Controversy, Not Crisis, Was Expected in China

We foreign correspondents in China knew this was going to be a historic year, especially with the Olympics. I did not expect the run-up to the games to be free of controversy.

But I did not foresee that the unrest in Tibet and Olympics-related protests would turn into a national crisis of sorts for China. That crisis has now triggered a sharp nationalistic response and made this a defining moment that will affect how young Chinese perceive the West and vice versa.

Rather than an affirming patriotism, this backlash often manifests itself as an intolerant nationalism, as illustrated by two recent news items. In the case of Duke University freshman Grace Wang, pro-China protesters and Internet users labeled her a traitor — and hounded her parents in China into hiding — merely because she refused to stand with the pro-China group, communicated with the pro-Tibet students, and urged dialogue between the two camps.

Paralympic fencer Jin Jing, meanwhile, was hailed a national hero for defending the Olympic flame against protesters in Paris, only to be cursed as a turncoat when she refused to support a boycott of the French retail store Carrefour. Many Chinese have been dismayed by the irrationality of the Carrefour boycott, in light of the fact that it is a Sino-French joint venture that employs mostly Chinese people and sells mostly Chinese products.

It is, however, an easy target. And that can be said of the foreign media as well. Several of my colleagues have had their pictures and contacts posted on the Internet. Many of us have received death threats and hate mail. One or two have fled the country for security reasons. Others are just despondent at being the target of ill will from the population of our host country.

The Foreign Ministry's Information Department, which accredits foreign journalists and deals with us on a regular basis, is generally considered the part of the Chinese bureaucracy that "gets it" about foreign media. But in recent days, the tone of the departments' spokespersons has been unmistakably prickly.

Much of this is no doubt targeted at a domestic audience that is enraged by perceived bias of foreign media reporting on China, Tibet and the Olympics and expects the government to vigorously defend China's international image. Journalists and spokespersons are also, of course, citizens entitled to their points of view. But they're supposed to keep it professional.

The Foreign Ministry has generally shown that it understands that journalists' tough questions are not to be taken as an insult, and that foreign journalists will not and cannot work under the sort of censorship that our Chinese colleagues face. I'm sure this consensus will survive, but it's clearly exhibiting signs of strain.

In the long run, Chinese citizens and media must eventually become their own government's harshest critics. But because the current political system makes this impossible, Western critics' voices are for the moment louder — and this makes the Chinese defensive. This was the situation in Taiwan until then-President Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law and its restrictions on the press in 1988, thereby relegating foreign media to a far more marginal role.

If you speak to Chinese people here, you know that their anger at recent events doesn't mean they have let their own government off the hook, and that there is not robust debate about democracy, press censorship and other issues going on in private. After the Olympics, or perhaps even sooner, the Chinese government will likely be back in the hot seat again. And perhaps both China and the world will have learned some important lessons about the dynamics of each others' governments, societies and public opinion.

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