Willy Lam writes in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief about the role young Chinese nationalists are playing in the run-up to the Olympic Games:
There are signs that the CCP leadership has started to try reining in the excesses of the nationalists, particularly what the domestic press has labeled “angry youths.” Last Saturday, major media ranging from People’s Daily to Liberation Daily carried editorials and commentaries on the same theme: that “patriots”—especially young people among them—should concentrate on helping Beijing host a “perfect Olympics” rather than venting their ire through “irrational” actions such as boycotting the goods of a certain country. Xinhua urged fellow citizens to “focus their energy on doing well [in] their [own] jobs; building up the economy, and holding a successful Olympics.” China Youth Daily asked young nationalists to “channel their patriotism to actions for [national] development,” adding that boycotting Carrefour would only hurt the Chinese themselves. There were also reports that dozens of universities had barred students from leaving campus to join Carrefour-related protests (Xinhua News Agency, April 19 and 20; Ming Pao, April 20 and 21; Wen Wei Pao, April 21).
It is significant, however, that no ministerial-level cadre has yet made any comments on the possible abuse of patriotic imperative. By contrast, major incidents such as the anti-American protests in 1999 and 2001, as well as the anti-Japanese demonstrations in 2005 were stopped after senior cadres had made public appeals in the media. For instance, a televised speech on May 9, 1999 by then Vice President Hu Jintao effectively halted demonstrations by students and other “patriots” over the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade a few days earlier. The weeks-long anti-Japanese rallies and riots in 2005 only came to an end on May 17 after officials including then Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and Trade Minister Bo Xilai had made remarks condemning “irrational nationalism” and urging an end to the campaign to boycott Japanese products (BBC, May 10, 1999; Ming Pao, May 17 and 18, 2005). That no senior cadres have yet spoken out could be an indication that the CCP leadership thinks it still stands to benefit if nationalism can be shepherded along officially designated courses.
Lam also notes that President Hu Jintao, who became party secretary of Tibet just one year after the 1987 protests there, told PLA officers, during a recent inspection trip of army units on Hainan Island, to prepare for a “military struggle” against unnamed enemies:
Hu indicated that China’s defense forces must “never slacken in pushing forward preparations for a military struggle” against domestic and foreign foes. “We must ceaselessly boost our ability to tackle different types of threats to our security,” added the supremo (Liberation Army Daily, April 10). Given that nationalistic and pro-government voices are set to dominate China’s universe of discourse until at least the Olympics, the Hu team seems assured of ironclad support from the great majority of Han Chinese in waging ever-tougher versions of “people’s warfare,” which includes rounding up more “conspirators” in Tibet and Xinjiang, and heavy-handed ideological education for Han Chinese about the imperative of fighting “splittists and traitors” among ethnic minorities.
On April 21, The Telegraph’s China correspondent Richard Spencer wondered on his blog if recent nationalistic protests by Chinese were really worth worrying about:
I like the ugly face of nationalism as little as the next man, but am I the only one not to be overconcerned at the rash of protests against Carrefour in China this weekend? OK, there is an intrinsic oddity about targeting Carrefour, which doesn’t actually seem to have funded the Free Tibet movement, as the protesters claim. …
But anyway. Protests are harmless. Protests are good. Protests are often meaningless, and I did in this case wonder whether the reason the government seemed to encourage them was because it wanted people to learn how to do them properly. (Rather than burn down the British embassy as was the way in the past).