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National sentiment

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James Reynolds | 11:05 UK time, Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Here's one of the stronger comments posted on this blog...

"It doesn't matter how much you hate China and Chinese, we are destined to be stronger and stronger, we will disappoint you, I feel sorry for you again..." (fairreport)

Chinese flagAnd this is an email I received from someone in the UK after reading comments like the one above...

"One cannot help, upon reading such comments, perceiving that the Chinese feel an immense patriotism which we in the West have often tended to underestimate. Any critical reporting on the part of the foreign media is immediately met with charges of bias - and this, presumably, from fairly ordinary citizens. What I, and no doubt many other foreign observers, find hard to understand, is the source of all this national pride."

I want to try to answer this.

In some ways, Chinese national pride is easy to explain. The first thing you learn about the country is that China calls itself by the ancient name of "Zhong Guo" - or Middle Kingdom - a reference to the time when China was at the centre of the world. Many Chinese contributors have written on this blog of their pride in 5000 years of civilisation (for around a thousand years - c.500AD-c.1500AD - this country was the world's leading power.) China also gave the world inventions such as paper, the compass, gunpowder, and printing. So, there's a lot to be proud of.

When things are going well, this sense of national pride lives alongside a desire to make friends with the West. I know many people here who download western music onto their iPods, who complained bitterly when a local cable company made it too expensive to watch Premiership football, who learn English, and who want to go and study abroad. I've been to events where people politely ask if they can have their picture taken with me - because they want to show off the fact that they've met and made friends with a foreigner.

But, this national pride takes on a much sharper edge when China feels under attack from the West. This year, this sharper edge was sparked in by protests in Tibet in March and by disruptions to the Olympic torch relay a few weeks later.

Whenever China feels under attack, the country thinks back to a period that everyone is taught at school: the Century of Humiliation. This is an age from 1842-1949 in which China suffered successive, humiliating defeats to Western powers and to Japan. During this time, chunks of the Middle Kingdom were handed out as prizes to conquering nations. I would argue that if you get the Century of Humiliation, you get how China often sees the West.

These are some of the events of that every Chinese pupil is made to learn (students are tested on these facts throughout their school years.)

1) 1842 - Treaty of Nanjing
The Treaty that marks Britain's defeat of China in the First Opium War. Britain forces China to open up several ports to foreign trade, to allow Christians to come in to start missionary work, and to exempt foreigners from Chinese law. China also has to give up Hong Kong for Britain to use as a harbour. Over the next few decades the Treaty of Nanjing is followed by more than a dozen more treaties signed with other Western countries. Collectively they are known as the Unequal Treaties.

2) 1860 - Destruction of the Summer Palace
At the end of the Second Opium War, Britain and France destroy the Old Summer Palace in Beijing as a way of punishing the Emperor. This is seen one of the most potent symbols of China's humiliation.

3) Japanese Occupation 1931 - 1945
Japan invades Manchuria in 1931. The subsequent 14-year occupation includes the Nanjing Massacre in 1937 in which China says that more than 200,000 people are killed by the Japanese army.

The ordinary person in the West hardly learns any of this (even if they learn the facts, they're certainly not taught the Chinese perspective.)

This narrative of humiliation - a series of western tricks, massacres, and defeats designed to keep a once-great power down - often defines how China interprets the West's actions. It leads to an acute sensitivity and suspicion of the West's real motives...

"Please keep your hands of our motherland, because it is our own family problems. We would love to talk to you if you try to understand us a bit more in a fairly way. We like to make friends with you as we did never truly hated you, even you destroyed our country and cut our land in pieces many years ago (read the Chinese history in 1899 and during the 20's - 30's" (GoonerCow)

Some recent events as seen through the lens of the Century of Humiliation...

1) 1999 - Belgrade Embassy Bombing
US warplanes bomb the Chinese embassy in Belgrade - killing three Chinese diplomats. The US apologises and says the bombing is a tragic accident - its forces had been using out-of-date maps. But many in China don't believe the explanation. Thousands demonstrate outside the American Embassy in Beijing. Many here believe the US bombing was deliberate - another western attempt to keep China down.

