Foreign Opinion Weighs Heavily on Hearts and Minds of Beijing

Click image to magnify

China's state-controlled newspapers are one key influence on local opinions on America and the world.

Retribution was swift when actress Sharon Stone told an audience at this year’s Cannes Film Festival that the earthquake that devastated China’s Sichuan Province on May 12 was “karma” for China’s history of human rights abuses. Not only did the remarks keep her off the invitation list for the Shanghai International Film Festival the following month but prompted UME Cineplex, the Chinese cinema chain, to ban all Stone movies until further notice.

Given China’s reputation for nationalistic payback when prominent foreigners or international organizations dare to publicly criticize Chinese practices or policies, the reaction to Stone's unhappy media moment was not all that surprising - or rare. Last March, for example, when French protestors tried to disrupt the passage of the Olympic torch through Paris in pique over Beijing’s political crackdown in Tibet, Chinese bloggers helped fuel a heated boycott of French supermarket Carrefour outlets in China that in at least one case required 100 or more police cruisers to keep the ensuing melee under control.

What is less understood in the West, say experienced China-watchers, is the dimension of vulnerability that underlies such heated responses. "The schizophrenia of Chinese nationalism is that it's both proud and incredibly insecure," said David Moser, academic director for China Educational Tours, and a former employee of China Central Television.

That vulnerability vis-a-vis the West and the yearning to be accepted as a factor on the world stage was plainly evident recently when an American reporter asked people on the streets of Beijing what they thought of the United States. “Why more Americans don’t know more [about] China and don’t like China?” demanded a 52-year-old man who called himself Tony. “Chinese people [are] very friendly, peaceful people.” Another workingman, who preferred not to be named, echoed Tony’s sentiments: “America and China are friends, yes? Chinese people are friendly, yes?” The man repeated this question more than once. 

The desire for support and approval from foreign countries, especially the U.S., is not only a feature of life on the streets of Beijing, but is reflected in certain government-sponsored campaigns and efforts aimed at preparation for the Summer Olympic Games.

In the February issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, authors Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt and Andrew Small analyze the way in which the Chinese government has "conditioned" its foreign policy according to public opinion in the United States over China's relationship with pariah states such as Sudan where China has been helping bolster the government by investing funds in return for oil supplies. In the article, titled “China’s New Dictatorship Diplomacy: Is Beijing Parting with Pariahs?”, the authors argue that China's fears of a backlash and the potential damage to its strategic and economic relationships with the United States and Europe have prompted Beijing to put great effort into demonstrating that it is a responsible power. They note one example of the change in Beijing’s behavior: Beijing’s support of the deployment of a United Nations-African Union(UN-AU) force in Darfur. 

Hao Ziduan, a 24-year-old graduate student living in Beijing, offered an historical explanation for China's sensitivity with which both government officials and people in general in China regard as foreign opinion. “Chinese people care what people from other countries think because [they] feel vulnerable,” Hao said. Even a glancing study of Chinese history helps make Hao's point. 

In the 100 years following the outbreak of the Opium Wars in 1839, China territorial sovereignty was subjected to encroachment by the Western powers as England, France and Russia laid claim to various parts of the country. The most infamous example of such a “sphere of influence”, as these concessions were know, was China's ceding of Hong Kong to Great Britain. In the immediate run-up to World War II, China also suffered a brutal occupation at the hands of Imperial Japan. In between these two historic events, the fall of the country’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing, in 1911, only increased China's vulnerability to outside forces. 

Today, China’s educational system helps keep the country’s collective memory of such painful historical events fresh for many Chinese. So much so that the government has moved to tamp down sensitivities that might complicate its relations with the rest of the world by revising its history textbooks. In 2006, new editions were put into use in a select number of junior and senior high schools in Shanghai that, according to an article in the New York Times, emphasize economic growth and innovation, with the past discussed mostly in terms of social customs and cultural developments. “It is natural that they would ask whether a history textbook that talks so much about Chinese suffering during the colonial era is really creating the kind of sophisticated talent they want for today’s Shanghai,” Gerald A. Postiglione, associate professor of education at the University of Hong Kong, was quoted as saying. 

“It’s [the history] just too sad, too sad for us to take," said Hao Ziduan, who also works part-time for China Educational Tours, which helped organize the University of Texas’ reporting workshop in China this summer. Hao explained that when the U.S. military bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999, she feared that history would repeat itself. [The United States government has officially maintained that the bombing was an accident.] According to Hao and other Beijing residents who were interviewed, the embassy bombing was one ofthe most significant factors shaping Chinese sensitivity to foreign views on China in the past decade. “There’s no way the bombing of the Chinese Embassy was an accident,” said a 42-year-old construction contractor who also preferred not to be named.

Another event that struck a raw nerve was Senator Hillary Clinton's speech at the United Nations 4thWorld Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, in which she publicly listed human rights abuses in China. And Washington's continuing criticism of Beijing's record on human rights today remains a thorn in the side of many ordinary Chinese. Four out of the 12 Beijing residents interviewed for this article asked before the interview began, "Is this about human rights?" 

“Americans are our guests and should be treated with hospitality,” said a 52-year-old construction worker, politely, before adding, as if feeling obligated to do so, that the U.S was ahead of China in terms of human rights.

Recently, however, the Chinese government proved it wasn't about to take human rights allegations from the U.S lying down. In 2008, the Information Office of the State Council, a government organ, released a report entitled "The Human Rights Record of the United States in 2007", which painstakingly detailed the US invasion of Iraq and reports of U.S.-sponsored torture in "secret prisons", while characterizing them as some of the worst human rights offenses in the modern world. The report drove home the perceived hypocrisy that many Chinese believe is part and parcel of American criticism of China's human rights record. 

“You all think that because your economy is more developed that you are better than everyone else,” said 36-year-old career woman and English student, Xu Yuan, “but you can’t judge China by the same standards. We are a developing nation and the U.S. is a developed one.” 

China’s sensitivity toward foreign criticism is only likely to grow more acute as the Olympic Games draw near. In response to demands that the foreign press be allowed to cover the games - and China - freely, officials recently enacted a temporary law that allows foreign journalists leave Beijing and move around the country without prior approval until October. In addition, more than 600 families in Beijing have been selected by the government to play host to international Olympic spectators as a means of promoting cultural exchange and representing Chinese life with a positive luster.

Given the intensified international scrutiny the games will inevitably bring, the Chinese seem eager to create conditions that will show China in the best possible light. What remains to be seen is whether or not such efforts will shape the kind of international response that will help China at long last begin to put its historical sense of vulnerably behind it.