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China’s Tibet Test

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The global information highway that allows nearly a quarter-billion Chinese and millions of their brethren abroad to connect and take collective actions can also threaten the very economic integration responsible for China’s rise. The Chinese government, which has stoked patriotism to redeem its global honour, may now, like Jin, be having second thoughts on the fallout.
Although the journey of the Olympic torch has encountered protests in almost every country, Chinese Netizens (both inside and outside the country) have singled out France partly because of the televised scenes of the attempt at snatching the torch in Paris and the rumour that the French supermarket Carrefour has helped the Dalai Lama. The charge has been denied by the company but calls to boycott French goods and especially Carrefour, with its 120 branches in China, has swept the Chinese internet.
The heat generated in cyberspace has spilled over into many Chinese city streets. Overseas Chinese — students and others — too have demonstrated in major cities in Europe and America, venting their anger at what they believe to be the anti-China bias of the Western media. Protests by Chinese youth against perceived foreign enemies have a long history. What makes the current spate of protests and calls for boycott of Western goods different is the speed and worldwide reach of such actions and the virulence of their patriotism that borders on chauvinism. Within hours of the news of an event, angry Netizens have hit the Web and their shrill voices amplified by the megaphone of chat rooms and blogospheres have ricocheted around the world. A Chinese student at Duke University calling for dialogue with Tibetans was denounced as a traitor and her terrified parents in China have gone into hiding. Athlete Jin, lionised as a heroine only a day earlier, has been called “brainless evil-eyed wolf traitor.” The chauvinistic and often violent outpourings on the Internet — visible to the whole world — may be giving the authorities some pause. While the government may enjoy this moment of unstinting support from its citizens, it is concerned about the impact of such protests on foreign attendance at the Olympics and the long-term consequences on China’s economic relations.

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Carrefour, which employed 40,000 people in their stores in China, actually offered employment to millions more by procuring most of the products locally. The world’s second biggest retailer also imported sizable amount of Chinese products for their stores the world over. China’s prosperity is linked to its position as the world’s third largest exporter with export providing 35 per cent of its GDP (2005). Not surprisingly, the official People’s Daily has taken to walking a fine line. It praised the patriotism of the Netizens but cautioned them not to place obstacles in the way of foreign investment in China. The editorial exhorted citizens to “express our patriotic enthusiasm calmly and rationally and express patriotic aspiration in an orderly and legal manner.” Official commentaries have reminded protesters that foreign investment helped create jobs and propelled China’s economic growth.
Judging by the way the authorities have tried to contain demonstrations before the French embassy and Carrefour stores while allowing citizens to let off steam on the Web, China seems to be searching for ways to protect the two pillars over which its legitimacy rests — its roles as a defender of an ancient nation and as a builder of modern China. The outpouring of patriotic emotions on the Web is a propaganda bonanza that helps reinforce the Communist Party’s nationalist credentials. But China’s leaders are determined not to let patriotic sentiment throw a spanner in its plans to build a prosperous China riding the wave of globalisation.
The author is Director of Publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and Editor of YaleGlobal Online.
(Businessworld issue 29 April-05 May 2008)

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