Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 10 April 2008

Chinese overseas demonstrate against Western media coverage of Tibet

Last night, posters were put up around the Macquarie University campus in Sydney announcing a “Sydney Chinese Grand Patriotic and Peaceful March” (Xini huaren daxing aiguo heping youxing) on Sunday morning,
“meeting at the entertainment center on the McDonalds side”. The poster displayed a link to the site — apparently an unaffiliated Chinese-language “community” portal, which displays news from various (Mandarin- as well as Cantonese-speaking groups. The text of the appeal, which replicates that of the poster (although it is titled “Chinese students'” rather than “Sydney Chinese” march), read: “The fighters’ blood is China’s suffering; the wound on the nation’s body is China’s shame; Chinese must stand up and cry out.” The term for “China/Chinese” is Zhonghua, which is a racial rather than a territorial term, suggesting that all “patriotic” individuals of Chinese descent are included.

Many Chinese students at the university were also sent invitations to go (“no matter whether you have a Chinese passport or Australian citizenship”). This text apparently came from the website, a portal that seems to target mainly students, and, though I have not heard of before, appears to have some readership overseas. Invitations have also been circulated to travel to Canberra to protect the Olympic torch from protesters when it will pass there.

Several things are of interest here. First, in the past, large-scale demonstrations of Chinese abroad (such as against the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999) were always organised with the knowledge and tacit approval of the Chinese embassy; moreover, because they complied with such government suggestions, they tend to be quite standard across the globe. It is hard to imagine that the embassy would not try to control an event that may impact on China’s public relations abroad. The organisers of these protests are not named, but if it turns out that they have not consulted the embassy, this would be a departure from the past and suggest that the government is losing control over overseas nationalism. On the other hand, if we see a repetition of standard rhetoric and activities across cities around the globe, then more likely than not there is some government coordination on in the background. (This is not to suggest that the organisers are not moved by spontaneous emotions, simply that their expressions are channeled by government guidance.)

Second, the posters and the online appeal are in Chinese (the poster has the English phrases “Say NO to RIOTS, peaceful XIZANG, stop media DISTORTION,” but an average Australian who does not know that Xizang is Tibet’s Chinese name would not know what this is about. In other words, it appears that the protest is an expression of patriotic wrath (whether with an eye to the embassy to demonstrate loyalty, or more likely simply out of spontaneous anger), rather than a genuine attempt to engage Western media in a discussion.  A protest that took place in Munich on 29 March was rather differently organised: it had an English-language website, and protesters carried placards in English (and some in German). In an ideal case, this could actually lead to greater dialogue and diversity in the German public debate on Tibet, though for this protesters must be prepared to tackle not only the media’s image of China but also the substance of what is going on in Tibet. And, of course, the choice of English rather than German (and the misspelling of names of cities where protests are planned: Karlsruhe, “Manheim,” “Heiderburg” and Stuttgart) may not be the right gesture if one’s goal is, in fact, to engage with a German-speaking public sphere. The organisers of that protest are identified by name, as students, professionals, and a university lecturer, and the emphasis is on “listening to both sides” rather than on defending patriotic honour.

Third, I wonder how many students in this apparently apolitical community will actually turn out. Some students say that there is a sort of peer pressure to display patriotism — akin to events in China.



  1. Well, Third Tone Devil, the turnout was beyond any of my expectations! Definitely a couple of thousands. I will post an account shortly.

  2. You are suggestive of a formal dialogue between Chinese and westerners, thus facilitating the communication and a better understanding of each other. However, one aspect we could ignore is that the power relations at a international level especially when it comes to diplomatic excise where the western countries to some extent feel threatened by a rising power from the east. Therefore, “a genuine attempt to engage Western media in a discussion” can not achieved, since the western media in the first place have imposed a biased stance( in picturing a romanticized Tibet past where and ignoring the religious-cum-political excises of the Tibetan elites), the trajectories of the production and internalization/normalization of this knowledge circulated in the western world are to be examined, above all why this knowledge has been manipulated and legitimated as an instrument in the international relations.

