Monday, April 21, 2008

China's new nationalists

Boston Globe, United States - April 21, 2008

As the Summer Olympics approach, some disturbing aspects of contemporary China are coming into view. A worldwide audience has learned what human rights activists have long known about Beijing's complicity with dictatorships in Sudan and Burma. The Chinese communists' harsh repression in Tibet sparked protests along the route of the Olympic torch relay and on college campuses. And as China spreads blatant lies that the Dalai Lama is inciting violence in Tibet, the government's campaign to keep the Olympics free from politics looks like an excuse for imposing on the rest of the world the sort of censorship that prevails inside China.

But there has also been a less obvious revelation: an increasingly zealous nationalism among Chinese youth. This mood of patriotic passion can be seen in counter-demonstrations organized by Chinese student associations in the United States against supporters of a free Tibet. It is no less striking in Internet imprecations fired off not only against Tibetan "splittists" but also against the rare Chinese student who dares to call for mutual understanding between Chinese and Tibetans.

This kind of witch-hunting occurred at Duke University last week, when a 20-year-old freshman from mainland China tried to encourage dialogue between a large group of Chinese student demonstrators and a smaller group of Tibetans and their supporters holding a vigil for human rights. She was vilified as a traitor. Her personal information was released into cyberspace. Hundreds of thousands of angry and threatening posts appeared on Chinese websites. Her parents back in China were threatened and had to go into hiding for their own safety.

It is not easy to determine how much of this nationalistic frenzy may have been fostered and organized by Chinese communist officials and how much is attributable to the sort of high-spirited group pride common to the youth of other nations. The Beijing authorities eased up on their restriction of online forums as they observed the patriotic tenor of reactions to foreign criticism.

There is a crucial distinction between a healthy, constructive nationalism and the pathological variety that Adolf Hitler sought to inject into the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Nevertheless, the nationalistic vehemence that has come into view this spring among China's best and brightest is a troubling phenomenon. It suggests that nationalism has replaced Maoism or Marxism as the legitimating credo of China rulers - and that the critical spirit defining the Tiananmen protests of 1989 has given way in some quarters to an emotional identification with the ancient idols of blood and soil.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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