Jun 4th 2008
China placates foes abroad, nationalists at home
WHEN nationalism rears its head in China, the country's neighbours tremble. They have been trembling especially hard this year. In the wake of unrest in Tibet in March, a virulently xenophobic mood swept the country. Westerners were the main target, but East Asian governments still fear that China may start throwing its weight around and settling old scores.
The earthquake in Sichuan last month, and the West's sympathetic response to it, has helped to defuse the tension, but anxieties remain. At a recent conference in Singapore on regional security, organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said that how China and the West handled problems caused by “narrow interest groups” (apparently referring to the pro-Tibet lobby and its ilk), would “strongly influence whether China's emergence will unsettle the international order, or whether China succeeds in its path of peaceful integration with the rest of the world.”
Mr Lee warned of “unexpected incidents” arising before or during the Beijing Olympics in August. One recent episode which shocked many Chinese, involved Sharon Stone, an American actress, suggested that the Sichuan earthquake could have been a result of bad “karma” in China caused by its crackdown in Tibet.
Chinese cinemas have responded by refusing to show her films and Christian Dior, a French fashion company, has stopped using her in its advertising campaign in China. The French have been especially nervous of public sentiment in China since April, when protests in Paris against the Olympic torch relay triggered demands in China for a boycott of French goods.
The Communist Party, fearful of being accused of selling out Chinese interests, has been reluctant to come down hard on nationalist protesters. But it too is clearly nervous. Police have been keeping a close watch on public displays of patriotism, even those involving nothing more than small groups of young Chinese shouting “Come on, China!” to show their sympathy with the earthquake victims.
China does not want the West or its neighbours to get alarmed. It fears that anti-China sentiment abroad could fuel nationalism at home, which in turn could pressure on policymakers to engage in a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat responses.
So even as Chinese nationalists have been seething over perceived insults by foreigners, their leaders have been reaching out to traditional rivals. President Hu Jintao flew to Tokyo in May for the first visit by a Chinese head of state in a decade and a far friendlier one than his predecessor's trip in 1998.
China has been offering olive branches to Taiwan's new president, Ma Ying-jeou. In late May Mr Hu held talks in Beijing with Wu Poh-hsiung, who leads Mr Ma's party, the Kuomintang. They agreed to resume dialogue between the two sides, which has been suspended for a decade. When Vietnam's Communist Party chief, Nong Duc Manh, visited, the two sides agreed to set up a hotline between their leaders.
In the earthquake zone, at least some foreign journalists have found the Chinese military—which normally shuns contact with the media—unusually chatty and willing to help. American military planes have been allowed to fly in with relief supplies. China even agreed to allow Japanese military planes to do the same, but quickly decided against the idea after Chinese nationalists (who resent the Japanese more than the Americans) began protesting on the internet. It would have been the first action in China by Japanese military aircraft since the second world war.
Singapore's Mr Lee said the international community needed to understand “the strength of these gut emotions in Chinese society and in the collective psyche”. Chinese leaders know it all too well and are struggling to contain it.