The Dragon Must Not Slide, or Why Can’t China Say Yes?

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In September 2004, a wave of protests rocked the Chinese Internet. The protests were directed against an ad of Nippon Paint, a market-leading Japanese-owned company, which had been reproduced in Guoji Guanggao, an advertising trade magazine. The ad, produced by the Canton branch of Leo Burnett, depicted a traditional Chinese pavilion, with carved dragons coiled up around its front pillars. But one of the dragons was pictured slumped at the bottom of the pillar, which was painted a shinier red than all others. The message was that Nippon’s lacquer, used to coat that pillar, was so smooth that even the dragon could not help sliding down on it. The magazine praised the originality and forcefulness of the ad as a “breakthrough” of creativity, but Internet posters described it as “evil”.[1] People’s Daily Online, the website of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, invited readers to express their views on its article, entitled “How Can We Recognise International Advertising That Harms National Dignity?” The article had raised the question whether Guoji Guanggao‘s defense – that by reproducing the ad it was not supportive of it but wished merely to educate readers and incite discussion about negative trends in advertising – should be accepted as a genuine apology or seen as an effort to raise sales through deliberate provocation. All responses selected for posting by the website’s managers were unequivocally condemning of the ad, with the most outspoken calling not only for a boycott of Nippon Paint but also – referring to the publishers of the magazine – for “hurting this scum”.[2]

On another website, a poster explained why he considered the ad so offensive:

The symbol of our Chinese race – the sacred and mighty, inviolable dragon! The Chinese dragon here plays the role of a clown, the inglorious role of being humiliated! … Who was it that directed Nippon Paint to make such an ad!

The poster went on to “sternly demand an apology to the Chinese people.”[3]

In 1996, six young Chinese writers published a book entitled China Can Say No – Political and Emotional Choices in the Post-Cold War Era. The book was inspired by A Japan That Can Say No, a popular 1991 tract by the Japanese nationalist – and Governor of Metropolitan Tokyo – Ishihara Shintaro. In chapters with titles like “We Don’t Want MFN” (trade benefits accorded by the U.S., known as Most Favoured Nation status), and “I Won’t Get on a Boeing 777,” the authors slammed US foreign policy (in particular, support for Taiwan) and American individualism; claimed that China was being used as a scapegoat for American problems; and voiced support for governments such as that of Fidel Castro’s Cuba that openly declared their opposition to the US, as well as for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Russian nationalist.

The text also focused on Japan, which it accused of being a client state of the US. The authors opposed Japan’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council and supported a renewed call for war reparations to China from Japan.[4]

On the tide of indignation with China’s loss of the bid for the 2000 Olympics, the book became a bestseller and set off a tide of copycats (from Why China Says No to How China Can Say No), as well as of a vehement and emotional popular nationalism, often focused on symbolic issues and sometimes critical of the government for not standing up firmly enough for China’s dignity.

Since then, however, Peking was awarded the right to organise the 2008 Olympic Games, and the Chinese government became George W. Bush’s ally in the “war on terror”. So is China still saying no today?

In the mid-2000s, China’s media is considerably more diverse in both form and content than ten years before. Billboard advertising, television, newspapers and Internet blogs have multiplied. After a few days of reading and watching these media and talking to people in China, it becomes clear that the theme of offended pride is alive and well. Taxi drivers talk wistfully about bombing America for “bullying” China – or even ask whether the passenger is American, explaining that “I don’t like Americans because America is humiliating China.” Another despises the Japanese for being “unfriendly” to China and asks: “Don’t you think that when China becomes strong, Westerners will have to learn Chinese and we will give them as hard a time letting you in as they do with Chinese in the West?” “Humiliation” or “bullying” (qifu 起伏) and “disrespect” or “looking down” (kanbuqi 看不起) are a central theme of describing America’s relationship to China. In May 2006, we found 623,000 entries with the term “qifu Zhongguo” (bullying China) and 521,000 with “kanbuqi Zhongguoren” (looking down on Chinese people) on Google.cn. In a survey the same year of 1,400 residents of five major cities, 60% said that “the West” is either already “containing” China or is intent on doing so. In such accounts, “the West” always appears as a single entity, no longer an ideological one linked to capitalism but rather a cultural one – much as “Asia” does in many Western accounts.[5] The “bullying” of China is emotionally linked to attacks on Chinese migrants, which in Chinese news sources tend to appear as part a global trend. For example, readers who clicked on a Sina.com news item about a Chinese woman beaten by a policeman in Milan on 12 April 2007 found links to similar beatings in Spain and Brazil, but were not told anything about why the clash occurred, thus reducing the incident to yet in a seemingly incessant litany of anti-Chinese offences committed by Western authorities.[6] (While harassment of Chinese merchants in Italy, Spain and France by local residents and police is on the increase, none of the Western reporting on this incident mentioned that the woman had been beaten. By contrast, they stated that the Chinese merchants had overturned a car in protest against continuing harassment, which included the woman’s fining by traffic police.)