    If there are some comments made by some Chinese netizens which seem as a Chinese conventional practice( indicating a certain level of anger without analyzing the event in a logic and reflective way ), or the 13th Sydney Chinese Grand Patriotic and Peaceful March where some slogans seem as “defending patriotic honour”, and as you argues that there are possibilities and reasons that different interest groups(political agenda or promotion of the image of the companies ) involved in this event that met their motivations. However, anyone who witnessed this march would be surprised by the young overseas Chinese students who both have received both domestic and western education and equipped a certain understanding of the two worlds. I was stricken by the fact that this age group(overwhelming at their early 20s) were singing “Ge Chang ZuGuo”( singing for our motherland to describe shortly, a Chinese Communist Party propaganda during the nation-building in 1950s), considering its political root , it can be easily correlated with state-promoted discourse, however for this overseas group who is of free choices for any political stance or non, why their use this song to express their own emotions? Why this past government incitement has retrieved its life among this particular group? Is it through a way of “govenmentality” which travel from the distant through the means of internet or are there any micro-processes going on among the individuals, the implicit struggles among the overseas students who are physically and psychologically interacting with different peoples?
    To borrow an anthropological analyses from Barth, identity is formed and enhanced through the interaction thus results in boundary making, and he further argues that there are different processes in strengthening this identification. Drawing upon this argument, I would argue that there see a strong sense of reflection on the western values among the Chinese Diaspora(especially whose who are well educated) as a micro-process which enhances this self –identification, accompanied a new understanding of the governance of Chinese dominate governance. I interviewed an apolitical participant one middle-aged participant in the March who was once one of the student protestant in Tian An Men Event in 1989, explicitly reveals a sense of reflection on and appreciation about the Communist practices while showing concerns about the burden of this party in governing such a big and diverse population. Similarly some Chinese netizens commented on the anti-CNN event to the effect that they now know why there are strict censorship in Chinese media(controlled by the Communist Party) in a sense that most of the coverage is about positive aspects of China, otherwise there will be big troubles.
    Following is posted by a Chinese, from which we could sense out the reflection. ( available both in Chinese and English ), at the same time from this, your immediate use of “spontaneous anger” is subject to scrutiny.

    When We were called Sick man of Asia, We were called The Peril.
      When We are billed to be the next Superpower, We are called The threat.
      When We were closed our doors, You smuggled Drugs to Open Markets.
      When We Embrace Freed Trade, You blame us for Taking away your jobs.
      When We were falling apart, You marched in your troops and wanted your “fair share”.
      When We were putting the broken pieces together again, “Free Tibet” you screamed, “it was an invasion!”
      ( When Woodrow Wilson Couldn’t give back Birth Place of Confucius back to Us,
      But He did bought a ticket for the Famine Relief Ball for us.)
      So, We Tried Communism, You hated us for being Communists
      When We embrace Capitalism, You hate us for being Capitalist.
      When We have a Billion People, you said we were destroying the planet.
      When We are tried limited our numbers, you said It was human rights abuse.
    When We were Poor, You think we are dogs.
      When We Loan you cash, You blame us for your debts.
      When We build our industries, You called us Polluters.
      When we sell you goods, You blame us for global warming.
      When We buy oil, You called that exploitation and Genocide.
      When You fight for oil, You called that Liberation.
      When We were lost in Chaos and rampage, You wanted Rules of Law for us.
      When We uphold law and order against Violence, You called that Violating
      Human Rights.
      When We were silent, You said you want us to have Free Speech.
      When We were silent no more, You say we were Brainwashed-Xenophoics.
      Why do you hate us so much? We asked.
      ”No,” You Answered, “We don’t hate You.”
      We don’t Hate You either,
      But Do you understand us?
      ”Of course We do,” You said,
      ”We have AFP, CNN and BBCs…”
      What do you really want from us?
      Think Hard first, then Answer…
      Because you only get so many chances,
      Enough is Enough, Enough Hypocrisy for this one world.
      We want One World, One Dream, And Peace On Earth.
      - This Big Blue Earth is Big Enough for all of Us.

  3. I guess honeysuckle is right by saying that the international community is now feeling the “heat” of China’s rising power. Recently I collected a number of political cartoons that are made to boycott the Beijing Games on the internet. China is no longer portrayed with a wimpy sickly image; instead, it has become a ferocious man (or a dragon) with a stern face and big muscles. Many Chinese netizens are again furious with this kind of demonization. But there also are people who are happy that finally China has become one of the “bullies” in the world and they certainly hope China continues to be this tough.

