Olympic Torch Protests Inflame Chinese, Consolidate Power Internally

Jeremy Thal Apr 24, 2008

Most Western observers of the pro-Tibetan protests leading up to the Beijing Olympics, which begin August 8, have concluded that the Chinese are in the midst of a huge public relations failure. But considering that these protests have spurred massive pro-China demonstrations in China and Chinese communities abroad, they may end up playing right into the hands of the Chinese conservative elites and their cohorts in the international business community. The primary goal of the Chinese leadership is to stay in political and economic control within China, and like the United States, they can afford a certain moral antagonism from the international press.

“Nationalism with Chinese Characteristics”

What the Chinese government fears more than rebukes from outside its borders are rumblings from within. As China’s state socialism makes its transition to autocratic capitalism (euphemistically dubbed “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”), Tibetans are not the only discontents. The dismantling of state owned enterprises, the seizure of peasants’ land for factories and urban expansion, the internal migration of hundreds of millions (think the Okies times 100), and persistent pollution of air and water has led to nearly 100,000 mass protests in China per year. Chinese nationalism, like the American version, is designed to distract folks from these troubles at home, and get them to band together against a common foe (the Japanese, the Western Media, the Dalai Lama).

I was reminded of the fervent nature of Chinese nationalism looking at the cover article of the New York Times on Thursday, which featured a picture of incensed pro-China protesters in North Carolina closing in on 20-year-old Duke Freshman Grace Wang. Wang’s attempts to mediate between the pro-China and Tibetan rights protestors elicited a sort of online pogrom:

… a photo appeared on an Internet forum for Chinese students with a photo of Ms. Wang and the words “traitor to your country” emblazoned in Chinese across her forehead. Ms. Wang’s Chinese name, identification number and contact information were posted, along with directions to her parents’ apartment in Qingdao, a Chinese port city.One person wrote in an e-mail message to Ms. Wang, “If you return to China, your dead corpse will be chopped into 10,000 pieces.”

Why such a violent response? Isn’t this a time for the Chinese to reflect on their violent repression of Tibetan protesters and come to the view in the international press of the Dalai Lama as a benevolent, Yoda-like figure?

One China, One Family! (One Party)

It would seem the opposite is true. In Chinese media coverage of the violence in Tibet, the rabblerousing Tibetans are portrayed as terrorists à la Al Qaeda (suicide bombings are just around the corner!) and the Dalai Lama their Osama bin Darth Vader. Anti-western protests have sprung up all over China and in Chinese communities abroad, clamoring the slogan “One China, One Family!” For those looking for further parallels with the 1936 Olympics in Berlin may recall the Nazi’s slogan of the day: “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer.” (The Chinese should get credit, however, for promoting a multi-ethnic national identity.)

But branding the Chinese as fascists ignores the U.S. nationalist administration, its open use of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the U.S. legacy of expansionist wars in the Americas and the Pacific, and U.S. corporations’ complicity in labor abuses in China. The real competition here is who the bigger bully is, and what country’s media spouts the bigger load of crap. The first contest, I believe, still goes to the Americans (let’s not forget the illegal war in Iraq) and for the latter, I would give the gold to the Chinese, who haven’t mastered all the subtleties of “spin.” (For example: “… the Dalai Lama has been spreading various kinds of lies in order to disguise the real purpose of seeking “Tibet independence” and restoring the feudal serf system…”) []

Making China Safe — for U.S. Corporations

While coordination between the Chinese left and the US left has been minimal, the Chinese capitalist-right maintains close political and business connections with transnational corporations, who hold considerable sway over the Chinese political system. For example, when moderate elements of the Chinese Communist Party began to develop the more humane labor laws passed in 2008, the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, the U.S.-China Business Council, and the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China — representing Wal-Mart, Google, Nike, and 1000s of other corporations — threatened a major pullout of China if the laws were to be enacted. Foreign corporations still enjoy a privileged status in China, paying about one-third the taxes as private Chinese and state-owned enterprises. (See Dale Wen article:

Note that in American condemnations of the Chinese there is never mention of economic sanctions. For their part, the Chinese government mouthpieces have reciprocated by coming to the defense of the French retailer Carrefour, which pro-China activists claimed to have given aid to the Dalai Lama, and is facing calls for a boycott (See the article “Experts say patriotism understandable, but urge people to be rational” “We had better not turn extreme,” said one professor, referring to the boycott. There is an odd reasoning at work here: the military’s killing of somewhere between 10 and 140 Tibetan protesters is not viewed as extreme, but boycott is. Evidently, for both sides, US-China business relations are sacrosanct.

Let A Thousand Protests Bloom

Unfortunately resistance within China to authoritarian rule is heavily fractured, even within the Tibetan community. While living in a Tibetan region of Yunnan Province in 2005-6, I noted many of the region’s community leaders were party members and despite a strong pride in their ethnic heritage, their politics never veered far from the official line. The Tibetans have no common language other than Mandarin, in which many Tibetans have limited fluency, and the long repressed Lhasa dialect of Tibetan, which many ethnically Tibetan Chinese do not speak or read, and broadcasts of which are limited and highly censored. Tibetans have little contact or collaboration with other restive groups, such as the Uyghurs in the Northwest or unemployed industrial workers in the Northeast. Further complicating matters, the targets of the Tibetans rioting in Lhasa were largely Chinese Hui Muslim shopkeepers, many of who have their own gripes with CCP policies. This is a situation somewhat analogous to black rioters in the US targeting Asian and Latino shopkeepers. The old ‘divide and conquer’ trick never gets old.

So what to do? I propose that the Chinese and U.S. left need to dialogue and coordinate efforts, while recognizing that our conceptions of what it means to be on the ‘left’ is very different in China and the US. (See article on Chinese Activist Wang Hui 10/15/06 NYT) In order to counteract both our nations’ nationalists, we should develop greater human-to-human (rather than purely ideological) solidarity by building a broad coalition that demands human rights, labor rights and respect for the environment in both countries.

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