China and the World

Regrettable and despicable

Making some sense of China’s response to foreign criticism

Regrettable and despicable

"The good news is the shoe was made in China."

A Cambridge University lecture hall might not seem the most obvious location for the witnessing of a “despicable act”. Nevertheless, Chinese state media formally acknowledged last week’s throwing of a shoe at visiting Premier Wen Jiabao as worthy of such mention. State television concentrated on Wen’s unruffled response, as well as shots of the protester being led away.

Reaction amongst China’s netizens has been less restrained. A contributor to the Youku forum, for instance, warned the shoe-thrower never to visit Chinese shores, as he would be pummelled by “The fists of the descendants of the Yellow Emperor.”

Anger at Wen’s treatment is more understandable when you appreciate his popularity amongst the Chinese people. The premier has a populist touch lacking in many of his colleagues, as well as an eye for a photo op. His tireless work in touring the earthquake-ravaged Sichuan province last year also earned him huge respect.

Some of the sharper responses to Wen’s treatment feed from a deeper perception of China’s rough treatment historically at the hands of foreign governments. Generations of Chinese have been taught to feel patriotically wronged by the century and a half leading up to 1949 and awareness of topics like the ‘unequal treaties’ (in which the Qing dynasty was forced to cede various parts of Chinese territory to foreign jurisdiction). This endures today. Recent opposition to Coca Cola’s proposed acquisition of domestic soft drink producer, China Huiyan Juice Group has been phrased in language that draws on unequal treaty references, for instance.

There is also a sense that China is now heading towards a future in which it will reclaim its place at the heart of global trade and civilization. In this light, foreign criticism is seen as the final spluttering of nations who know that their time is almost up in realpolitik terms. Back to the Youku forum for a more emotive view – “Who still dares to mess with our China? America… Get out of the way… Our China is the big man now.”

Events last year contributed to the feeling that “our” China was indeed being messed with. Firstly there was a common frustration with international media reporting of the unrest in Tibet, which most Chinese felt was one-sided. Then, amidst the national excitement of Olympic year, Chinese onlookers were genuinely shocked by the disturbances at many of the torch relay stages.

Tempers were especially frayed by events in Paris in which Jin Jing, a wheelchair-bound guardian of the Olympic flame, was jostled by protesters. For the Chinese (especially those accustomed to hearing overseas pleas for respect for human rights and the rule of law) this all smacked of double standards. Or perhaps of the barbarian behaviour once suffered at the hands of foreiengers. (“You can scarcely imagine the beauty and the magnificence of the places we burnt,” wrote Charles Gordon, a British general who served in China in the 1860s, on witnessing the pillaging of the Summer Palace.)

So this is the context in which expressions like “despicable act” seem to trip a little more easily off the tongue in Beijing than in other national capitals. But do they also point to a little Sino-oversensitivity when things don’t go entirely to plan? The author Arctoasia at Bear’s Blog hints as much in a recent look at another stock expression of Chinese governmental displeasure.

The blogger, looking through the online archive of the People’s Daily, noted all references to activities classified as having “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” In all, he mapped out 43 countries that had been hurtful, as well as, surprisingly enough, the Nobel Committee, which has earned four rebukes.

The main offenders? No prizes for guessing Japan and the United States top the list, with 70 separate mentions between them. But tiny countries figure too (presumably on account of their relationships with Taiwan). It’s hard to see why else the inhabitants of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines should crop up on the list. A case, perhaps, of 1.3 billion people having their feelings hurt by a place that hardly any of us could even find on the map?

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