Sunday, April 20, 2008
China Battles Image Woes
-- The protests and mutual recriminations between China and its foreign critics -- highlighted by more anti-Western demonstrations this weekend -- are exposing a stark disconnect between how China views itself and how many people abroad view China. Misunderstandings have multiplied as the opposing sides seem to consistently talk past each other. Foreign critics are focusing on issues, such as Beijing's policies in Tibet, that many Chinese feel ignore decades of broader economic and social progress in their country. Chinese students and citizens chant slogans and hold up banners, calling for boycotting French Carrefour supermarket in Xi'an, northwest China's Shaanxi province on Sunday. Condemnation of Chinese government policies is being received in China as attacking the nation as a whole, arousing widespread public resentment. The most vocal responses are then seen with alarm overseas as government-sanctioned nationalism run amok, further reinforcing negative images of China. Over the weekend, there were demonstrations against French retailer Carrefour SA involving thousands of people in several cities across China. They were part of a broader push for a boycott of the retailer, one of France's biggest investors in China, as punishment for the chaos of the Olympic torch relay in Paris, and for the purported support of the Dalai Lama -- widely vilified in China -- by one of the Paris company's shareholders. Carrefour has said it has no ties with the Tibetan spiritual leader, and pointed out that the vast majority of its products and employees in the country are Chinese. Many Chinese expected this summer's Olympics in Beijing to make 2008 a year for celebrating their country's re-entry to the international community, and its rising global status from three decades of economic and political reforms. The international furor instead is feeding a deepening disappointment. "Many Westerners still see China like the Stalinist-era Soviet Union. But most of them have never been here...today China is different," says Pu Chengchuan, a 21-year-old college senior in Beijing. He says China's human-rights records isn't perfect, but "it's a lot better than it used to be." Mr. Pu says he has hoped that the Olympics would "let the world understand China better," but now worries that "critics of China are going to use the Olympics for their own purposes." Some Western businesspeople fear that the divide could continue to widen, leading to tension within multinationals' operations or broader action against foreign companies that operate in China. "Foreign companies are indeed concerned and especially those companies that are highly visible in and outside of China," said James Zimmerman, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. Mr. Zimmerman urged "open and respectful dialogue" about the issues in dispute, but said "there are challenges to getting people with different points of view to sit down and talk." The backlash against foreign critics has also targeted Western media for alleged bias in their coverage of deadly antigovernment riots in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa last month and the resulting crackdown by Beijing. Over the weekend, Chinese students protested media bias in front of the German parliament in Berlin and thousands protested outside the Los Angeles offices of Time Warner Inc.-owned Cable News Network. China's government appears worried. The ruling Communist Party walks a fine line in handling outbursts of nationalism. As the self-appointed champion of national unity, it embraces, up to a point, popular expressions of nationalism -- but also fears that, unchecked, they could derail economic growth and ruffle foreign relations. In recent days, official commentary has urged citizens to apply their patriotic fervor in their daily work, and a front-page commentary Sunday in the People's Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, urged the "rational expression" of patriotism. In recent months, China has faced devastating winter storms, a plunging stock market and consumer-price inflation at 12-year highs. The criticism of China has only added to the frustrations. "Obviously, there is a cabal, a cold war against China!" proclaims a homemade video circulating on the Internet in recent days. China's government has seemed often unaware of how it is perceived abroad -- and often appeared far less capable than its opponents at getting its message across. "The recent events made me realize there is a huge information gap about China in this country," China's ambassador to the U.K., Fu Ying, said in a speech in London last week. Within China, the sense of injury from foreign critics is compounded by an education system that instills a deep sense of suspicion that Western powers are bent on weakening and dividing China, as they did in the 19th century. Protests advocating Tibetan independence mystify most Chinese, who have been taught all their lives that Tibet has long been part of China. And the deeply emotional Chinese response to the Tibet protests has also surprised some Westerners. "American people feel that freedom and self-expression are very important. Chinese people feel that national unity is very important," says Wang Jianshuo, 30 years old, who works for an Internet company in Shanghai and writes a blog in English and Chinese. "There is a big gap between the West and China on which values are more important. It's not right or wrong, it's just different." Many Chinese who are critical of their own government also feel Western condemnations of China fail to acknowledge its advances in recent decades, from lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty to expanding the freedoms -- albeit still limited -- that Chinese enjoy. Western critics "think China is still very closed and that Chinese people are under one-party control and [therefore] have no human rights," says Guan Xiao, a 52-year-old Beijing resident. Mr. Pu, the Beijing physics student, says his own background illustrates some of the progress China has experienced. Born in a poor farming village in China's northeast, he now attends one of China's top universities. Thanks to the Internet, he says, he and his classmates have access to a broad array of information, including some Western media. People like Mr. Pu and Mr. Wang, the Shanghai blogger, feel that China doesn't often get credit in the Western media for its recent progress. "When we were silent, you said you want us to have free speech. When we were silent no more, you say we were brainwashed xenophobics," reads an anonymous Internet posting now circulating among Chinese working in foreign companies, in Chinese, English and French. "What do you really want from us?" Often, Western critics and their Chinese respondents seem to be seeing entirely different things in the same events. Western accounts of the fracas surrounding the Olympic torch relay tend to emphasize the demands of pro-Tibet protesters, and have pointed to accusations of heavy-handedness by the blue-and-white-clad Chinese security guards accompanying the torch. For Chinese, the image that lingers from the Paris protests is of a slight, wheelchair-bound woman clasping the Olympic torch to her body as a man wearing a Tibetan-flag bandana tries to pull it away from her. Since then, the woman, a 28-year-old fencer named Jin Jing, has become a household name and media star, an icon for those who see China as a nation beset by unfair attacks. Looking for outlets for their anger at western critics, many Chinese are conflicted about the growing calls for boycotts and protests, but say such actions are the only way frustrated Chinese can get their message across. "The only thing we can do is to warn them and to give vent to our anger through their representatives in China, like with the boycott of Carrefour or French companies," says Ma Fei, 37, a businessman in the southern city of Shenzhen. Foreigners, he says, "especially those who don't live in China, just cannot understand how much the Olympics means to the Chinese people."