Rallying Round The Chinese Flag

Beijing is fanning the flames of nationalism--ever so carefully

Across the Chinese world, nationalism is on the rise. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, anti-Japan groups are calling for boycotts of goods from Japan to protest Tokyo's claims to a tiny chain of disputed islands in the East China Sea. In Beijing, students are going online to voice their anger at Japan's claims to the islands, which Japan calls the Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyu. In San Francisco and Vancouver, thousands of overseas Chinese are marching to denounce Japan. In the waters off the islands, protesters have even dodged Japan's coast guard as they attempt to tear down a lighthouse erected by Japanese right-wingers.

The Chinese government seems to be fostering such feelings. For months, nationalist sentiment has been running high in the streets of Beijing. One reason: anticipation of Hong Kong's return to China next July 1. The leadership also finds antiforeign messages politically potent as President Jiang Zemin and other leaders maneuver their way into the post-Deng Xiaoping era. In the official press, Beijing regularly accuses other governments of conspiring to deny China its rightful place among the global powers. Over the summer, an anti-American screed written by young Chinese authors became a best-seller in the state-run bookstores.

TRICKY GAME. But fearful of driving away foreign investors and worried that anti-Japanese demonstrators could turn their ire on the Chinese government, authorities are playing a carefully hedged game. Official government television and newspapers, for example, are not carrying reports on the protests outside of China. In Beijing, anti-Japanese activists have been sent out of town. Security at the city's universities, traditional hotbeds of anti-Japanese protests, has been heightened to maintain calm.

The mixed Chinese reaction illustrates just how tricky it is to play the nationalism card. With their Marxist ideology discredited, China's communist leaders often launch jingoist propaganda efforts to legitimize their existence. The government is in the midst of a "spiritual civilization" campaign to educate people about the superiority of Chinese culture. China's intellectuals do their part with works charging that the country deserves more respect as Asia's emerging superpower. Favorite targets range from U.S. efforts to keep Beijing out of the World Trade Organization, which China wants to join on easy terms, to Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's visit to the Yasukuni shrine, where Japanese war dead are honored.

There's fertile territory among the Chinese population. Even though Chinese are gobbling up U.S. products ranging from Coca-Cola to Big Macs, battles over human rights, trade, and Taiwan have left many Chinese disillusioned with U.S. policy. Small wonder the new book, The China that Can Say No, is a best-seller. "Once Chinese young people become disgusted, it's very hard to pull them back," says Shanghai Vice-Mayor Zhao Qizheng.

But Beijing's leaders can run with the nationalism issue only so far before it backfires against their interests. "If you put too much wood on the stove, at some point the heat can become unbearable," says one Western diplomat in Beijing. In its long history, China has much experience with anti-Japanese protesters turning against the government. President Jiang also runs the risk of hard-liners stepping in to call the shots, as they did during Beijing's military showdown with Taiwan earlier this year.

FERVOR. The Chinese government therefore has plenty of reasons to try to contain the nationalist passions. As top leaders jockey for position in the runup to the 15th Party Congress next fall, everyone in the leadership wants to maintain order while rivals battle behind the scenes for power. Nationalism is a useful rallying point to create a measure of unity. But no one wants to see patriotic fervor boomerang into popular protests over high unemployment, graft, or crime. "They don't want nationalism to trigger major social unrest," says one Chinese economist.

Jiang knows firsthand what can happen if he overplays the nationalism issue. After Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's visit to the U.S. last year, the leadership authorized a frenzy of propaganda against Taiwan and its U.S. backers. Moderate allies of Jiang in the Foreign Ministry were shoved to the side by hardliners in the military. That led to provocative military exercises near Taiwan last winter, which ultimately prompted President Clinton to dispatch U.S. warships to the region to show American concern. Jiang needs to worry that overplaying antiforeign sentiment could again force him into tougher positions than he would normally back.

The Chinese leadership also doesn't want the nationalist tone to actually harm its security or economic interests. China is increasingly concerned about the greater military cooperation between Tokyo and Washington, which they worry is aimed at "containing" China. Under the new deal signed last April, the Japanese will go much further than in the past in providing logistical support should the U.S. need to project power in the region. A blowout with Japan would also jeopardize Beijing's economic interests. In the past couple of years, China has received $1.3 billion in yen loans, with an additional $5.3 billion in the pipeline. Japanese direct investment hit $3.1 billion in 1995, and two-way trade was worth about $57 billion.

Behind the scenes, diplomats are worried that the nationalist fires may not be containable. With an election approaching, Hashimoto and other members of his Liberal Democratic Party are not about to stop the rightists from conducting activities on what the Japanese consider private property. However, Tokyo Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda met his Chinese counterpart Qian Qichen in New York in late September to let Beijing know that Japan is not interested in straining ties over an obscure piece of rock in the East China Sea.

Neither, ultimately, is Beijing. But by reining in anti-Japanese protesters, the Chinese government runs the risk of exposing its nationalist rhetoric as hollow. "It's nationalism with Chinese characteristics," sniffs Lin Cheng-yi, a professor at Academia Sinica, a Taipei think tank. "It can be used as a tool rather than a principle." Still, preventing nationalism from getting out of control is a far better option than outright confrontation between Asia's two giants.

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