Understanding China: Pride & Policy

Article excerpt

Pride in country, heritage, history, economic power and personal and social freedoms is a fundamental characteristic of China.

'You stupid American," my Chinese friend scolded me. "You insult China, and you offend me!"

I was shocked, speechless. I had thought that what I had just said, in complete privacy on a remote hilltop outside of Beijing, would please this intellectual, and he would praise me for saying it. The year was 1992, and it was my first deep lesson about China.

I had arrived in China for the first time in February 1989, six weeks before students began gathering in Tiananmen Square, but it would be years before I would begin to understand what was really going on here. After the tragic events of June 4, 1 did not return to China for 15 months, and when I did go back it was still a time of repressed freedoms such that when people in Beijing wanted to talk politics, they would leave their offices or homes and walk around in the open air or drive around in moving cars.

That's what made Professor Xu, as I shall call my friend, stand out. I couldn't recall him having said anything complimentary about China's political or economic system, and so I felt secure, on that remote hilltop, in applauding the U.S. action in preventing the 2000 Olympics from being held in Beijing, punishing the Chinese government for its armed response in Tiananmen Square. Professor Xu and 1 were alone, and I expected his hearty support of America's blackball.

And that was when he lambasted me with his "You-stupid-American" rebuke, a verbal stinging I shall never forget. It was a searing tutorial of what really counts in China. Don't let the criticisms fool you. Patriotism trumps all. The pride of the Chinese people-pride in their country, heritage, history, economic power, and personal and social freedoms, their growing international importance, and yes, their growing military strength- is a fundamental characteristic of China that one encounters over and over and over again.

Fast forward to early 2008. The pride of the Chinese people assumes a different form, as the Olympic Torch Relay is interrupted in city after city by highly visible protests triggered by the unrest in Tibet. Then came the backlash: Chinese citizens were infuriated by what they deemed to be the hijacking of the Olympics for political purposes; indeed for embarrassing China. Chinese chat rooms ignited spontaneously, heated by the incandescent fury of national pride.

One of the torchbearers in the Paris leg, a 27-year-old amputee and Paralympics fencer named Jin Jing, became a national hero when she was assaulted by protestors. Defend- ing the Olympic flame from her wheelchair, she was bruised and scraped when protesters tried to extinguish the torch. "I felt no pain from the scratches and injury on my right leg," she said. "I would die to protect the torch." Hailed by the Chinese media as the "Smiling Angel in Wheelchair," Jin Jing found her images splashed across front pages all over China and when she returned to Beijing, she was treated to a hero's welcome.

The Power of Pride

Chinese pride invites itself into diverse policy debates. Rarely does it dominate and determine decisions, but often it affects and influences them. Consider China's spaceflight programs, including the Shenzhou manned spacecraft and lunar missions, both an apparent luxury in a country still fighting vast poverty, but both enthusiastically supported by an overwhelming majority of the people.

Why? Pride. Consider also the longstanding internal debate at the highest levels of the Chinese government during the final decade of the last century over whether to seek admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Although the contesting views pitted the economic benefits of foreign investment against the heightened competitive pressure from foreign companies, an underlying motivation, though it was rarely voiced, was that China belongs in the WTO because China is a great nation and must be counted as a world power. …