After surpassing Germany to become the world’s third-largest economy behind the U.S. and Japan, hosting a successful Olympic Games and conducting its first space walk, you’d think China would be happy. Even the devastating Sichuan earthquake in May 2008 had positive aspectsChinese volunteered en masse to help their stricken countrymen.
Yet China is not pleased. That, at least, is the assertion of a new book written by a group of Chinese authors who list their grievances with how China is being treated in the world today. Unhappy China, released this month, is a follow-up to the 1996 work China Can Say No, a nationalist bestseller that complained about the influence of the West and the U.S. in particular on China. Thirteen years later, the authors of Unhappy China point to the protests along the route of the Olympic flame, complaints about pollution from China by Western nations that consume far more resources per capita, and the West’s unwillingness to share key technology with China as examples of continuing foreign disdain for the Middle Kingdom. Song Qiang, who contributed to both China Can Say No and Unhappy China, writes in the latest work that China should reduce the importance of Sino-French relations because of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader that Beijing says is promoting separatism in the restive Himalayan region.
The March 8 confrontation between an unarmed U.S. Navy surveillance vessel and Chinese ships off China’s Hainan Island, the site of a major People’s Liberation Navy base, only reconfirmed the authors’ notion of foreign states bent on encroaching upon China. “If Obama wants to talk about world peace, not sending troops abroad and so on, then what is the U.S. Navy doing in the South China Sea” says Wang Xiaodong, a nationalist scholar who contributed several chapters to “Unhappy China.”
Nationalism can be a powerful force in China. Fueled by a century and a half of foreign occupation and an education system that emphasizes that era of national weakness, patriotic sentiment can flash at times when citizens feel that the nation’s interests or dignity have been violated, as when the protests during the Olympic torch’s global run spurred Chinese anger.
While nationalism can help unify the country to respond to events like the Sichuan earthquake, the fear is that if the sentiment flares unchecked, it could push Beijing to take a belligerent, isolationist line.
Wang and Son also direct their ire at targets at home. They assert that China suffers from weaknesses in its political system and that democracy should be the nation’s ultimate goal. But when they discuss democracy they are more likely to highlight the failures of India and the Philippines than to mention the top 20 nations on the United Nations Development Programs human development index, which are all democratic. In that regard they are much like the Chinese Communist Party, which says it is pursuing democracy “with Chinese characteristics,” but argues that any moves to lessen its grip on power would risk chaos. Yet the authors are quick to distance themselves from the government. Wang says that much of the speech making by Chinese leaders is “empty” like that of Western politicians, that Beijing is still inept at wielding its growing clout abroad and that the country’s obsession with the Beijing Olympics reflected a “weak nation’s psychology.” That independent streak and willingness to break with the Party is what makes nationalism such an unwieldy force for China’s rulers. Nationalist sentiment can help unite China’s citizenry around a cause like opposition to Tibetan independence during last year’s protests and violence in Lhasa. But it can also turn against leaders who are seen as not pushing China’s interests with sufficient force.
In talking with Wang and Song it’s easy to get the feeling that it’s not so much China that’s unhappy and angry, but the authors themselves. The brand of nationalism they preach is still a potent force, but they seem more upset about rivalries at home than abroad. Wang cautions that the book’s title is a bit of a ruse. “To be frank, those words in the title “Unhappy China” are just for the purpose of promoting the book in the marketplace,” he says. “We didn’t choose them. It was the people selling the book who chose the title, because it would sell well.” If they could chose a title, Wang says it would have been “China’s Goals for the Next 30 Years” or something similar. But who would want to read that
With reporting by Jessie Jiang
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