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September 22, 2004

Nonviolent Chauvinism


by Sascha Matuszak

On Saturday, air-raid sirens rang out over Chengdu to commemorate 9/18, the day Japanese troops began their invasion of the Chinese mainland in 1931. The festivities included a mini-marathon from the city's south side to the central plaza and then to the stadium for a celebration of traditional Chinese culture – mostly young girls and boys dancing and performing Wu Shu.

The locals cracked a few jokes about short Japanese devils and the government-sponsored "Concert for the Peasants" that was attended by hundreds of marching chanting soldiers and police officers, then went about their business. Ito Yokado, a Japanese department store, had one of its two Chengdu outlets – the one in the city center – subjected to a huge video presentation of Japanese atrocities during the 1930s and 40s, but the place was still bustling.

Hating the Japanese is taken for granted in China and is but a part of the patriotism that helps to bind this vast, populous nation together. Western media has covered the rising nationalism in China and opinions vary on whether or not this nationalism will translate into American-style "interventionism" at some point in the future, but for a majority of Chinese, loving the country is a peaceful endeavor that has more to do with getting rich and reclaiming that which was once China while maintaining a stable society.

For westerners, threatening Taiwan with missiles and invasion and the PLA's evident thirst for a glorious liberation of the island, Beijing's handling of the Hong Kong elections and disputes with Japan and several Southeast Asian nations over islands in the Pacific are signs of an iron fist lurking behind a money-making mask. All it would take is for the U.S. to falter and for China to emerge as a superpower, reckon some, for China's peaceful nationalism to be replaced with the swagger that comes with power and influence.

A Government Tool?

China's record-breaking showing in the Athens Olympics was a golden chance for the media and the government to spread more aiguo (love the country) sentiment throughout the land. Chinese athletes took golds in the traditionally Chinese dominated events, such as ping pong, badminton and diving – but the big winner and the man who has made serious money (200,000RMB by some estimates) is runner Liu Xiang, who won gold in the 110 meter hurdles.

Chinese commentators and coaches gushed over his surprise performance over "naturally faster" black athletes. Detailed discussions concerning the muscular structure of blacks and Asians – something that could get a man banned from sports for life in the States – were meant to increase the pride of the average Chinese by emphasizing the rise of China and the ability and potential of a land of 1.3+ billion.

TV viewers were treated to never-ending reruns of Chinese victories, past and present, while a steady eye was kept on the medal count – especially during the first few days when China led the world in numbers of medals won. The Chinese media mentioned over and over that the tickets for the gold medalists' trip to Hong Kong were sold out, showing that Hong Kong locals love China as much as the Mainlanders do, no matter how many times they take to the streets. Patriotic fervor during the Olympics is commonplace in all countries – why would so much attention be focused on China's treatment of its athletes, especially their trip to Hong Kong?

Basically, 1.3 billion Chinese bursting with patriotic emotion seems a bit more threatening than a few million Latvians or Chileans taking to the streets with flags, honking their car horns.

Government-controlled media regularly spit out propaganda that seems to have the sole purpose of binding China into one solid entity, a rock against the world. Chinese schools are brainwashing laboratories.

This can be seen as a direct result of days like 9/18 and the carnage that followed, and the even earlier "Eight Nation Group" that took Hong Kong from China to begin with. Movies here in China depict evil, bearded white people mercilessly raping and pillaging while bands of under-equipped but brave as hell Chinese struggle against all odds to save Mother China. Chinese media tend to be sober about Sino-Japanese relations, unless Japan "offends" the Chinese people in some way or another.

In China, nationalism is equated with virtuous hero-poets defending the nation against invaders from the seas. The government most definitely propagates this view for its own purposes, namely retaining power in the land, but to assume that nationalism is but a tool of the government is to assume that all Chinese are fools.

A Vision of Greatness

Nationalism in the West is equated with wars and death, but this vision doesn't seem to phase many Chinese, who believe in their hearts that China will never use its strength to impose on others as nationalistic nations have done in the past.

Chinese refer to history to defend this vision of themselves. During the heyday of old China, generally believed to be the Tang dynasty, China's wars were supposedly confined to small border battles with Uighurs and Tibetans in the West and the occasional "interventions" in Korea against, surprise, invading Japanese. The actual details of the Tang dynasty's wars in the West and the Northeast should be left to historians, but the people here view that period as a time of cultural, economic and technological superiority – a time when Buddha lived in the hearts of men and in the stones they carved and caravans from all eight directions came laden with voluntary tribute and trade, eager students and awestruck travelers.

It is this vision of themselves that most inspires Chinese – and foreigners!

A strong man is admired and respected – look at the modern depiction of Qin Shi Huang in the film Hero – but Hero is a flash in the pan compared with books like The Story of the Three Kingdoms, or the histories of that period written by Sima Qian. These stories are not only read by all Chinese, but they appear on various TV channels almost every day.

The strong powerful ruler in these stories never rules for long. It is the clever, wise negotiator, the well-learned philosopher, the man behind the throne who gains legendary status. Virtually all successful generals who get ahead of themselves die by the sword in traditional Chinese stories. In these stories, cultural and intellectual influence, not the sword, win the day. For China-watchers in the West and for many Chinese, this vision of a future China fits in splendidly with the rest of the world.

Peaceful Handover = Peaceful Rise?

Monday's papers had the picture of Jiang and Hu smiling and shaking hands for the camera. This "unprecedented" development in the Jiang-Hu rivalry was a masterstroke in the face of international and domestic scrutiny of Jiang's further ambitions. Hu mentioned in this article that the Party's rule over the military must contain no ambiguities: the "three-in-one " rule over the entire nation mirrors the Emperors of the past and is considered by many Mainlanders as the only acceptable option for stability and development in China.

Hu is considered by outsiders to be the moderate, reform-minded internationalist, while Jiang is the Communist-era holdover who tends to speak either in vague riddles (the Three Represents) or in iron-hard terms through his tight grip on the media – Strategy and Management in particular, which nevertheless managed to slip in a rhetoric-less, sober analysis of the North Korean situation recently.

The media around the world have turned this struggle into a black and white struggle between an ex-Communist who gained power by crushing dissent in Shanghai during the spring of 1989 and who represents the scary nationalistic Emperor who may eventually become aggressive, and the quiet, inconspicuous moderate who will guide the nation further toward the eventual goal of Tang Dynasty-esque greatness.

Emperor Hu has his work cut out for him, especially with "Regent" Jiang's network of influential friends and powerful people still holding onto their positions of strength.

Chinese nationalism may be stifling to many foreigners who live and work in China, but if this nation can remember and reinvent the glorious past it loves to bring up when dealing with the outside world, then this current brand of nationalism, which smacks a bit of insecurity and tends to lead to fights on the football field here in Chengdu, will progress as the rest of China has toward the comfortable nonviolent chauvinism that ancient China was famous for.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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