Japan is hated for historically different reasons, and that hatred takes more virulent forms: while no calls for boycotting McDonalds and Starbucks have received wide publicity, flyers calling for the boycott of Japanese goods were widely distributed in 2005, a year when emotions flared up after news of a revisionist Japanese textbook’s publication were reported in the media. In April, twenty thousand people marched in Peking to protest the publication and Japan’s Security Council bid, and Japanese department stores came under attack; one in Chengdu burned down. A year earlier, Chinese football fans held 2,000 Japanese supporters under siege inside the stadium for three hours after Japan defeated China in the Asian Cup’s final in Peking. It is not unusual among well-paid young Peking professionals interested in Western lifestyle to refuse eating at Japanese restaurants; so, for example, some stores of the popular Yoshinoya fast-food chain have taken the characters “Japanese” off the shopfront “Japanese Beef Rice” sign. When calls for boycotting Japanese good flare up, some supermarkets remove Japanese products from the shelves. Saying to a woman that she looks Japanese can easily cause offense and anger. Websites that question the Chinese government’s casualty figures for the Nanjing massacre of 1937 by the Japanese army are regularly bombed by hackers. A visit to the memorial consecrated to the massacre is included to package tours of Nanjing, and visitors often pin messages of hate on a pine tree inside the complex. When a Chinese professional painted graffiti on the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo in 2001 to protest Japanese imperialism, he became an instant national hero on the Chinese Internet.[7]

A more recent, and much more limited, strand of hatred is directed against Indonesia. Unlike Japanese atrocities, the massacres of Chinese in the wake of Soeharto’s coup in 1965 and the murders and rapes during the currency crisis of 1998 are not discussed in mainstream Chinese media, but pictures of the latter were widely circulated at the time on the Internet. In 2006, when China offered aid to tsunami-struck Indonesia, many posters on Internet forums expressed outrage, saying that Indonesia was an unreformed enemy of the Chinese people. Amid frenzied calls to “kill Indo pigs” and “send troops to Indonesia,” one poster on the Tianya forum commented approvingly that if the 1998 victims had been American, then the United States would have bombed the country flat. Several posters made comments like “If you want others to respect you, you have to show them your fist and not your smile”. Another responded: “Wait until the Chinese race has become strong: that will be the day Indo dogs will disappear from the globe!”[8]

Despite the different explanations provided for the resentment, the anti-Japanese, anti-American and anti-Indonesian discourses share a basic tenor: the behaviour of these countries violates China’s dignity as a great historical power and prevents China from restoring that rightful position in the present. In fact, there is a seamless discourse on the nation, in which all elements – Japanese fishing vessels and oil drills, American airplanes and the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, revisionist textbooks and Japanese orgies with Chinese prostitutes – are connected in a well-rehearsed and predictable sequence, no matter where you tap into it. Every story is transformed into one of “bullying” – and of defiance that promises eventual vindication. The connection between mundane incidents and high nationalism is revealed in incidents such as when a Chinese tour group in Malaysia felt slighted by being provided vouchers with a pig’s face stamped on them. Although the casino resort said the drawings were meant only to distinguish their Chinese guests from Muslims, who cannot eat pork – or gamble – the Chinese demonstrated their pique by staging a sit-in in the hotel lobby and chanting their national anthem.[9]

