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Monday, December 22, 2003

Fear and Loathing in China

In a weekend edition of the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof asks: Is China a Threat to the Rest of the World? It is a continuation of a series of columns he is writing on his journey of exploration of the 'New China', along with a reader's forum on the series in his semi-weblog 'Kristof Responds'.

His major thrust today is concern over the "nationalism" he finds stirring in the belly of many if not most young Chinese people, university students in particular, which he finds directed most openly towards Japan and the Japanese people.

Below is an extract from Joseph Bosco's response.

In his argument, he mentions two very recent events as examples of this phenomenon: An ugly, and outrageous, incident over a skit performed by Japanese exchange students at a university in Xian in the early part of this semester; and the arrests and adjudication in a case involving several hundred Japanese businessmen and their mega-tryst with several hundred Chinese prostitutes at a hotel in the southern port city of Zhuhai (for which two Chinese citizens received life sentences just this past week).

Readers of these pages and other China-based weblogs will be familiar with both of these aberrations. His third example is the ever-upward creeping revisionism of the death toll of the Japanese atrocity in 1937, commonly known as the 'Rape of Nanjing.'

Being a visiting professor at one of China's elite universities, without qualification, I can attest to the accuracy of Mr. Kristof's underlying findings. The loathing of Japan and, to a lesser extent, the Japanese people, is quite palpable. It manifests itself whenever Japan, and things Japanese, are the focus of class lectures or discussions, any time Japan is in the news, and most vehemently in private conversation..............

Where I somewhat disagree with Mr. Kristof, is in what it actually means, and that it is fore-shadowing a potential military confrontation with Japan. I also disagree on how much of it is orchestrated by the central government as a way of using 'nationalism' as a cohesive factor in holding China together as ideology increasingly diminishes with the rush into capitalism and, yes, the beginnings of a form of 'Democracy with Chinese Characteristics' which is fact and not just dissident radicalism.

If it is possible for most people in the west to understand, the Communist Party of China itself is a burgeoning democracy, with peacefully competing wings' left, right and center, amongst the 60 million party members.

It is these two engines that are driving China, and also holding it together. While they often exercise their prejudice of Japan, what the young Chinese people spend most of their time doing is chasing what we used to call the 'American dream': a good life that includes a home of their own, a car of their own, a good education for their one child, vacations that include travel, and of course the good, steady job that provides for all of these things. Going to war with anyone seriously gums up that future and they know it.................

Another reason I do not believe that China is a military threat to Japan, or any of its other neighbors, is that while they may viscerally loathe Japan, they are not afraid of Japan, or even mistrustful of Japan. Who my students fear and mistrust is America. While they love Americans, and almost all things American, they truly believe that an administration such as George W. Bush's would in fact attack China in a heartbeat if it was in any way politically or geopolitically advantageous to what the neocons might one day believe to be American interests............

You see, Chinese students study a great deal more history than American students. The Korean war is not a 'forgotten war' to them. And the war in Vietnam isn't something they culturally want to forget as do American students. They know that war well; they know that our air force came all too close to unloading B-52s on Hainan Island, China's southern most province and its 'Hawaii', only about 100 miles of South China Sea away from North Vietnam.

This is probably not the kind of thing Mr. Kristof and other Americans want to hear—I damn sure did not like it when I first became aware of it (which was about a day after arriving in China). But it is fact: America is the only country Chinese young adults fear and mistrust. Japan they can hate, and even haze and all but terrorize its visiting citizens when they are not extremely careful regarding China's over sensitivity towards Japan's behavior during the first half of the 20th Century. They can do this because they do not fear or mistrust them; they just don't like them.

On the other hand, we Americans are treated with almost embarrassingly special attention. As long as our students are testing well and getting into graduate schools in America and Great Britain, we can almost get away with murder. Being an American 'Foreign Expert' in China is a ticket to a life of special favors in almost every sector of life. We are loved, feted, wined, dined and lavished with presents and invitations home.

But our government? Particularly this government? They don't trust it any farther than they can throw it. And they fear it greatly. It wasn't just one student who wondered aloud that if we could force the acknowledged leader of a country like Iraq into a rat-infested hole in the ground for weapons of mass destruction he did not have, or for supporting terrorists who were not in country much before he went into that hole, what might we Americans do to the leaders of a country that absolutely does have weapons of mass destruction, a country that has made serious military threats against a runaway province that America is sworn by law, not treaty, to defend?

No amount of explaining how that is all but impossible, even for this administration, can dissuade them, and many of their Chinese professors, from their deep and basic mistrust of American unilateralism. And this is not just since that term became a buzz word after 9/11 and Bush's strike-first doctrine. They have feared American unilateralism all of their young lives.

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