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China: Is the West afraid of our patriotism?

Are there factors informing your perception of China circa 2008? Novelist-blogger and researcher of worldly affairs Yang Hengjun moves on from ‘How did America cover up the truth of the bombing of our embassy in Yugoslavia?’ to his post last week, ‘Are Western countries afraid of the Chinese people's patriotic fervor?’


Having brought this up, there's something else from the past I'd like to bring up. Just thinking back to it, though, leaves me a little depressed. In 1997, with the Taiwan Strait Crisis looming, the situation was tense all around the Taiwan Strait. At the time we were in Washington doing a seminar on Japan and The Taiwan Question, and the keynote speaker at that seminar was a gentleman from the Japan Defense Agency who oversaw intelligence exchange between the US and Japan. As this Japanese intelligence official spoke about each surrounding country's views on the situation at hand, he used very ordered wording. Arriving at the subject of the possibility of America's involvement, his ordering went like this: how the White House views dangerous situations, how Congress makes decisions (dispatching of troops needs to be approved by Congress), and how Americans’ popular sentiment will evolve (because American vox populi in the end determines how the president is to get involved in the Taiwan Strait Crisis, and to what extent); He said that across the board the response in Japan was this: What will the Japanese Prime Minister do, what will the ruling party and the Diet do, will right-wing forces lift their heads up, and how will trends in Japanese public opinion affect the outcome, affect to what degree; As he then spoke on Taiwan, the arrangement was similar: president Lee Teng-hui's intent, the military's anxieties, and how the attitude of Taiwan's population of 20 million would determine Taiwan's policy……



Then in the end he said mainland China goes like this: the Chinese government's views (which he even broke down into the moderate clique and the hard-line clique), some of the Chinese military's views, then Chinese local government (attitudes of the mini-bosses)—and then his talk ended there.

In response to the possibility that the Taiwan Strait Crisis could begin to deteriorate, this Japanese intelligence official brought up the likely stances held and steps to be taken by each country involved, basing them on publicly available information and Japanese intelligence agency assessments, so it was rather convincing. But, just as he finished his report, a former American military attache stationed at the embassy in Beijing brought up a question: in your report you discuss the stances held by various countries and powers, mentioning the interaction between government and people, very thoroughly. But, I've noticed one thing, that when you brought up the various responses in China and their possible impact on a final outcome, the only thing you didn't mention are the Chinese people and public opinion in China. So what, are the opinions of 1.2 billion people unimportant?




The incident is long past now, and I've brought it up on several occasions the effect this example has had on me. Yet, I'm reminded of it today, so I made note of it first. Is it possible that China is different now? If only it were so. But on that day, that Japanese intelligence official's defence of his paper went like this: popular opinion in China is probably consistent with the official stance, or at least it is controlled. People are unable to express their own [opinions], but even if they were, it wouldn't influence the government's decision. Moreover, at a time when there are no independent channels through which to obtain data on popular opinion in China, I feel I cannot include it in my argument, that to do so is inappropriate.

The public sentiment of 1.2 billion people actually cannot be predicted, and being under control, it is unreliable. As one of those 1.2 billion people, you can easily imagine how I feel.

Since 1997, the internet has quickly risen, and become the primary tool with which the West is able to understand popular opinion in mainland China. That said, if one considers the academic's perspective, this data is still problematic, mainly the question ‘are mainland public opinion responses given on the internet accurate? Aren't they controlled or getting deleted?’


Yang spends the next several paragraphs shifting the topic onto the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, considering the truth of the matter, the anger in China regardless of one, and proceeds with the assumption that the bombing might have been mistaken, as claimed at the time:




Following the “mistaken bombing” of the embassy, the scale of China's response went beyond expectations and China-US relations immediately hit rock-bottom, to an extent even worse than during the Taiwan Strait Crisis. The biggest outcome of the “mistaken bombing” of the embassy was that patriotic fervor within the Chinese public blasted out, and this fervor was so intense that one was no longer able to tell if it was patriotism or if it was nationalism. The Japanese intelligence official from two years prior by that time had already returned to his job at the Japanese intelligence agency; I think this must have taken him aback, and I wonder if he said, ‘WOW, the voice of the Chinese people has finally come out!’.

Voice coming out is fine and well, but the real problem is: of these voices, how many of them will end up in his research reports? I mean, how else could he be assessing the Chinese public's patriotic fervor in his reports now? Will he be warning Japan not to lower its guard with the American government? Intelligence analysis of research into neighboring countries’ issues of course will not miss patriotism and nationalism such on this scale, but is China's super-blend of patriotism and nationalism a key foundation of the government's approach to foreign relations? Or was it just a sort of tactical strategy controlled by the government to demonstrate for others its own internal policy? I believe that this was the thing that American and Japanese intelligence agencies paid the most attention to.

This is also the main point I want to make today, even if the embassy bombing departs from that. People would do well to consider a few questions: Chinese civil unrest that appears to be patriotic fervor and the nationalism that occasionally pops out from that, does this have any impact on our country's foreign policy? Does this affect China's relationship with the world, particularly with Japan and the West? Does this affect our international trade? Does it affect China's economic growth, or China's place in the world? And consider also, following every patriotic fervor episode, what changes has it brought to China?