We don’t know how many Chinese people actually think that “foreigners look down on Chinese”. But the media’s frequently aired contention that many do share these views – whether or not they are right – itself shapes public opinion. Thus, writing about anti-Japanese sentiments in 2003, the popular Beijing Youth Daily opined that “national sentiments have their historical reason, but we do not believe that all anger is correct and necessary; as for blindly amplified anti-Japanese sentiments, we oppose them”. Yet “no matter if you think they are narrow-minded and extreme, you cannot deny that they are an objectively existing reflection of the past in the present”.[10] Such language depicts nationalism as a groundswell of popular sentiment that arises out of historical injustice despite the greater prudence of the people’s official and intellectual leaders.

And, of course, nationalism is not necessarily produced by the state, and does not automatically result with uncritical identification with the government. Indeed, those who engage in it are often also critical of corruption. But its discourse and limits are certainly strongly influenced by printed and broadcast language, which remains, on these matters, highly standardized. Thus, only “incidents” that are framed as such in official media are adopted into the popular nationalistic discourse (the disputed islands of Diaoyu/Senkaku and the bombing of the Belgrade embassy are, disputed borders with Russia or Korea are not; Japan and the US are enemies but Russia is not; Taiwan and Tibet have always been Chinese but Korea and Vietnam have not – or much less frequently). For this reason, anti-Indonesian discussions have never gained wider currency; they circulate in Internet postings that are critical of the government, sometimes explicitly directed against the Communist Party and therefore periodically closed down. (The thread “No sympathy, no aid to Indonesian earthquake” on Tianya was, for example, deleted by the time we wanted to look at it again in May 2007.)

Direct state interventions in the nationalist discourse are always on two levels, which allows the state to both engage in inflammatory rhetoric for internal consumption (“Japan, hands off Senkaku”), compile a catalogue of “anti-Chinese incidents” that are framed as battles of nations never mind at what historical time they occurred; and at the same time, towards the outside, manifest its diplomatic maturity, restraint and responsible behaviour. As Yingjie Guo has pointed out, maintaining a sense of threat while emphasizing the achievements of the Party-government has two purposes: it takes the wind out of criticism and calls for political reform by creating a sense that any instability could result in external invasion; at the same time, it reduces the government’s culpability for failure because its hands are tied by difficult “national conditions.” Chinese media routinely mention the “China threat discourse” supposedly perpetuated by Western countries; but they emphasize that China does not respond by creating its own international bogey (although in reality, mainstream Chinese discourses of the enemy – as we will see below – are much more strident than those in the West). The same duality is reflected in popular commentary: “If only China were stronger it could beat the US/Japan/Indonesia” but at the same time “China behaves responsibly and doesn’t go around bullying”. In other words, China should be able to bully, but of course it never does. What is seen as “bullying” is defined exclusively by the standpoint of Peking, so that Taiwan and the states that try to maintain relations with it are not being bullied by China, but China is being bullied by those who disagree with its Taiwan policy. Indonesia’s detaining of Chinese fishing vessels in its waters is seen as bullying, but so does the incursion of Japanese trawlers into Chinese waters. While Japanese tourists in Nanjing are always taken to the Nanjing Massacre memorial, Chinese tour groups visiting the Military Museum in Hanoi are not shown the part of the exhibition that focuses on the war with China. (A Chinese blogger described how a member of her tour group “very patriotically said that we wouldn’t look at it even if they took us there.” She went on to comment how surprised she was to see American tourists taking photos in front of a U.S. warplane shot down by the Viet Cong: “We Chinese tourists would surely not give in, we would argue [about the war], and the last thing we would do is take a photo as a souvenir!”[11]

There has been no shortage of Western attempts to document and explain the nationalism that has become evident in China since the 1990s. Many of them focus on the role of the government since 1989 in producing nationalistic discourse as a tool of self-legitimation in an era of market reforms, when the rhetoric of class struggle was no longer desirable or credible. Most analyse the historical genealogy of nationalism, going back variously to the imperial view of the “Middle Kingdom,” the reformist ethnonationalism of the early twentieth century, and the ledger of historical injustices maintained by reformers, nationalists and communists alike since the Opium War, and pointing out how post-1989 governments synthesized elements of these. A few discuss nationalisms that are potentially subversive: that of neotraditionalist intellectuals who would like to expunge what remains of “Western” Marxism from the public realm (among them some who want to develop democratic institutions on the basis of Confucian thought) or that of Internet-based anti-Japanese activists.

