Concern grows about Chinese nationalism

Confrontation with Japan raises questions of role within, outside country

April 22, 2005|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - After consecutive weekends of sometimes violent street protests against Japan by tens of thousands of young people, one of the Communist Party's leading nationalist commentators, Lin Zhibo, offered comments intended to reassure Japan and the West.

"I see that a lot of foreign friends are pretty worried about this nationalism, but they should not be worried," Lin said in an interview this week. "This will not get dangerous. I believe in controlled, reasonable and open-minded nationalism."

But it's not just foreign friends who seem worried. Chinese officials and the propaganda apparatus behind Lin have sought to temper an increasingly virulent nationalism that the government appeared to have nurtured for its political advantage.

The calls for calm come as China's confrontation with Japan raises concerns inside and outside China about what kind of role this nationalism will play in international disputes.

"It is worrisome," said Jim Mann, author of About Face, a study of U.S.-Chinese diplomacy. "Because it tells you that when China has a specific policy objective - or a diplomatic objection to something - that it will respond not either through diplomatic means or [with] reason, but by either stoking up demonstrations and popular sentiment or at the very least permitting them to take place."

Anger at Japan

China and Japan may be at the nadir of their relations since they re-established diplomatic ties in 1972. Anger is mounting in China over Japanese history textbooks that gloss over crimes against the Chinese people, apparent Japanese support of U.S. policy on Taiwan, decades-old territorial disputes and Japan's ambitions for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

In the past week, top Chinese officials have insisted that Japan apologize more sincerely for war crimes from more than 60 years ago. Japanese leaders have in turn called on China to apologize for allowing anti-Japanese protests to devolve into occasional rioting and vandalism, including smashing windows at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai.

Neither side has shown contrition. The leaders of both countries, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Chinese President Hu Jintao, may meet face to face at a conference they will both be attending in Indonesia this weekend.

Attempts at tempering

In recent days Chinese authorities have sought to temper the severity of nationalist displays, preventing students from protesting in Beijing and some other cities last weekend. On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing urged the public not to participate in unapproved protests.

But for the most part, the activism seems only to have underscored Chinese leaders' confrontational rhetoric toward Japan.

Whether the leadership in Beijing is merely taking advantage of nationalist sentiment or is calibrating its rhetoric in response to the emotional protests, these developments are reflections of a nationalism that could influence China's foreign policy in years to come.

The government has nurtured that nationalism as a safety valve since the 1989 crackdown on democracy protests at Tiananmen Square. It has fostered patriotism in schools and in propaganda that emphasizes China's history of victimization at the hands of not only Japan, but also Western nations in the past 200 years.

Now that patriotism may be serving an international agenda.

"The Chinese government will use [nationalism] domestically for its own legitimacy, but this time, as you see, they can selectively leverage it for its own use in international issues," said Xiao Qiang, director of the Berkeley China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

Xiao and others inside and outside China wonder just how controllable those levers are. The recent protests initially evolved from an online petition drive last month that garnered millions of signatures into organized student demonstrations and calls to boycott Japanese products and businesses, steps clearly tolerated by the government.

Beyond that point, many believe that some of the protests may have spiraled beyond the government's control.

An estimated 20,000-person violent protest in Shanghai formed Saturday after authorities had made concerted efforts to limit unrest nationally by posting warnings on Internet sites and bulletin boards - the prime organizing tools of what is a predominantly youthful movement - and keeping students and nationalist leaders at home.

It's not clear whether authorities perhaps quietly tolerated the large protest in Shanghai, a city considered to have particularly tight political and media controls. But Xiao and others believe that "leaderless" organizing, by cell phone messaging and e-mail, generated a larger protest than officials anticipated, he said.

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