Tibet Protests Stir Chinese Nationalism

Internet death threats and attacks on property greeted at least one person's efforts to mediate between protesters on opposite sides of the China-Tibet issue. The official Xinhua News Agency is urging Chinese to harness their nationalistic fervor for constructive ends.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today, security is tight in Bangkok, Thailand for the Olympic torch. It was carried to a luxury hotel when it arrived and runners will jog with it through the streets tomorrow.

In recent weeks, the torch's travels have triggered protests over Chinese policies and a wave of nationalist sentiment. That includes pro-China demonstrations on some American college campuses.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on a student who stepped into the middle of a campus protest, and straight into global notoriety.

(Soundbite of protest)

ANTHONY KUHN: Last Wednesday, a dozen pro-Tibet demonstrators faced-off against several hundred Chinese counter protesters at Duke University. Video of the event was uploaded to the Web site YouTube where it's been viewed thousands of times. The video shows freshman, Grace Wang standing between the two camps of protesters. She spoke to us from North Carolina.

Ms. GRACE WANG (Student, Duke University): They saying that they were expressing their opinions, but most of the opinions were really stereotyped and both sides didn't really know the whole story, so I wanted them to try to communicate with each other.

KUHN: Standing nearby at the protests was Duke's vice president for student affairs, Larry Moneta.

Mr. LARRY MONETA (Vice President for Student Affairs, Duke University): Grace made a two-minute or so impassioned plea for dialogue and for some civil communication. She was shouted down by the counter protesters.

KUHN: Pro-China protesters questioned whether Wang was Chinese and called her a traitor for siding with the pro-Tibetan protesters. Later, postings started appearing on Web sites in China threatening violence against her and listing the home address of her parents in China. Wang says her parents moved after their home was vandalized. She denies supporting Tibetan independence and pinned some of the blame on the Chinese government.

Ms. WANG: I just think that the Chinese government is pushing a little bit too far. And the Chinese students here, without knowing what's really going on, are expressing their blind nationalism. This is not loving China at all, this is a - just a very strange expression of the mob mentality.

KUHN: Wang says her parents' home address was sent out through the mailing list of a non-profit group called the Duke Chinese Scholars and Students Association. Members of the association declined to comment on Wang's case, but they issued a statement condemning the threats against her.

Wenran Jiang is political scientist at the University of Alberta in Canada. He says that overseas Chinese may appear to be rallying behind Beijing in response to the Olympic torch relay protests and the unrest in Tibet. But, he says that, in fact, they're concerned about the nation as a whole.

Dr. WENRAN JIANG (Political Science, University of Alberta): They see the Tibetan issue as there's a perceived danger of separating Tibet out of China and this becomes not a issue with the Chinese government anymore, it's just about sovereignty, about historical ties. I think that's why, this time, emotion is very high.

KUHN: Jiang says that the debate over Tibet and the Olympics appears to be polarizing Chinese communities worldwide and pressuring people to take sides. Jiang says he's trying to stay neutral.

Dr. JIANG: There are people on both sides wanted me to join them. I made it clear to them that I want to be an observer. I'm an academic. I'm not joining any of these advocacy groups or demonstrations.

KUHN: China's leaders indicated today that the current wave of nationalism, at least within China, is making them nervous.

In a commentary, the official Xinhua News Agency said that patriotic zeal must get on to a rational track and must be transformed into concrete actions to do one's own job well. In other words, nationalism must not turn into street protests.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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