There have been several posts here recently about the problems China’s overly passionate, overly nationalistic youth are causing for their country, and how their tendency to over-react to what they perceive to be overly harsh criticisms of their country gives the world an even worse impression of China. (And yes, I know, thats a lot of “overs” for one sentence.) It is painful to read about this, because as all of us know, there is at least some validity to these students’ viewpoints – on some topics the outside world really is overly harsh and at times misinformed – but the way they go about expressing themselves only adds fuel to the fire and diminishes their argument.
Articles like this from today’s Times underscore the vicious circle:
When the time came for the smiling Tibetan monk at the front of the University of Southern California lecture hall to answer questions, the Chinese students who packed the audience for the talk last Tuesday had plenty to lob at their guest:
If Tibet was not part of China, why had the Chinese emperor been the one to give the Dalai Lama his title? How did the tenets of Buddhism jibe with the ‘slavery system’ in Tibet before China’s modernization efforts? What about the Dalai Lama’s connection to Hitler?
As the monk tried to rebut the students, they grew more hostile. They brandished photographs and statistics to support their claims. ‘Stop lying! Stop lying!’ one young man said. A plastic bottle of water hit the wall behind the monk, and campus police officers hustled the person who threw it out of the room.
Scenes like this, ranging from civil to aggressive, have played out at colleges across the country over the past month, as Chinese students in the United States have been forced to confront an image of their homeland that they neither recognize nor appreciate. Since the riots last month in Tibet, the disrupted Olympic torch relays and calls to boycott the opening ceremony of the Games in Beijing, Chinese students, traditionally silent on political issues, have begun to lash out at what they perceive as a pervasive anti-Chinese bias.
Clearly, this kind of reaction – throwing bottles in a USC classroom or throwing rocks in Korea – is not the best strategy for winning hearts and minds. But at least this article tells us where these students are coming from. Too rarely in the Western media do we see any meaningful insights into why the young people feel so frustrated and filled with pent-up anger. The article, however, also exposes their weakness, such as emotional but factually challenged “documentation” of Tibet’s progress. (And I’m not saying Tibet hasn’t progressed since its “liberation”; in many ways it has. But the materials the students are brandishing, described on page two of the article, do little to further this argument.) And a shaky grasp of history. And a childish manner of self-expression.
While I sympathize with the students frustration at what they see as the world’s refusal to listen to reason, I also know they are using exactly the wrong strategy to get their message out. With each new horror story I wonder, why can’t they take a step back and see how
the Antichrist the Dalai Lama has managed to arouse global sympathy? He didn’t do it by throwing rocks. He didn’t do it by scowling and chanting furious slogans.
I am traveling and will have to cut it short. But let me just finish by qualifying a point I’ve made in earlier posts, namely that nearly all of the young Chinese I know, no matter how intelligent and urbane, are adopting the anti-CNN mentality. Since I wrote that, I’ve talked with at least a few who have voiced genuine concern over their friends’ un-thought-through approach to speaking out. Most of them are a bit older than my angry friends, mainly in their 30s, and they are in despair over the immature and ineffective tactics employed by their younger countrymen. “Why do they always have to show the world their anger? Do they think that helps?” bemoaned a business friend of mine earlier today, and I felt his pain.
Maybe the 20-somethings will grow out of it. I think most of us can look back to our 20s and cringe at some of the things we did back then. But I fear the anger may be too ingrained, a strain of disease the Party cultivated to protect itself that has now run amok. No matter how grounded in fact some of their arguments may be, as long as they present themselves like over-testosteroned adolescents, China has yet another big problem on its hands. This image of a nation overrun by strident, violent youth who threaten to once again turn China inward is exactly what the country doesn’t need on the eve of it’s long-awaited and very expensive coming-out party. It could really damage the big show. And it isn’t doing much to further China’s image on college campuses outside of China.
If this post rambled or appeared more incoherent than usual, apologies in advance. I’m on the road and as sleep-starved as usual.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.