Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

Learning from Chinese National and Nationalist Spectacles+

Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

Learning from Chinese National and Nationalist Spectacles+

Article excerpt


When anti-Japanese protests erupted in mid-2012 and commentators sought to put them into context, many historical events were mentioned, ranging from the Boxer Uprising of 1900 to the 1999 rallies triggered by NATO bombs hitting the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. This essay suggests that, despite the many differences between the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics and the recent demonstrations by crowds angered by Japanese claims to sovereignty over islands that are also claimed by China, we can learn useful things from placing these spectacles side by side.

Keywords: nationalism, protest, mass actions, demonstration, Olympics, China

JEL classification: F52, H12, N45, Z13

1. Introduction

How can looking backward help us make sense of the anti-Japanese demonstrations of mid-2012, which were triggered by disputes over control of small islands claimed by different East Asian countries? When commentators have addressed this question, their answers have pointed to various points in China's past. Look back to 1900, some commentators have suggested, noting that in the disastrous Boxer Rising young Chinese also lashed out in xenophobic ways.1 Others have suggested looking back instead to 1919, when participants in the May 4th Movement were motivated by anger at Japanese incursions into territory they insisted rightfully belonged to China.2 Look back to the Cultural Revolution decade (1966-1976), still others have said, noting how Communist Party leaders used impressionable youths to do their bidding in that period as well.3 Yet others have argued that the most relevant historical moments are relatively recent anti-foreign protests: 1999's anti- NATO rallies, 2005 and 2010's anti-Japanese eruptions, and the anti-French agitations of early and late 2008.4

There is some value in revisiting each of the events just mentioned when trying to place the 2012 anti-Japanese protests into historical perspective. The 1999 through 2010 actions alluded to above, in particular, provide useful points of comparison. In all those cases, as in mid-2012, specific actions precipitated outrage at a foreign country. It was NATO bombs hitting China's embassy in Belgrade that sparked protests in 1999, the roughing up of a Chinese Olympic torch bearer in Paris that led to 2008 first anti-French rallies, and so on. And in all those cases, as in mid-2012, themes at the heart of recent "patriotic education" drives figured prominently in the rhetoric of the struggle. The street actions of 1999 through 2012 carried out in the name of protecting the nation, in other words, have all been shaped in part by a discourse about the need to remember Chinese national "humiliations" of the past that, while having roots stretching back to the pre-1949 era, has been given renewed emphasis and distinctive twists in textbooks and classroom since Tiananman - a period during which the authorities have tried with special vigour to instill in new generations a sense that it is important to remain mindful of old wounds. Another common thread linking the anti-foreign outbursts of 1999 through 2012 is that, in each case, the Chinese Communist Party leadership, despite its obsession with stability and harmony, has shown a willingness to allow and sometimes thrown its support behind the agitations - at least initially, though often later moving to rein the struggles in.5

As attractive as it is to compare the mid-2012 protests to anti-foreign outbursts of the recent and not so recent past, however, my focus here will be on what we can learn from placing the demonstrations beside a very different sort of historical event. Namely, if we treat the mid-2012 public actions primarily as political spectacles rather than as protests per se, I will argue, they can be paired usefully with the lavish gala held to open the Beijing Games on August 8, 2008.

2. Spectacles of Mid-2008 and Mid-2012: Comparisons and Contrasts

At first, it may seem that bringing together China's glittering Olympic moment and the recent nastiness of anti-Japanese street actions could highlight nothing but contrasts. …

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