Int'l Herald Tribune

Insecure China Is Stoking Xenophobic Nationalism

Paris, Saturday, May 15, 1999

By David Shambaugh International Herald Tribune

TAIPEI -- In time it may become known in the annals of modern Chinese history as the May Eighth Movement - the day last week when xenophobic Chinese demonstrators poured into the streets of Chinese cities, attacking American and British diplomatic missions. Xenophobia is the ugly cousin of nationalism, and both coexist in the mass Chinese psyche.

Ever since the West intruded on the insular Chinese imperial world three centuries ago, nationalism and xenophobic radicalism have lurked just beneath the surface of Chinese society. A succession of Chinese governments has periodically stoked it for their own purposes - from the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century to Chiang Kai-shek's neofascist New Life Movement of the 1930s, to Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

The Chinese Communist Party astutely tapped this sentiment and rode it to power. Ever since, the governing party has perpetuated and manipulated such popular emotions to bolster its own legitimacy and claim to rule.

The recent demonstrations in the wake of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade also reveal the power of propaganda and the government's continued ability to manipulate public perceptions. The Chinese government intentionally withheld apologies by the United States and NATO from the public, thus encouraging the protests to mushroom.

Since the start of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the Chinese official propaganda machine has also systematically distorted NATO actions and the reasons for them.

Recent propaganda distortions follow a decade of fairly consistent anti-American invective in the Chinese state media and specialist publications. Ever since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chinese citizens have been told that the United States has sought, in various ways, to keep China down and deny its rightful emergence as a world power. The street protests in Beijing and other Chinese cities show how effective such indoctrination has been, especially among young people.

They also show that despite two decades of ''opening to the outside,'' Chinese nativism remains strongly suspicious of the world beyond China's borders. China has never been as integrated into the global mainstream as it is now. The protests are a useful reminder that basic attitudes change more slowly than business practices.

U.S.-Chinese relations were strained before the events of the last week. But now Chinese xenophobic nationalism will further complicate them, and likely stiffen Beijing's resolve to stand up to ''hegemony and power politics'' - China's code words for the United States. Expect toughened negotiating behavior by China on accession terms to the World Trade Organization and other issues.

The accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade unfortunately played right into the hands of an insecure regime in Beijing. The Chinese authorities are quite worried about the deteriorating economy and increasing social instability.

At such times, it is useful to divert to foreign targets the frustrations of the masses, and to tap into the deep-seated sense of grievance toward the West. But once let out, it is not easy to contain Chinese xenophobic nationalism.

The writer is director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.