这就是每一次看到爱国又起的时候,我最担心的,会不会把国际关系全部搞坏了?会不会破坏我们的经济发展了?会不会,说到这里我是很欣赏“韬光养晦”的策略的 ——你还别说,经过这一段时间的观察和调查,我得出了也许让很多反对冲动爱国的人士不那么喜欢听的结论:中国民众无论是反日抵制日货,还是到抗议美国轰炸大使馆,再到把爱国大游行搞到国外去,保护圣火等等,所有的这些激情大爱国,都没有影响中国政府和外国政府正常交往,没有影响多边经贸关系。

Speaking for myself, this is of the utmost importance. Because I love the country, and fervently so. But regardless of how passionately patriotic I am, my goal is to see China be able to continue its economic development, social stability, and continuous political reforms so as to keep up with the times. But this is also what makes me worry about certain patriotic fervor or nationalism, the feeling that anyone regardless of how high-key or low-key your patriotism is, or whether you call yourself a patriot or a nationalist, that if your patriotism is unable to raise people's standards of living, or guarantee human rights, stable lives, and political transparency for the Chinese people, if your patriotism is incompatible with growing daily acceptance for humanitarian universal values, then your love for your country is actually wrong for this country, and with patriotism like this you're nothing more than betraying the nation. Loving your country also means loving its people.

This is what worries me every time I see patriotism rising up again, wondering if it will completely ruin international relations. Will it ruin our economic growth? Having said that, I really admire the ‘play dumb, keep quiet and bide your time’ policy. Wait now–after some time observing and investigating, I've arrived at a conclusion that many people who oppose impulsive patriotism might not like: The Chinese people, whether in protesting against Japan, boycotting Japanese goods, or even protesting America's embassy bombing, then from there taking the big patriotic protests to other countries, protecting the sacred torch and what have you, none of this super patriotic fervor had any impact on the Chinese government's usual interactions with foreign governments or on multilateral trade relations.



In this one sense, I couldn't be more admiring of the central government's clearheadedness. Obviously, they are more ‘rational’ than the patriotic masses, so you can go smashing up embassies if you want, but China-American relations, especially with those Americans doing business here, have gone on as normal. You can take to the street and shout twice that that you boycott Japanese goods or go and smash up two Japanese cars, but under the government's guidance, for every Japanese car that gets smashed, a hundred million more will take its place; you can say you boycott French goods, but if you really go to Carrefour's front door and agitate, the police will just wait for you to finish; you can curse out the US every which way, but China-America trade goes on around the clock and only keeps growing…..the most important of this is, nearly all patriotic fervor stops in its tracks with just one word: when those students overseas got so patriotic with their patriotism that they almost lost it, the central government spoke out: minding your own business, that's what being patriotic is. Then when calls for a boycott of Japanese goods wouldn't stop, the leaders said, remember history, forget hatred; and when those fenqing wanted to eat CNN up, they noticed that during the earthquake relief effort, CNN was the biggest media allowed by the central government to enter the disaster zone! Then when some people including that Yu Qiuyu started hollering about overseas anti-China forces, the government didn't say a word, in fact just kept cozy with some foreign governments…..

Start acting up once, and Westerners get nervous; twice, and western governments calm down a bit, waiting for you to get over agitating about some western country or another, and get over your personal patriotism, and in the end westerners just laugh. What are they laughing at? They're laughing at our strange sort of patriotism, which for all appearances is completely void of patriotism, so ‘let them agitate,’ they think, ‘their government won't do anything about it, they'll keep on doing business with us, keep on dealing with us, and everything will be just as it was. Then we saw that when Chinese exchange students in major western countries started waving the five-star red flag and declaring their love for China, people just watched with indifference, and western mainstream media didn't even bother reporting it, pretending like you weren't even there. Because those people know, no matter how agitated you get, you won't dare trying to stop doing business with them, or threaten to slam the door and lock yourselves away, and of course those overseas students wouldn't dare start packing up their suitcases and return home. So what else is there for people to be worried about, afraid of?



Now let us tackle some deeper issues. Since the Chinese public's patriotic fervor not only has no impact on the Chinese government's foreign policy, but also makes foreigners indifferent, people not only aren't afraid of it, but actually think it's kind of fun. So, why is it that this kind of patriotic fervor ends up looking like some sort of muscle spasm, over in a minute with another following shortly, and why, when they do come, does it always feel like someone's stirring up the flames? Does it truly serve any purpose whatsoever? Just what is the goal?

If you don't boycott foreign goods, you won't reduce trade interaction, you won't even reduce international engagement, and what's more is that our patriotism it seems has rarely been able to successfully force western governments to yield to ours, instead most of the time it just leads to western governments raking us over the coals. So what exactly is the purpose of this kind of nationalism?