    Well I think, firstly, we could not assume that the West or the West media is all homogenous, fine-tuned with only one voice. The Tibet affair and the Olympic torch relay are not just used as a medium for political negotiations between China and the West. Even within France, Germany or the US (the top three countries under accusation here), different organizations and public figures make varied stances (pro-Tibet, pro-China, neutral) to exploit this matter to their political or personal gains. The “West” is not speaking in one voice in the first place and it’s not too difficult to imagine that different parties are speaking with different agendas as well. So I guess the point is not only to examine how certain knowledge and information are manipulated and legitimized through mass media in the West, but equally importantly, how the image of an unfavorable West is constructed and legitimized as a front in the mind of the young Chinese patriots. I guess with this kind of imaginations in their heads, obviously a dialogue is not viable at the present time. What we see (and what we hear now) is a competition of shouting volume from both the Chinese side and the opposing party—it is not yet a dialogue because both sides won’t listen to each other or try to understand the whole issue from a different perspective.

    (One thing good about the shouting though, is that international corporations and conglomerates now start to worry that the growing hostility will eventually affect their business interests in the Chinese market and they start to take part and put pressure. In the end, they might turn out to be the most effective mediator after all.)

    Another observation (made by Johanes) is very interesting that both Chinese students and the protestors are claiming they are speaking the objective truth and the other is lying and/or being brainwashed. But I think this whole event is not about finding or revealing the truth anyway. At least for the Chinese it is about defending a dignity and an image. Maybe the old Chinese saying “family dirt must not be revealed” can somehow explain why students are so angry with the dramatized exposes in the western media? These young Chinese students, who have lived and received education in both China and the west, certainly have their own ways of making sense of being Chinese nationals living overseas. I think precisely because they are not living in China, they tend to romanticize the nationalist sentiments and they incline to show more sympathy to the Chinese state (as part of the romantizaiton). They are more aware of the importance of the “China image” and therefore, like what the Third Tone Devil said, take on the responsibility to defend and to protect it voluntarily. These Chinese students play the same “display” and “conceal” game that the Chinese state plays in the end. They help to create a mosaic of desirable qualities (su zhi) such as being heroic, self-righteous, open-minded, well-educated, rational, etc, as the new front to challenge the old image of Red Communist China. These qualities and China’s eagerness to showcase its transformations in the past decades are sort of endorsing one another. The undesirable scenes or images, of course, need to be kept away. Just like what honeysuckle’s respondents said: strict censorship is not all bad or else there’ll be trouble (trouble for whom, exactly?)

    I guess what Third Tone Devil meant by “spontaneous anger” is the kind of immediate defensive reaction when one senses being under attack. Reflexivity does not make anger less spontaneous. The deeply rooted sense of humiliation certainly helped to trigger this rage. Why now? I think it is certainly related to the Olympic Games. China has waited for seven years for this moment to be under the global limelight to present a modern, vibrant new China. It’s no surprise that the level of tolerance would have gone down and level of sensitivity gown up. Any negativity would be magnified as a sign of sabotage.

    My idea why the students were singing “gechang zugou” and other propaganda songs is that they never really place themselves away from the state propaganda… Even during the 6.4 period the students never really wanted to overthrow the state, rather, they just wanted to give constructive criticism, at least according to my parents that was the case. I guess the 6.4 students considered themselves patriots, and now these Chinese students are the new patriots and pioneers. Maybe it was not only about how the state indoctrinate the citi/netizens, but also how people embrace and appropriate certain political symbols as part of their identities.

  4. After the Friday talk at the Chinese Research Centre on “Chinese nationalism under globalization,” I have been trying to put some pieces of thoughts together. Feng’s talk was a bit “old-school,” the typical analysis on Chinese nationalism including a discussion on the “victim mentality” caused by a deeply rooted sense of humiliation since the modern era, and why nationalism is good or not good for China’s future, so on and so forth. Not too exciting. But the debates afterwards were much more interesting. Especially what the student representatives said, who were the Sydney organizers for the patriotic March and the Canberra torch protection, was very different from what the China studies scholars and enthusiasts (who were in their 30s to 50s) were saying.

