 20, 2009

After surpassing Germany to become the world's
third-largest economy behind the U.S. and Japan,
hosting a successful Olympic Games and conducting
its first space walk, you'd think China would be
happy. Even the devastating Sichuan earthquake in
May 2008 had positive aspects Chinese volunteered
en masse to help their stricken countrymen. (See
pictures of China's Sichuan quake: six months later.)

Yet China is not pleased. That, at least, is the
assertion of a new book written by a group of
Chinese authors who list their grievances with
how China is being treated in the world today.
Unhappy China, released this month, is a
follow-up to the 1996 work China Can Say No, a
nationalist bestseller that complained about the
influence of the West and the U.S. in particular
on China. Thirteen years later, the authors of
Unhappy China point to the protests along the
route of the Olympic flame, complaints about
pollution from China by Western nations that
consume far more resources per capita, and the
West's unwillingness to share key technology with
China as examples of continuing foreign disdain
for the Middle Kingdom. Song Qiang, who
contributed to both China Can Say No and Unhappy
China, writes in the latest work that China
should reduce the importance of Sino-French
relations because of French President Nicolas
Sarkozy's meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled
Tibetan spiritual leader that Beijing says is
promoting separatism in the restive Himalayan
region. (See pictures of China goes to Africa.)

The March 8 confrontation between an unarmed U.S.
Navy surveillance vessel and Chinese ships off
China's Hainan Island, the site of a major
People's Liberation Navy base, only reconfirmed
the authors' notion of foreign states bent on
encroaching upon China. "If Obama wants to talk
about world peace, not sending troops abroad and
so on, then what is the U.S. Navy doing in the
South China Sea?" says Wang Xiaodong, a
nationalist scholar who contributed several chapters to "Unhappy China."

Nationalism can be a powerful force in China.
Fueled by a century and a half of foreign
occupation and an education system that
emphasizes that era of national weakness,
patriotic sentiment can flash at times when
citizens feel that the nation's interests or
dignity have been violated, as when the protests
during the Olympic torch's global run spurred Chinese anger.

While nationalism can help unify the country to
respond to events like the Sichuan earthquake,
the fear is that if the sentiment flares
unchecked, it could push Beijing to take a belligerent, isolationist line.

Wang and Son also direct their ire at targets at
home. They assert that China suffers from
weaknesses in its political system and that
democracy should be the nation's ultimate goal.
But when they discuss democracy they are more
likely to highlight the failures of India and the
Philippines than to mention the top 20 nations on
the United Nations Development Programs human
development index, which are all democratic. In
that regard they are much like the Chinese
Communist Party, which says it is pursuing
democracy "with Chinese characteristics," but
argues that any moves to lessen its grip on power
would risk chaos. Yet the authors are quick to
distance themselves from the government. Wang
says that much of the speech making by Chinese
leaders is "empty" like that of Western
politicians, that Beijing is still inept at
wielding its growing clout abroad and that the
country's obsession with the Beijing Olympics
reflected a "weak nation's psychology." That
independent streak and willingness to break with
the Party is what makes nationalism such an
unwieldy force for China's rulers. Nationalist
sentiment can help unite China's citizenry around
a cause like opposition to Tibetan independence
during last year's protests and violence in
Lhasa. But it can also turn against leaders who
are seen as not pushing China's interests with sufficient force.

In talking with Wang and Song it's easy to get
the feeling that it's not so much China that's
unhappy and angry, but the authors themselves.
The brand of nationalism they preach is still a
potent force, but they seem more upset about
rivalries at home than abroad. Wang cautions that
the book's title is a bit of a ruse. "To be
frank, those words in the title "Unhappy China"
are just for the purpose of promoting the book in
the marketplace," he says. "We didn't choose
them. It was the people selling the book who
chose the title, because it would sell well." If
they could chose a title, Wang says it would have
been "China's Goals for the Next 30 Years" or
something similar. But who would want to read that?

-- With reporting by Jessie Jiang
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