CHINESE NATIONALISM: REAL OR ORCHESTRATED?….There were lots of interesting comments and emails in response to my Friday musings about nationalism. I want to focus on China, for obvious reasons.

One strain of comment was that the Chinese had a right to be angry at the Japanese because the Japanese hadn’t apologized sufficiently for what they did to China during World War II. In other words, “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past,” to quote someone who deeply understood historical grievances. In addition, there are fears (expressed here in a piece by Jonathan Dresner) that “trying to ‘keep Japan in its place’ could well produce a nationalistic backlash in Japan that would exacerbate tensions.” More exploration of that in this thoughtful piece by Alan Dupont.

Another was that these demonstrations were orchestrated by the regime in order to deflect pressure for reform outwards, and/or to achieve some foreign policy objective such as stopping Japan’s bid to join the UN Security Council or building support for China’s position on disputed undersea gas deposits. And indeed, the Jim Yardley of the New York Times did a story contrasting the “officially authorized” protests in Beijing and Guangzhou with the genuine outrage expressed in Huaxi over poor environmental conditions. Since Thursday, there have been “controlled burns” in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Shenzen, and a few other cities.

One emailer said:

remember when the us accidentally bombed the chinese embassy in belgrade in ’99? and there were truly ferocious chinese protests in front of the us embassies, attacks on us symbols like McD’s in China, etc.? And then suddenly, after some quiet diplomacy, it all instantly subsided?

Well, yes, I do remember that, but I also remember that videotapes of the attack on the World Trade Center sold like hotcakes in China. Why was that? Anti-American sentiment seems real enough. I would also add that even if China’s nationalistic outburst is being orchestrated from on high for specific purposes, it’s a dangerous thing, and the Chinese government is not exactly doing much to calm the waters.

Like Joseph Britt, I can’t help wondering how aware the average Chinese person is of China’s own history. Britt asks:

It wasn’t just the failure of central planning or the bloody stalemate in Afghanistan that undermined the legitimacy of Soviet Communism, but the slowly spreading knowledge among educated Russians of what had been done in the Party’s name. Horror can be a corrosive force. Knowledge of the past can be limited, and controlled, but not forever. What will happen when the Chinese now being urged to demonstrate against part of the past start asking about the part the Party has striven to hide from them all these years?

What indeed?

Does anyone remember the film Hero, and the idea of “Our Land?” Jet Li’s character, a warrior from Zhao, abandons his quest to kill the Qin emperor because he realizes that the latter’s militaristic drive to unify all six territories (“Our Land”) under one rule is the only way to preserve the peace in the long run. I can’t help thinking that the Chinese Communist Party’s biggest fear is not American encirclement or Japan’s regional dominance, but rather internal fragmentation. On the one hand, it’s hard to see how a descent into chaos–if such a thing is possible–would be good for China or the world economy. On the other hand, whipping the people into a frenzy against the Other every time the CCP wants to accomplish something abroad doesn’t seem like a sustainable or responsible approach to world affairs.

UPDATE:This poll of Hong Kong sentiment toward Japan, which is strongly negative, suggests that lingering Chinese resentment against Japan is not simply the product of anger over political repression being directed outwards. Lots to chew on here.