    Feng and his peers were trying to go deeply into Chinese modern history and go broadly to the “West” in order to understand and to pinpoint the logics and mentalities of this nationalist outbreak within and outside of China. Some students’ excessive actions were criticized as acts of “aiguo zei,” or “bang daomang,” by some of the “old-schoolers” because they thought these were counterproductive for the “West” to “gaze” properly on rising China. Some older generation migrants even acted out a competition among themselves to claim who loves China more intensely and more properly or wisely, how to love the people but not the state (Party), how to disengage in politics, etcetera.

    But as the young student representatives spoke, what they said was just so simple: no, none of the above reasons that drove us to do this. Not so much on history, not so much on a sense of humiliation, not so much on the differentiation between the love for party or love for people. It was just an act of love. It was just the urge to voice out something different. Like the young boy and the girl (in their early 20s or not even) said at the end of the talk: “We were not thinking of all these complicated issues you just mentioned. Our motivation was very simple and straightforward. We just wanted another voice to be heard in the media.” The audience burst into laughter hearing what they said. Too young and too passionate, full of naiveté, maybe this was what they were thinking.

    This contrast got me thinking. Why we still confine our understanding of Chinese nationalism in the old framework of “victim and empire?” It still makes a lot of sense, especially for those who have experienced the Cultural Revolution or the 6.4 or both. But for the younger generation, these past events offer little relevance to their personal lives or meaning-making processes. If we really regard what happened recently as a beginning of a new kind of Chinese nationalism among the overseas Chinese youth, we should look at them with new eyes too.

    I think what we are seeing now could be termed as a kind of “surface nationalism.” I am drawing on Rey Chow’s 1995 book “primitive passions” to make my point. Although she was talking about contemporary Chinese cinema, its relevance is still illuminating. I especially think her analysis on Zhang Yimou’s films is very helpful in understanding what had happened recently (for those who are interested, read her Chapter 4 especially).

    The recent events show the emergence of a “surface nationalism” because of three reasons.

    First, it seems to carry no profound meanings or depths if we do not habitually force such profundity and meaningfulness onto the students’ actions. Their agenda does not bear the historical heaviness or the cultural shamefulness. What they are showing seems (to me) that they are Chinese not because of the past, but because of what they are doing at this moment that defines this identity. If one tries to dig deeper or father into the past, one probably will get none of the expected. But the lack of “somethingness” is often discredited as less valuable or significant in the intellectual tradition. Therefore we always want to find out what’s beneath the surface and to give deep and concrete interpretations of these surfaces. But what if these surfaces are intended to undo the past and depth? In other words (I am still thinking and not sure about this argument), what if the students try to disassociate themselves with neither the “victimhood” nor the “imperial pride” because they simply do not have these complexes, or these complexes do not matter as much as we would like to assume their psychological influences over the Chinese in general? The new generation Chinese youth does use symbols, such as flags and songs, and quote histories that signify a strong sense of “Chineseness” in their demonstration. But this does not suggest that they are using these symbols to deepen their meanings or motivations. I guess the point and the focus is the demonstration itself. For the sake of demonstrating, let’s make Sydney and Canberra all red. It is astonishing to the western eyes. But that is the whole point—to astonish the observing eyes, and to shock them into the recognition that “we” exist. The new generation Chinese youth knows in their heart how to use the techniques of visuality: the red flags, the sheer number of people, the uniform t-shirts, the waving of fists, the exhibiting of posters, the pictures on the web, the blogs, and videos on youtube. Maybe this is not the Zhang Yimou’s “pleasing the West” style, but it is certain that the gaze is now secured. And that is the beginning of a dialogue instead of a deadlock.

    Why these new surfaces are so exciting is linked to the second reason, that these new surfaces are intended to be looked at. Rey Chow has an interesting interpretation on Zhang Yimou’s film Judou. You will know the scene if you have watched this film. Judou (the main character, a woman) knew that her husband’s brother was peeping at her naked body through a peep hole every time when she bathed herself. She silently allowed the voyeurism, pretending that she didn’t know. This continued for a while until one day she decided to turn her body around, intentionally, so the voyeur would see her nakedness full frontal with terrible wounds that her husband inflicted on her. This action of turning around, according to Chow, is of tremendous symbolic importance in a sense that Judou was no longer the passive “being-looked-at” sexual object but a willful human being who decides what to show and how to show it. Chow writes “she turns the eroticism of the spectacle into a deliberate demonstration of and against the patriarchal order that crushes her (p.167, emphasis original).” The voyeur, this time around, is confronted with the gaze of his object and experiences the unease of being looked at so brutally and unexpectedly.

