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BEIJING — America may translate as the “beautiful country” in Chinese, but it is also known as the arrogant superpower heir to the European invaders who carved up parts of China in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The spy-plane incident is rapidly inflating the hate element of China’s love-hate relationship with the United States. The sense of awe and respect for America’s wealth and power soon turns to outrage when the Yankee “hegemon” shows its true face.

History lessons at school drum into every Chinese citizen how their nation was ruthlessly bullied by evil foreign powers, from the British and its opium-fueled theft of Hong Kong to Japan’s brutal occupation from 1937-45. The isolation of Communist China from 1949 only hardened this sense of outraged nationalism.

Over 50 years on, and nationalism is proving a vital if perilous prop to the Communist regime still at China’s helm. Strident nationalism deflects attention from many domestic ills born of an ossified political system, and shores up support for the party in a nation that has eagerly abandoned Marxism for cut-throat capitalism. It was seen most dramatically in 1999, when angry crowds protested the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Now, the loss of a fighter pilot, and the U.S.’ refusal to apologize, is inciting further anti-American sentiment.

“U.S. President George W. Bush and the head of U.S. Pacific Command are making stupid, unreasonable comments,” steamed Wang Xiaodong, an influential writer and neoconservative. “From various government officials right down to the ordinary people, there is less and less good will toward the U.S., and more and more anger. The U.S. thinks it can put unreasonable, strong pressure on us because China’s government is undemocratic. If they continue like this, it will be very difficult to solve this problem.”

Yet Wang’s bombast pales in comparison with the nationalistic outrage filling Chinese cyberspace. “Hang the U.S. spies and take revenge for Xu Xinhu” (a journalist who died in the Belgrade bombing), suggested “Spicy Knife” on the Strong Country Forum of party mouthpiece the People’s Daily. On leading news site Sina.com, others call “Stand up Chinese countrymen, and build a Great Wall with our flesh and blood!” “America always bullies us,” complained another. “And our reaction is too weak. We must do something to make America suffer.”

Party leaders must walk a fine line in letting their people voice such public anger. “Nationalism is often whipped up by the government, but it is truly a double-edged sword,” warned a political commentator in Beijing who requested anonymity. “The government worries most about domestic issues, basically how to deal with its own people. If the government appears too weak in dealing with this issue, the people will be angry and the government will lose face.

“The U.S. does not understand this and should give the Chinese government some leeway, not push them into a corner. Some military figures would love the government to take a hard line. If the U.S. pushes too hard, the tension can only escalate.”

“This will have a great impact on the People’s Liberation Army,” suggested a former PLA senior strategic analyst. “In recent years the military in the coastal areas has had no wars to fight, or battle preparation. But now there is obvious preparation under way for dealing with Taiwan, and suddenly a U.S. Army plane illegally lands in China. The military will use this to gain a greater say in decision-making in the central government.”

That is the concern of reform-minded officials in Beijing. Nationalism may help keep the Communist Party in power, if it stays one step ahead of public sentiment, but it risks falling hostage to more conservative forces. Rampant nationalist fallout from the spy-plane crisis could delay China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, slow important economic reforms and ruin Beijing’s Olympic dreams. Yet the generational shift of power expected at a Communist Party Congress next year means few will dare alienate the powerful military lobby.

“There are fundamental cultural differences between American and Chinese people,” suggested the PLA analyst. “The Americans start from the law to discuss problems. But the Chinese are not so legalistic. They take an emotional stand.

” ‘How come your military plane flew all the way to China and crashed into our plane?’ they ask.”

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