2) Climate change
The West urges China to cut down its carbon emissions - as part of a worldwide attempt to stop global warming. But China sees this as an attempt to stop this country's development - a co-ordinated Western plot to keep China weak...

"Oh yes everything is on us, milk price gone up cause the Chinese started drinking milk; fiscal deficit, cause China's weak currency; soaring unemployment, cause Chinese cheap stuff; anything else?...Don't you need worry about China's going to skip the responsibilities. This world got to be a fair world, the new China is never to be anyone's' scapegoat." (ronnieji)

3) Dalai Lama & Tibet
Many in the West see Tibet's spiritual leader as a moral leader who preaches non-violence and campaigns only for better human rights for his people. But in China, the West's support of the Dalai Lama is seen as a conspiracy to support a violent secessionist who wants to achieve the long-standing western aim of dismembering China in order to keep it weak. China also argues that the West's romantic view of Tibet is false. Under the Dalai Lama, China says that Tibet was a brutal, feudal society. China says that Communist rule has brought development and better rights for poorer Tibetans.

4) Taiwan
This is the self-governing island off the coast of China - seen by China as an integral piece of the Middle Kingdom. In China, Taiwan's separation from the motherland is seen as the last, and greatest, symbol of China's historic losses. Much of China's sense of humiliation is built on the loss of territory. Therefore, getting land back - and keeping the land the country's already got - is vital. It's why Britain's handover of Hong Kong in 1997 was so important, it's also why so many people email this blog to insist that Tibet will always be a part of China. Some even argue that the Century of Humiliation won't fully be over until China regains Taiwan.

5) The Beijing Olympics
China looks forward to the event as a chance to prove to itself and to the world that it's ready to retake its rightful place on the world stage. But pro-Tibet campaigners disrupt the Olympic torch relay as it goes through London, Paris, and San Francisco. In the West this is seen as part a democratic right to protest. In China it's seen as part of a deliberate, coordinated attempt to sabotage the Beijing Olympics - because the West can't bear to see China take to the stage and resurrect itself as an important power...

"No matter Bush comes or not, Olympic will continue, business between China and American will continue, Tibetan's remain in the Chinese family will continue and so will the Communitist party's rule." (zickyyy)

When it comes to reporting on China (ie - what I do) the same suspicions arise ...

"BBC continues to publish distortion about China. Why don't you just add up all the emission by developed countries in the last century and then compared will all the emission by China. Then there will be no argument about who are the real contributors to the Global warming. Why BBC do not do that is baffling. Unless BBC has a hidden agenda to smeared China's good name." (TheMiddlePath)

"The reason why west media can dare to demonize China is that Chinese people are too nice when they face west." (YiXin921)

It's the job of a reporter to be critical - to investigate, to challenge, to shed light on the stories that a government doesn't want to tell. The BBC does this in every country - and gets accused of bias wherever it reports from (I know this, in particular, after spending more than five years reporting from the Middle East.) No one - including people in Britain - likes foreigners to criticise what their country does. The particular problem when it comes to China is this: when the western media reports on difficult subjects, many people here accuse us of being out to demonise and humiliate their country.

In many ways, then, Chinese national pride goes together with suspicion of the West's real motives. Each feeds the other.

Much of this is hard for the West to understand. Many in the West simply don't know much about China's history and genuinely don't feel they are trying to tear chunks out of the country and repeat what happened in the 19th Century. The West sees that China has the world's largest army, its own nuclear weapons, a UN Security Council veto, and ambitions to send a rocket to Mars - and finds it hard to understand why such a powerful country should feel so sensitive and so victimised.

Back, then, to the original question: what is the source of China's national pride?

It's a belief that China should be allowed to retake its proper place as a major world power. When China feels under attack, this pride turns into a frustration and anger that the West is still trying to hold it back and humiliate it.

Does that answer it?


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