China's Worrisome Nationalism

Nationalist sentiment has been on the rise in China for a decade. This may be hidden from President Bush when he visits China next month, but it is there all the same.

From 1993 to 2001 a series of abrasive encounters poisoned the atmosphere: the forced boarding of a Chinese merchant ship (wrongly suspected of carrying chemical warfare components to Iran) in the Arabian Gulf; US efforts to block China's bid to host the 2000 Olympics; escalating tensions over Taiwan; the Wen Ho Lee affair (where China was falsely implicated in the theft of American nuclear secrets); the accidental bombing of China's embassy by US warplanes during the Kosovo war; and the mid-air collision of a US spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter last year.

Cumulatively, these events evoked bitter memories of 19 th century Western imperialism, when ``foreign devils'' subdued and humiliated China, running roughshod over a once-proud people. Echoes of past humiliations were clearly evident in a spate of popular anti-American books published in the late 1990s with such inflammatory titles as ``China Cannot be Intimidated;'' ``America's Evil Schemes;'' and ``A China That Can Say NO.'' In these and other best-selling publications the 19 th century concept of guochi - ``national humiliation'' - was invoked to express China's righteous indignation at the bullying imperialists.

Nor was this a propaganda ploy, as some suggested. Though initiated by the government, the guochi revival resonated in Chinese society. A 1999 public opinion survey of more than 1200 university students in Beijing revealed that fully 75% of well-educated respondents agreed with the statement that, ``The [Belgrade] embassy bombing was a deliberate act of the US Government.'' By the end of the 1990s a majority of Chinese citizens regarded America as their primary adversary.