You can see that China's nationalism and patriotism as well as its intense anti-western movement weren't able to stop the Chinese government from proceeding to engage with western countries, and especially had no impact on China's trade, scientific and social exchanges of every kind with the west, and the only impact it did have is Chinese people's understanding of the west, of their understanding that human rights, democracy and freedom are key values in the west!

Now, let me go back to this post's assumption and my deduction from it, that America mistakenly bombed [our] embassy, and out of that came an intense anti-American patriotic incident. The Chinese people were enraged, and went to protest and went to demonstrate and went to rally, and smash up the American embassy, and right when people were so worked up that they couldn't hold themselves back from opposing America that the central government accepted America's terms for compensations, and once the mistaken bombing incident had been confirmed as such, the patriotic demonstrations ended quickly.

But, the “mistaken bombing” of the embassy incident went on to become a symbolic incident which is deeply affected the Chinese people. Just a few days ago I was chatting with one post-1980s kid that I'm really fond of, and when he began to talk of how his own thinking has changed, he said, ‘I used to agree with your point of view, but after the American bombing of my embassy in 1999, I quickly woke up and changed my views towards America, and towards China.’





I was truly shocked: ‘you're not actually saying that the embassy bombing incident was actually able to alter your values, are you? That's truly amazing!! And if the bombing really was an accident? Surely you're not saying you didn't notice any problems, so just what exactly was it that changed your values? Was it the embassy bombing incident that woke you up? Or was it those patriotic demonstrations that came after the embassy bombing incident that in fact messed you up?!

Someone said, ‘you've been going on about this forever, you might as well stick to the bombing having been “mistaken”. But what if it wasn't? Okay, well then just let me tell you, if our assumption is correct, and it was a mistaken bombing, then how do you explain that despite all odds how it was that this mistaken bombing was actually able to change an entire generation's views (and its values) regarding America? Use your brain to think about this one.

And now let me tell you: I don't believe that the bombing of the embassy was a mistaken. “Mistaken bombing” is only the assumption made in this post. But, even if it wasn't a mistaken bombing, because of that incident, I too have in fact seen some of my views of the world and of myself change, and have also begun to form a sense of incomparable shock at one generation's view of the world.

Moreover, when you and I begin to recognize together that that explosion was not “mistaken”, but before your view of the world changes, you'd be best off to do as I do and ask this kind of question: ‘Why would NATO, as headed by America, have the audacity to blow up one of our embassies?’


  • Kai

    The suspense. It is killing me.

  • Ben

    Excitable crowd is a perfect bargining chip for a manipulative government to achieve its ultimate goal of self-preservation. Until individuals in such crowds are capable of thinking for themselves, be afraid. Be very afraid.

  • Sonagi

    Yang Hengjun asks a relevant question which I don’t believe any Chinese officials or members of the media ever attempted to answer publicly.

    Shortly afer the bombing, I read in a US public media source speculation that the bombing was intentional and the reason why the Chinese embassy was a target. Before I reveal the reason stated in this article, I’m curious to know what other commenters think. If you think the bombing was deliberate, then you must have some idea of the reason. In a US court of law, proving motive is crucial to proving homicide as opposed to lesser charges like manslaughter. For what possible reasons did the US target the Chinese embassy?

  • Uncommon sense

    If the Belgrade embassy bombing was intentional,
    why did’nt President Clinton proudly admitted it,
    but instead apologized and paid compensation for the damages to China?

  • chan

    They like to shoot whatever target they like without accuracy

  • Thanks for choosing this one John. Really interesting. Am I right in assuming that with his last question he’s prompting the answer something along the lines of, “Because (1) Americans can get away with it because China needs the international trade, and (2) no matter if the 人民 yell and scream their patriotic fervour in the streets, they won’t sway their gov’s foreign policies”? or something like that? Not being familiar with this guy’s general thought, and reading in translation, it’s hard to pick up on the real meanings.

  • chan

    yes, once again it proven they fail to ask themselves inwardly, lack of analyse properly, lack of careful consideration of different in position and culture and lack of ensuring of “accuracy” before an action. And “right in assuming that”, they just like to Assume that they are Right. Lack of accuracy in many apsects “Righteous, opinion, understanding, mutual respect , human right, freedom…….” Another good example, Iraq war…
    Somemore, “proundly admitted”, no sense of “repentance or self-shamefulness” in their serious mistake
    Many times in reality, does not mean that “saying sorry” or”compensation” mean forgiveness, forgotten and repentance……

  • chan

    I am not afraid of patriotism, I am reaLLY frightened by the west “guided” MISS-ILES…:-O SO “THEY LIKE TO SHOOT WHATEVER TARGET ANYHOW WITHOUT ENSURING ACCURRACY” ;-)

  • chan

    Don’t be afraid of Patriotism, but be extra caution and stop shooting “guided” miss-iles :-)

  • Kai

    Guys, no offense, but some of you are missing the point. The author is asking for some incisive, even introspective, thinking here. Some of you are just offering the same tired cliches (either anti-China or anti-US) that everyone usually drags out.

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