Move over ugly American, make room for the ugly Chinese.
In Seoul on Sunday, groups of Chinese students accosted protesters demonstrating against China's treatment of North Korean refugees and Beijing's policies in Tibet. The attacks by the Chinese occurred as the Olympic torch wended its way on its seemingly never-ending journey around the world. The South Korean government was justifiably angry. China, after initially denying the events occurred, has now taken steps to still the waters. But the damage has been done. China's angry youth - called "fen qing" in Chinese - are ruining their country's reputation around the world and spelling the end of a decade-long honeymoon that the world has had with China.
The flare-up was the latest deeply troubling and profoundly weird event to mar the globe-trotting journey of the torch, which the Beijing government has dubbed "the sacred flame." (Remember, these dudes are officially atheists.) Before Seoul, we had Chinese cops in blue and white tracksuits manhandling demonstrators in Paris and London; we had a Chinese woman in the United States who participated in a pro-Tibet protest being identified on a listserv run by Chinese students; now her parents are on the run in China and her high school in Qingdao has revoked her diploma; and we've witnessed the incessant hounding of Tibetan and other speakers on US campuses by Chinese students. In cities around the world, the Chinese embassy has fanned the passions of the "angry youth" by encouraging them to demonstrate, handing out T-shirts and flags.
While I have no problem with displays of patriotic feeling, the only thing these "angry youth" are accomplishing is turning the world away from China. And they are not alone in this ill-fated effort to get China's point across. China's propaganda machine is also seriously in need of repairs.
For a few years there, the tone adopted by spokespeople of China's government was downright suave. Background briefings. Check. A quiet drink with journalists. Check. Even a bowling event without a government minder. Check. But these days, it seems like someone has disinterred Cultural Revolution propagandist and Gang of Four member Zhang Chunqiao and put him at the helm.
After the March riots in Tibet, the Tibetan government proclaimed a "people's war" against "splittism" (somebody should really tell them to lose that word) and the party boss there called the Dalai Lama "a jackal clothed in a monk's robes, and a vicious devil who is a beast in human form." A few days later the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "disgusting." And the amazing thing was the Chinese expected to be taken seriously.
Finally, there's China's "ship of shame" - packed with arms for the government of Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe - on its own troubled journey to first South Africa and now Angola. In both places, dock workers refused to unload the weapons. It's a coincidence but also a bad one because China has been focusing a lot of diplomatic capital on improving its ties to Africa and the rest of the Third World.
What does this all mean for China? To me, it means the end of an era of China's "soft power."
For the past decade, China's "soft power" has helped fuel Beijing's rise by attempting to assuage fears of an expansionist China. Whether it be the establishment overseas of hundreds of language-teaching Confucian Institutes (there are more than a dozen in the US), the pay-out of millions of dollars to favored academics, preferential trade deals, or smart financial and foreign policy, China's "soft power" has been a key cog in the wheels of Chinese diplomacy. Josh Kurlantzick published a book on it last year. In 2003, Jane Perlez of the New York Times wrote a series of pieces about the issue - her general thesis being that the Chinese were beating America at its own game. Public opinion polls among Southeast Asian nations earlier this year put China ahead of the Japan and the United States as the country currently considered the region's most important partner.
But now across the globe China is dropping in the polls. And it's not due to lack of contact with the Chinese, people who are polled say, it's because we're getting to know them better. Even before the latest developments, a fear of China was rising in the West. Polls taken before the events in Tibet showed that 1) in Europe, China has overtaken the U.S. as the biggest threat to global stability in the eyes of Europeans and 2) in the United States, China has replaced North Korea as one of the top three U.S. enemies - after Iran and Iraq.
All this should provide someone in China's government cause to ponder. At the very least, it has prompted some leading Chinese intellectuals and artists to speak out. Speaking in Sydney earlier today, Chinese artist and architect Ai Weiwei, who helped design the "bird's nest" Beijing National Stadium for the Olympics, criticized China's government for encouraging "nationalist sentiment." Ai criticized the nationalists as well.
"It's blind; it's sentiment without a clear intellectual concept. It's crazy, what they're so excited about," Ai told reporters in Australia.
It's sadly ironic that during a week that began with Chinese students rampaging through the streets of a foreign capital beating demonstrators, the man who gave the world one of the most incisive critiques of Chinese culture died. Bo Yang, the great Chinese philosopher, writer, former political prisoner and author of one of the most incisive critiques of Chinese culture, passed away on Tuesday in Taiwan. The native of Hebei-province long railed against the type of group-think evidenced by today's "angry youth." The title of Bo's best known work? "The Ugly Chinese and the Crisis of Chinese Culture."