What force is China courting?

Posted in China , Asia | 02-Jan-04 | Author: Nicholas Kristof| Source: International Herald Tribune

SHANGHAI - Is China a threat to the rest of the world? Perhaps, for rising powers have always spelled trouble for their neighbors, even democracies like Athens - recall the Peloponnesian War - and the United States, which managed to invade both Canada and Mexico in the 1800's.

Yet what worries me about China isn't its upgrade of its nuclear arsenal or its military acquisitions. China's military doctrine is cautious, and President Hu Jintao is leading toward an increasingly constructive role in international affairs. What concerns me, as one who loves China and roots for its success, is the growing nationalism the government has cultivated among young people.

Americans saw hints of it when mobs attacked the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and when students reacted to Sept. 11 with chat-room cheers of shuang - roughly equivalent to "Wow, so cool!" But it is in attitudes toward the Japanese that we see a leading indicator of the instability that blind nationalism can cause. This fall, three Japanese students in the central Chinese city of Xian performed a bawdy skit, wearing red bras over T-shirts and throwing stuffing from them at the audience - and word spread that the Riben guizi, Japanese devils, were mocking China. So a mob of 1,000 people rampaged through town, looking for any Japanese to attack. Fury had also erupted around the country a few weeks earlier because of reports that Japanese businessmen had engaged in an orgy with Chinese prostitutes in the southern city of Zhuhai. It was hypocritical rage in a country where hundreds of thousands of prostitutes blatantly ply their wares - in Zhengzhou last year, an army of them practically battered down my hotel room door as I cowered inside.

Even the Chinese recounting of history has become hysterical. Take the Rape of Nanjing in 1937, which was so brutal that there's no need to exaggerate it. One appalled witness in the thick of the killing, John Rabe, put the death toll at 50,000 to 60,000. The Chinese delegate to the League of Nations at the time put the civilian toll at 20,000. A Communist Chinese newspaper of the period put it at 42,000. Yet China proclaims, based on accounts that stand little scrutiny, that 300,000 or more were killed. Such hyperbole abuses history as much as the denial by Japanese rightists that there was any Rape of Nanjing at all. It nurtures nationalism by defining China as a victim state, the world's punching bag, that must be more aggressive in defending its interests.

What does this add up to? The rising nationalism warps Chinese decision-making and risks conflicts with Japan over, for example, the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. It also forces the government to be tough in international disputes - particularly in the case of Taiwan, where a miscalculation could conceivably lead to a war with the United States.

"Some Chinese military leaders are saying that Japan is secretly behind Taiwan's moves toward a referendum and independence," warned a well-connected Chinese who knows that this is nonsense. "They say it is all a Japanese plot to steal Taiwan from China." The reasons for rising Chinese nationalism are complex and include a justified anger at Japan's reluctance to apologize for war atrocities. But one factor is the way the Chinese government has been pushing nationalist buttons in an effort to create a new national glue to hold the country together as ideology dissolves. By constantly excoriating the Japanese nationalists of the 1930's, they are emulating them.

One of the lessons of the 1930's is that ferocious nationalism is a real global security risk, and it's a matter that the United States and other countries should respectfully raise with Hu. To their credit, some farsighted Chinese intellectuals call for changing China's "victim mentality," recognizing it as one of the greatest obstacles to China's maturing into the global leader that it should be.

Meanwhile, the West bashes China, unfairly and demagogically, over its exports while missing the real risk in China's rise. The menace isn't in its trade policies, but in its nationalist psychology.