Sunday, March 30, 2008

Tibet and Chinese Nationalism

Beijing has chosen to stoke the fires of Chinese nationalism. The reaction was easy to detect in the Chinese blogosphere (see here). The Communist Party's propaganda initiative is described in an IHT article by Jim Yardley. Yardley expounds on the largest wave of nationalistic sentiment to hit China since the anti-Japanese protests of 2005. Yardley writes:

Playing to national pride, and national insecurities, the party has used censorship and propaganda to position itself as defender of the motherland - and block any examination of Tibetan grievances or its own performance in the crisis.

But the heavy emphasis on nationalism is not without risks. With less than five months before the opening of the Olympic Games, China's sharp criticism of the foreign press comes precisely when it wants to present a welcoming impression to the outside world. Instead, Chinese citizens, including many overseas, are posting thousands of angry messages on Web sites and making crank calls to some foreign media offices in Beijing.

The Chinese state media have also inundated the public with so many reports from Lhasa about the suffering of Han Chinese merchants and the brutal deaths of Chinese victims - with no coverage of Tibetan grievances - that critics have accused the government of "fanning racial hatred." Past nationalist upsurges have focused on outsiders, especially the Japanese, but Tibet is part of China, so the effect is to sharpen domestic ethnic tensions. . . .

Last week, a group of prominent Chinese intellectuals offered a rare contrarian voice by issuing a petition that called on the government to allow Tibetans to express their grievances and to respect freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

Liu, who helped draft the petition, said the government's attacks on the Dalai Lama and its censorship of state media coverage are the same strategy it used during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, when it jailed pro-democracy leaders as "black hands" and did not televise footage of soldiers firing on students.

"You can see the propaganda machine operating in full gear," Liu said. "That shows the true nature of the government. It hasn't changed at all."

Scholars often describe nationalism as the state religion in China now that the Communist Party has shrugged off socialist ideology and made economic development the country's priority. Dibyesh Anand, a Tibet specialist, said modern Chinese nationalism can be traced to Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary who described the country's main ethnic groups - the Han, Manchu, Hui, Mongolian and Tibetan peoples - as the "five fingers" of China.

Today, Han Chinese constitute more than 92 percent of the population, but without one of those five fingers, China's leaders do not consider the country whole.

"The Communist Party has used nationalism as an ideology to keep China together," said Anand, a reader in international relations at Westminster University in London. He said many Chinese regard the Tibetan protests "as an attack on their core identity."

"It's not only an attack on the state, but an attack on what it means to be Chinese," he said. "Even if minorities don't feel like part of China, they are part of China's nationality."

This logic helps explain why Chinese nationalist sentiment has been inflamed by perceived Western sympathy for the Tibetan protests - an anger that has mostly focused on the foreign media.

Commentators in Chinese state media have said foreign news reporting has been more sympathetic to Tibetans in Lhasa than to the Chinese who lost their lives and property in the riots. Meanwhile, Chinese from around the world were infuriated when several Western news organizations mislabeled photographs of the police beating pro-Tibet protesters in Nepal as being from China.

Last week, Qin Gang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, jousted with foreign reporters about their coverage, describing the Tibet coverage as a "textbook of bad examples" even as the government refused to allow journalists free access to Tibet or other restive regions in western China to investigate the crackdown.

There are signs that the government does not want to push nationalist anger too far. On Friday, in a shift, China Daily, the official English-language newspaper, ran a front-page story under the headline, "Tibetans also among riot victims."

Most Chinese people know little about Tibet's different interpretation of its history and regard Tibetans as having been granted special subsidies and benefits from the government to lift their economy. For many Chinese, the protests come across as ingratitude after years in which China has built roads, a high-altitude railroad and other infrastructure for Tibet.

The whole article -- one of the best I have read since this crisis broke -- is well worth reading. As I have blogged, the reaction on the part of Chinese bloggers to selected images in the Western media concerning Tibet ought to be seen within the context of the Party's overall propaganda initiative. The appeal to Chinese nationalism may account for its power.

1 comment:

  1. Wall Street Journal published something on this topic today. Through your postings your position has been that Chinese (even those overseas) are brainwashed by Chinese state controlled media. It's likely that you have been underestimating the capacity of Chinese netizens.

    Excerpt: "But as Chinese outrage explodes on the Web and among Chinese abroad, it's clear that Chinese nationalism is not just coming from the top down. It's not hard to find a Chinese person who expresses a "nationalist" view -- that Tibet is part of China, or that the Western media is biased -- but is also a vehement critic of the Communist Party."

    "These nationalist outbursts may have been influenced by years of propaganda, but they are not always dictated from the top. In fact, the widespread popularity of the Internet is allowing the people to influence the state media. A Chinese journalist who worked for CCTV, a major state media outlet, explained to me how this works. The journalist, who requested that he not be named, described his own experience covering Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council. An Internet petition opposing the bid reportedly obtained over 40 million signatures."


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