“America: Love it or leave it.”
“China: Love it or we’ll kill you.”
That pretty much sums up the difference between the jingoists in my country and the jingoists in my wife’s. Both our countrymen have a tendency to overreact to criticism of their home nations. But the Chinese have yet to develop a healthy respect for free speech, and so they go a bit further in their defense of the motherland.
Whereas, in America, an intelligent parsing of our insane foreign policy can often lead to a vapid chorus of “Support the Troops,” or the characterization of the parser as part of the “Blame America” crowd, the Chinese situation, in my experience, is a little different. Firstly, I have never heard a Chinese person say America’s war in Iraq was a good idea. Foreign invasion is uniformly derided for what it is: aggression. In China, the ultimate foreign policy directive, supported by the population, is: don’t mess with other countries’ business.
(Note: this does not apply internally. Certainly the Chinese are all for messing with Tibet’s business, and Xinjiang’s, and all the other minorities if they have to, all in the holy name of “progress.”)
The problem with the Chinese jingos is the fierceness and the immaturity of their arguments. Consider the case of Jin Jing, the paralyzed athlete who was accosted by free-Tibet ass clowns in France while carrying the Olympic torch. Naturally, the Chinese were pissed about this. I mean, the poor woman is in a wheelchair, she’s competing in the Olympics, proud of herself and her country, and these people come out on the street trying to take the torch from her – attacking her. That’s going to free Tibet? Do any Tibetans seriously think the Dalai Lama could support such aggression?
Jin Jing became a hero for her actions during the protest; she was hailed as the defender of both the Olympic torch and China’s honor. But when some Chinese tried to organize a boycott against Carrefour, the French Wal-Mart which is huge in China, they did not find an ally in Jin. She wisely pointed out the folly of the boycott: most of the pain would be felt by the ordinary Chinese who work there. For this, she was re-branded by the vast hordes of Chinese blog-trolls as a traitor. (For some of the translated comments, follow the link and scroll down to “The Chinese Traitor Jin Jing.”
Or take the recent visit of a Tibetan monk to the campus of USC to deliver a lecture. Many Chinese students asked questions when he was done – as they should! – but someone also shouted “Stop lying!” and a water bottle was thrown at the podium, forcing campus security to escort certain agitators from the crowd.
My feeling is that the lack of a historical precedent for tolerating the opinions of others is combined with a strong sense of national humility in relation to the outside world to create this dangerous mix. But Americans have an incorrect response as well: too many of us jump quickly to the brainwashed theory. A contributor to the New York Times explains:
The most obvious explanation for this is the education system, which can accurately be described as indoctrination. Textbooks dwell on China’s humiliations at the hands of foreign powers in the 19th century as if they took place yesterday, yet skim over the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s as if it were ancient history. Students learn the neat calculation that Chairman Mao’s tyranny was “30 percent wrong,” then the subject is declared closed. The uprising in Tibet in the late 1950s, and the invasion that quashed it, are discussed just long enough to lay blame on the “Dalai clique,” a pejorative reference to the circle of advisers around Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
All of which, to my limited knowledge, is true. When I used to ask my students what they were studying in history, they always brought up the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese invasion. All examples of China suffering at the hands of foreigners. But to write off these kids’ response to today’s environment as the effects of “indoctrination” is to ignore two things. First, the students themselves invariably found these lessons (and school in general) to be boring, repetitive, and stupid – they usually resist the propaganda (or at least yearn for something different, like English class with a foreign teacher). And second, a large part of the standard history curriculum in American schools is exactly the same. Just that instead of learning about how other nations have humiliated us, we Americans learn about how special we are compared to other countries, and how free and open our society is (and always has been, for the younger students).
In short, we Americans have a tendency to see our own situation as special and superior, and to pity the citizens of other nations for their relative ignorance. It’s true that we have the upper hand on China in terms of open debate and the toleration of opposing views, but it is several steps too far to assume that these young Chinese nationalists are angry because their government has whipped them up into a frenzy after years of brainwashing through the schools. We should instead show off our famous open-mindedness and consider the possibility that the majority of Chinese consider the solidarity of their homeland to be paramount – not just because they’ve been told to believe it, but because they really, truly believe it.
As an exercise, try this (if you’re American): imagine that the beliefs you hold about ours being an open society with equal opportunity for all, which respects freedom of speech, assembly and religion, which holds up the integrity of human rights above all other concerns, which acts as a moral beacon to other nations – imagine that this country you’ve been taught to love is not in fact the pinnacle of rational enlightenment that you learned about in school, but actually engages in torture, invades sovereign nations on the flimsiest of reasons, flouts the rule of law at home and spies on its own citizens without warrant. Then you’ll have some idea of the identity crisis facing the youth of China.