Angry China: The recent glimpses of a snarling China should scare the country’s

The Economist

May 1st 2008
Copyright The Economist
CHINA is in a frightening mood. The sight of thousands of Chinese
people waving xenophobic fists suggests that a country on its way to
becoming a superpower may turn out to be a more dangerous force than
optimists had hoped. But it isn’t just foreigners who should be
worried by these scenes: the Chinese government, which has encouraged
this outburst of nationalism, should also be afraid.
For three decades, having shed communism in all but the name of its
ruling party, China’s government has justified its monopolistic hold
on power through economic advance. Many Chinese enjoy a prosperity
undreamt of by their forefathers. For them, though, it is no longer
enough to be reminded of the grim austerity of their parents’
childhoods. They need new aspirations.
The government’s solution is to promise them that China will be
restored to its rightful place at the centre of world affairs. Hence
the pride at winning the Olympics, and the fury at the embarrassing
protests during the torch relay. But the appeal to nationalism is a
double-edged sword: while it provides a useful outlet for domestic
discontents (see article), it could easily turn on the government
A million mutinies
The torch relay has galvanised protests about all manner of alleged
Chinese crimes: in Tibet, in China’s broader human-rights record, in
its cosy relations with repellent regimes. And these in turn have
drawn counter-protests from thousands of expatriate Chinese, from
Chinese within the country and on the internet.
Chinese rage has focused on the alleged “anti-China” bias of the
Western press, which is accused of ignoring violence by Tibetans in
the unrest in March. From this starting-point China’s defenders have
gone on to denounce the entire edifice of Western liberal democracy as
a sham. Using its tenets to criticise China is, they claim, sheer
hypocrisy. They cite further evidence of double standards: having
exported its dirtiest industries to China, the West wants the country
to curb its carbon emissions, potentially impeding its growth and
depriving newly well-off Chinese of their right to a motor car. And as
the presidential election campaign in America progresses, more
China-bashing can be expected, with protectionism disguised as noble
fury at “coddling dictators”.
China’s rage is out of all proportion to the alleged offences. It
reflects a fear that a resentful, threatened West is determined to
thwart China’s rise. The Olympics have become a symbol of China’s
right to the respect it is due. Protests, criticism and boycott
threats are seen as part of a broader refusal to accept and
accommodate China.
There is no doubt genuine fury in China at these offences; yet the
impression the response gives of a people united behind the government
is an illusion. China, like India, is a land of a million mutinies
now. Legions of farmers are angry that their land has been swallowed
up for building by greedy local officials. People everywhere are
aghast at the poisoning of China’s air, rivers and lakes in the race
for growth. Hardworking, honest citizens chafe at corrupt officials
who treat them with contempt and get rich quick. And the party still
makes an ass of the law and a mockery of justice.
Herein lies the danger for the government. Popular anger, once roused,
can easily switch targets. This weekend China will be commemorating an
event seen as pivotal in its long revolution—the protests on May 4th
1919 against the humiliation of China by the Versailles treaty (which
bequeathed German “concessions” in China to Japan). The Communist
Party had roots in that movement. Now, as then, protests at perceived
slights against China’s dignity could turn against a government
accused of not doing enough to safeguard it.
Remember the ides of May
Western businessmen and policymakers are pulled in opposite directions
by Chinese anger. As the sponsors of the Olympics have learned to
their cost, while consumer- and shareholder-activists in the West
demand they take a stand against perceived Chinese abuses, in China
itself firms’ partners and customers are all too ready to take
offence. Western policymakers also face a difficult balancing act.
They need to recognise that China has come a long way very quickly,
and offers its citizens new opportunities and even new freedoms,
though these are still far short of what would constitute democracy.
Yet that does not mean they should pander to China’s pride. Western
leaders have a duty to raise concerns about human rights, Tibet and
other “sensitive” subjects. They do not need to resign themselves to
ineffectiveness: up to a point, pressure works: China has been
modestly helpful over Myanmar, North Korea and Sudan. It has even
agreed to reopen talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives. This has
happened because of, not despite, criticism from abroad.
Pessimists fear that if China faces too much such pressure, hardliners
within the ruling elite will triumph over the “moderates” in charge
now. But even if they did, it is hard to see how they could end the
30-year-old process of opening up and turn China in on itself. This
unprecedented phenomenon, of the rapid integration into the world of
its most populous country, seems irreversible. There are things that
could be done to make it easier to manage—including reform of the
architecture of the global institutions that reflect a 60-year-old
world order. But the world and China have to learn to live with each
For China, that means learning to respect foreigners’ rights to engage
it even on its “internal affairs”. A more measured response to such
criticism is necessary not only to China’s great-power ambitions, but
also to its internal stability; for while the government may distract
Chinese people from their domestic discontents by breathing fire at
foreigners, such anger, once roused, can run out of control. In the
end, China’s leaders will have to deal with those frustrations
head-on, by tackling the pollution, the corruption and the
human-rights abuses that contribute to the country’s dangerous mood.
The Chinese people will demand it.

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