But while historical explanations and political analyses may explain why certain types of nationalism arise and persist, they are not sufficient to explain why they command so much mobilizing power at certain times in history and not others. What if anything does it mean, for example, that 75% of Chinese agreed with the statement “Our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others” in a 2006 survey, up from 66% in 2002?[12] The interesting and hard questions, the ones that should help us decide whether we should be afraid of “China’s rise”, are these: Is nationalism in China more successful in uniting the state with its citizens, and the citizens with each other, than elsewhere in the contemporary world, which is unquestionably rife with all sorts of nationalisms large and small? Does it make dissent against a repressive state more psychologically difficult and less likely than was the case, for example, in the Soviet Union? Is it more pervasive than twenty years ago? And if so, why?

Our stories of “saying no” cannot answer these questions. What they do is provide a textured view of some of the environments where China’s public and semi-public discourses of nationalism in the 2000s are produced – advertising, the Internet and traditional media – and of the forces and actors that produce them.

[Go to next chapter]


[1] Yang Lili 杨丽丽, “立邦漆广告中“盘龙滑落”画面引起争议” (“Sliding dragon” frame in Libang Lacquer Factory ad triggers controversy), reproduced on news.tom.com from Bandao Chenbao 半岛晨报, 23 September 2004, http://news.tom.com/4005/4411/4413/20040923-1349567.html.[2] “28日网友留言精选:有损国格 国际广告判别力何在” (The best posts on the 28th: How Can We Distinguish International Advertising That Harms National Dignity?), People’s Daily Online, 28 September 2004. www.people.com.cn/GB/guandian/35534/2825369.html.

[3] Kafei 卞飞 “28日网友留言精选:有损国格 国际广告判别力何在” (Chinese dragon “slides” on Nippon lacquer; our countrymen loudly demand Nippon’s apology), Jinlu Wanbao 金陵晚报, reproduced on http://news.tom.com/1006/2004923-1351387.html, 23 September 2004.

[4] See the authors’ article in English: Zhang Xiaobo and Song Qiang, “China can say no to America,” New Perspectives Quarterly, 13(4):55 (Autumn 1996).

[5] “全国五大城市年终民意调查:中国人如何看世界” (Year-end national opinion poll in five major cities: How Chinese see the world), Xinhuanet, 31 December 2006. http://news.xinhuanet.com/world/2006-12/31/content_5551355.htm.

[6] “意大利警察殴打华人妇女引发抗议” (Beating of Chinese woman by Italian police triggers protests), Sina.com, 12 April 2007.

[7] Wanning Sun, Media and the Chinese Diaspora: Community, communications and commerce. London and New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 13.

[8] Threads “印尼地震了,中国捐款了,人民伤心了” (Earthquake shakes Indonesia, China donates aid, people are offended; 29 May 2006) and “对印尼地震,不同情,不捐款” (No sympathy, no aid to Indonesian earthquake, 30 May – 1 June 2006) on Tianya. Thanks to Zhang Juan for bringing these threads to our attention.

[9] Wayne Arnold, “Chinese Tourists Getting a Bad Image,” New York Times, 23 October 2005.

[10] Ji Fanghua 蔡方华“对霸道广告的“误读”和爱国激情的正确表达” (“Misreading” the Badao ads and correctly expressing patriotic fervour), 北京青年报, 8 December 2003. Reproduced at http://news.tom.com/1006/2004923-1351385.html, 23 September 2004.

[11] Wanshui Yifang (2006) “越南纪行” (Notes on my trip to Vietnam), 11 November 2006. www.tianya.cn/New/PublicForum/Content.asp?flag=1&idWriter=0&idArticle=99550&strItem=travel.

[12] Pew Global Attitudes Project, “Publics of Asian Powers Hold Negative Views of One Another:
China’s Neighbors Worry About Its Growing Military Strength,” http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=255.

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