    I think the demonstration of the students bears a similar brutality. They have taken control of the matter and “turned the body around.” It’s like they are saying: we know that you (the West) are looking and we know what you want to see. But this time, we will give you what you can look at. Not only that, we are also looking at you. The demonstration is not just an expression of anger, but is in itself a representation of the emerging power equipped by the ability to “look.” This exhibition between cultures is no longer the one way traffic between the observer and the observed, but a double process of looking and being-looked-at accompanied by a heightened sense of self-consciousness.

    Lastly, the “surface nationalism” emerges for mass consumption. The new force of Chinese nationalism in this globalized age is to be (self-)admired by Chinese and to be feared (or at least reexamined?) by the non-Chinese. Either way, it is for people’s consumption as a new form of culture. But this sounds like another attempted “deep analysis” of the current situation and by doing so I will be contradicting what I have said so far. Therefore I will stop here to hear the wise opinions of my fellow enthusiasts.

  5. Thanks for these insightful comments. They’ve helped me think further about this. I think you have put your finger on something. In fact, I think you are right that many of these students are not very interested in rehearsing the victim narrative of history (the so-called bainian chiru). They are certainly unlikely to feel any personal trauma about the past (though the same is true, really, for the Cultural Revolution and 6.4 generations). I also like your suggestion that they are primarily interested in “shocking ‘whitey’ into the recognition that ‘we’ exist” (very well put!) But again, don’t you think at the emotional level Red Guards could have had the same motivation?

    The emotional satisfaction derived from being together, feeling legitimized by like-minded people and forcing others to look at you is powerful. But I think one must still, at a different level, ask why the language and symbols deployed in the process come from state nationalism. I think the students may be fed up with the disconnect between the Chinese narratives of nationhood and the Western lack of recognition of those narratives, or their own sense of themselves as modern globetrotters and their dismissal (or by proxy, the dismissal of China) as a kind of second-rate, flawed modernity by Western onlookers (including the media and people they know). IN other words, we might say that their sense of self conflicts with what they see in the mirror of their mediatic and social environment here. With a new sense of self-confidence derived from their own and China’s status, they no longer want to tolerate this as in the past, taking recourse to the Chinese media where their sense of self is affirmed, but want to force the onlookers to accept it.

    I guess the real question you are pointing at is: are narratives of historical victimhood really integral to this sense of self? And you think, and I agree, that they probably aren’t – in themselves. But they are still prominent because they resonate with a sense of present victimhood (which is very prominent in students’ narratives). In the Tianya threads you’ve sent to us, there is an enormous amount of references to history. THere is even a cartoon showing an Englishman with a gun over the corpse in “Lhasa, 1904”. Plus, I have the feeling that while the students may not be personally invested in the state discourse of the nation, they do internalize it to a point where challenges to it are felt as challenges to the self.

    It’s not surprising if protesters use the language and symbolism they have access to. Although you have objected to the Red Guard comparison, I do think it’s apt: the Red Guards have been and can be seen both as brainwashed dupes and as genuine rebels, who for want of anything better adopted the hegemonic ideology of the time to justify their actions. To a lesser extent, the same can be said of the 6.4 student leaders (just look at the texts written by Chai Ling…) But with these students abroad, one would have thought that they could have access to alternative discourses, for example the discourse of human rights, to convey the same message. But apart from a little bit in the very beginning of anti-media protests, they chose the language of the nation instead – and while it may not have been their purpose to reproduce the Communist Party’s version of the nation, they certainly didn’t make an effort to break away from it. And that, I think, really has to do with the dominance of transnational media in their lives (as well as, one might add, the growing importance of Chinese transnational media as a global force).

  6. […] People’s Daily journalist on 2008 demonstrations In 2008, we discussed the 2008 protests by Chinese students overseas against foreign media coverage of the riots in […]

  7. […] scale that can in no way be dismissed as government-organised: all of this is just like the 2008 demonstrations of Chinese students in support of the government and denouncing the Western […]

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