Written by Tang Buxi – May 5th, 2008
Over the past 4 weeks, we’ve seen the Chinese community world-wide rise up in protest. In the face of widespread criticism from the West, various segments of the community (including recently arrived students, fourth-generation Chinese immigrants, and even some “old generals” from the 1989 Tiananmen protests) have come together to fiercely and proudly reassert our Chinese identity. It was no small step; for the vast majority of us, this represented the first time we’ve ever waved the Chinese national flag, or participated in a political ‘movement’ of any kind.
I think it’s safe to assume that none of the critics of China wanted (or expected) this reaction from the Chinese public at large. So, what happened? Where did they miscalculate?
A common refrain heard recently in the Western media-space goes like this:
Don’t they understand that we’re not criticizing the Chinese people? Our goal is to criticize Chinese government policy. Why haven’t they learned to distinguish between the Chinese people and the Chinese government?
My response to this is simple: the vast majority of Chinese have no difficulty distingushing between ourselves and our government. Many of the online Chinese forums are filled with debates about our governments’ policies, and the critics often out-number those who support specific government policies. Many of us are not shy about discussing our governments’ failing with anyone ready to listen.
However, even though many of us are critical of our government, all of us love our country with a passion. If you looked closely, you would’ve seen that those of us marching in Toronto, Washington DC, and Canberra were waving our five-star national flag. If you listened carefully, you would’ve heard us singing our national anthem, “Great China” (大中国), “Ode to the Motherland” (歌唱祖国), and “My Chinese Heart” (我的中国心). As you walked the streets of San Francisco or Seoul, the loudest chants you heard would have been “Go China!” (中国，加油!).
All of these are symbols of the Chinese nation, rather than symbols of the Communist Party. None of us recited Communist Party slogans (except perhaps as a sort of tongue-in-cheek/campy humor), none of us carried the Hammer and Sickle flag, none of us sang “If there is no Communist Party, there is no New China” (没有共产党就没有新中国). In other times, there would have been loud and angry political debates between the Chinese who marched on the streets; many of us hold opposing opinions on government policies in the People’s Republic of China. But for this one moment, for this one instant, we were united by love of our country. Our country is China. Our country isn’t defined by the current government, nor is it even necessarily defined by the People’s Republic of China. (For example… many of us enthusastically cheer the sight, at the 3:00 mark in this video, of these torch supporters from Taiwan carrying the Republic of China flag.)
Some Western critics have a difficult time accepting this explanation. When presented with evidence that the Chinese in China were increasingly angered by these activist campaigns (mostly online postings), they pointed to Chinese government controls on free speech, on political dissent, on internet access… the Chinese in China were brain-washed, and could hardly hope to know better. And when hundreds of thousands of overseas Chinese (with full access to the wonders of the free media) came out in opposition to their campaign, this theory was extended further: the indoctrination we all received in our youths must be far more severe than originally predicted, and we were simply ill-equipped to handle “fair” Western criticism. To all of these critics, I have only one thing to say: 6/4/89. It’s a date now 19 years in the past, but many of us (both inside and outside of China) remember its lesson well. I, for one, remember these same indoctrinated, brain-washed overseas Chinese stepping out in overwhelming opposition to our government’s actions in violently suppressing the riots in Tiananmen!
So, this still leaves us with the original question. Why have the protesters and activists calling for pressure failed so miserably on this account? Rather than dividing the government and her people, how have they managed to push massive numbers of Chinese firmly back into the Communist Party’s corner?
In short, it is the activists themselves who’re suffering from severe myopia; it is these activists and their supporters in the West apparently lack the ability to distinguish between the Chinese people and their government. I see two key issues as being the primary driving factor behind Chinese outrage: territorial integrity, and international respect in the form of the Olympics. Due to a combination of ignorance and wishful thinking, they’ve identified these two issues as being “government” objectives, without recognizing their significance to the masses at large.
These are both issues I’ll explore in detail in upcoming articles.