PARTICIPATING AUTHOR: GLORIA DAVIES
Gloria Davies was born in Singapore and trained in Australia, where she teaches Chinese Studies at Monash University. She is the author of Worrying About China: The Language of Chinese Critical Inquiry (HUP October 2007)
There is nothing new about Chinese citizens shouting anti-foreign slogans. The triggers for these spectacles of communal outrage are always actions or decisions taken from outside China that are perceived as impacting on China’s well-being or international standing. In the last decade protest triggers have included NATO’s accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and Japan’s 2005 bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In the turbulent period between March and May this year, Chinese patriotism has loomed once more into international view.
This year the relevant trigger has been the perceived bias in Western media reports over the unrest in Lhasa. Self-declared Chinese patriots volubly denounced the Western press as being “anti-Chinese”, expatriate Chinese protestors demonstrated outside CNN in Los Angeles, while a few even sent death threats to Western journalists. All of this has fostered a growing apprehension towards China amongst the international reading public. Western antipathy deepened even more when it became clear that these xenophobic denunciations were coming largely from students and educated young professionals both within and outside China. Western media commentaries began to take on a particularly worrying tone when the protest-encumbered Olympic torch relay wended its troubled way to the accompaniment of patriotic cheers from huge Chinese crowds in each of the host cities en route.
This worrying enthusiasm of the Chinese people for their Olympics was further confirmed when photos of the Olympic torch’s triumphant tour of Guangzhou and Shenzhen in early May appeared on televisions all over the world as well as on the Internet. In these bustling Chinese cities of commerce, the millions of people who not only thronged the streets but climbed trees and clambered onto any higher perch to afford themselves a better view, presented the local authorities with unprecedented problems of crowd management. But just four days later on 12 May, a disastrous earthquake struck the city of Wenchuan and surrounding areas in Sichuan province and the international media focus suddenly changed.
After the earthquake, the international media brought into view a very different picture of China. The Chinese government was loudly commended for showing admirable efficiency and transparency in the management of disaster relief. The enormous public support for the earthquake victims, with people all over China rushing to donate their time and money as well as essential supplies, medicine and blood, enabled Chinese patriotism to acquire a far more salubrious complexion in the international limelight.
It is important to grasp that “anti-foreign feelings” and a “love for the national family” are but different shades of Chinese patriotism and we should never lose sight of their proximate positions along a common cultural continuum. It is also important to grasp that both are essential elements in the constitution of the modern Chinese identity - an identity that is always remembered in terms of belonging to a nation that was hurt into being.
In Worrying about China, I draw attention to how Chinese intellectuals, despite their different persuasions, nonetheless share a common attitude of cultural defensiveness. As members of the educated Chinese elite, they also reflect a sensibility to the enduring Confucian virtue of bearing responsibility for “all under Heaven”. This characteristic cultural defensiveness has become part and parcel of “being Chinese” and while there have always been different articulations of this attitude, an ambivalence towards the West has remained a constant element of them all. This is because the West remains perceived, on the one hand as the cause of China’s civilizational decline, while on the other as an important aid to China’s redemption through modernization. Accordingly, the cosmopolitanism of Chinese thought tends to be couched in the problematic of showing the right kind of hospitality to foreign ideas.
To gain an appreciation of Chinese patriotism in our time, then, we need to reflect on the profound sense of cultural loss that animates contemporary Chinese intellectual life. From the 1890s onwards, that sense of loss became vital to the forging of a communal feeling in the Chinese-speaking world. Among other things, it was kept alive through revolutionary anthems that turned wounded Chinese pride into a battle cry. A century later, educated Chinese speak proudly of their nation’s economic prowess and modern achievements. Their unabashed patriotism is understandable, given that “loving the nation” (aiguo) remains scripted in mainland public discourse as the “natural attitude” of any Chinese person.
We should not fear Chinese patriotism because of this. Rather, we should note that while the hate speech of the more extreme Han chauvinists is worrying, it nonetheless remains largely rhetorical and ephemeral. It would be more productive for us to reflect on the complex asymmetries that have shaped and continue to shape the relations between China and the West. This would help us acquire a keener sense of why such historical injustices as coerced trade concessions, the Opium Wars and the Treaty of Versailles are kept alive in Chinese public discourse. This collective remembrance of historical injustices is much the same sentiment the incumbent American president attempted to articulate, namely “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”
In Worrying about China I argue that the present trend in contemporary Chinese thought reflects a similar sentiment, “Because we have been othered, we must now learn once more how to be ourselves”. Consequently, as China rises to become a twenty-first century superpower, it is the synthesizing idea of salvaging the traditional Chinese past alongside a mastery of Western techniques of theorizing that excites and animates prominent Chinese thinkers. Thus while their destiny-inspired discourse remains oriented toward achieving China’s civilizational perfection, it is nonetheless also deeply cosmopolitan.
This cosmopolitanism, amply demonstrated in the impressive familiarity of Chinese intellectuals with an extensive range of contemporary Western ideas, bodes well not only for contemporary Chinese culture but for us all. We would do well to also remember that China’s public intellectuals, despite their comparative lack of freedom of speech, still command an authority and social relevance that exceeds the role of public intellectuals in the West today. Thus, rather than worry about Chinese patriotism, we might want to reflect on the kind of hospitality we are prepared to accord Chinese ideas, while reminding ourselves that educated Chinese have long accorded hospitality to Western ones.