Friday, July 10, 2009

The Information War over the Urumqi Riots and the “Netizens” of China: Are we witnessing the dawn of a new era in Han Chinese nationalism?

Chinese vigilante

Anybody who has recently attended an event where the policies of the Chinese government towards minorities are being criticized has encountered the propaganda shock troops of the new China. They protest nearly every public event involving the Dali Lama in the United States, they established counter-protests against Tibet during the Olympic torch relay last summer, and they were at my talk about the post-9/11 plight of the Uyghurs at Georgetown two years ago. At public events, they protest, hand out pro-China information, and defend China’s minority policies, but they have an even larger presence on the web where they more easily push their agenda using the free speech forum of new media. Look at any article about the events in Urumqi from the last week, and you will see scores of comments from them, noting that these events are purely an unprovoked act of violence by savage Uyghurs. They overwhelm the #urumqi and #xinjiang discussions on twitter. And, they have been diligently attacking any youtube videos of Rabiya Kadeer with deriding comments about her for several years now. Their message is that China is doing everything right for its minorities, and anybody saying otherwise is part of an externally masterminded conspiracy to undermine China’s sovereignty and growing prosperity.

These people are not like the shadowy commentators you see placing incendiary comments on Central Asian or Russian sites most likely at the bequest of the successor organs of the KGB. If this phenomenon was just a conspiracy that emanates from the Chinese state, it would not be so disturbing. Rather, the propaganda shock troops about whom I am talking are regular Chinese citizens. They are also not the most reactionary ones. They are often studying abroad in the west and have been exposed to the world. Still, their commentary suggests that they are extremely patriotic about China, feel misunderstood and wronged by the west, and do not harbor any sympathy for the plight of minorities in China. This is particularly disturbing for the many who have hoped that China would embrace democracy as a new generation of Chinese encountered the outside world. These propaganda shock troops appear to be the new generation, and they do not look like the pro-western liberals that western policies of engagement had foreseen. Instead, they are more like a new Red Guard, reminiscent of student groups during the Cultural Revolution, who want to demonstrate their grassroots support of the state through their computer keyboards instead of waving Mao’s little red book in the air.

I am sure many of my China studies colleagues would cringe to hear me writing about this, feeling that it adds to a growing western “China-bashing” phenomenon. But, please do not misunderstand my point. I am not trying to “essentialize” the Chinese people as narrow-minded, aggressive, and dangerously nationalistic. I do think that there are intelligent and progressive young Han Chinese who are struggling with these issues and are questioning the appropriateness of their state’s policies towards minorities, but such people appear to be in the minority at the moment. Furthermore, I do not blame the people of China for this phenomenon. They have been spoon-fed this growing nationalism by the state ever since Tiananmen.

What may be most worrisome about this trend today, however, is that the PRC itself is starting to recognize these grassroots propagandists for their service to the state. In two recent articles, the China Daily applauded Chinese “netizens” for criticizing western media coverage of the Urumqi riots and for calling for the closure of Facebook in China respectively. Such articles certainly encourage this phenomenon and suggest that the Chinese government supports even its most racist manifestations. It also suggests that the Chinese state refuses to recognize that there might be socio-economic and political reasons for the dissatisfaction that most Uyghurs and Tibetans share with regards to their lives in the PRC.

To put things in perspective, I will agree that these radical Han “netizens” are little different from the American isolationists, racists, and anti-immigrant crusaders we know so well in the United States. Take, for example, the following from an email that one of China’s “netizens” sent me after I had participated in a live Q&A chat on

The reason for the riot and deep resentment among Uighurs toward Han
Chinese is _NOT_ oppression by Chinese government, quite on the
contrary, it is the over pampering national policies to make Uighurs
happy. Small crimes made by Uighurs are often overlooked by Chinese
police, Uighurs get ridiculous advantage in college entrance exams.
Maybe it is hard to believe, but when you have state policies that
treat a small minority group so unfairly _well_, it only makes them
weak. They lose the competitive edge in the business world, there is
little incentive for them to get better. Ignoring the small crimes
like thievery is only going to foster the bigger criminals, like
rapists and murderers.

And this is not only my opinion, it is also shared by many "thoughtful
Chinese" who had lived in XinJiang. I don't use "Chinese
intellectuals" because the true intellectuals are often oppressed and
shut off by the government.

Sound familiar? Replace “Uighur” with “black” or “Mexican” and “Han Chinese” with “white American,” and this statement will look almost indistinguishable from the rhetoric of American opponents of immigrants and affirmative action. Fortunately in the United States, our political system has a degree of self-correction. After eight years of conservatism where such rhetoric was gradually becoming acceptable, we now have our first African-American president and the tide is turning the other way. The Chinese political system does not have quite the same ability to correct its radicalization, and it will likely be a long time until we see a Uyghur leader of the PRC running the country from Beijing. What worries me is that instead of correcting itself, this trend is becoming more pronounced in China. This is also apparent in the emerging debate among Chinese intellectuals about the Urumqi riots, which suggests that China has been too soft on minorities and must be more forceful in its control of restless populations such as the Uyghurs and Tibetans. The populist manifestation of these sentiments is even more frightening as we saw in the Han vigilante groups on the streets of Urumqi this last week.

This alarming trend does not bode well for China’s on-going attempt to ingratiate itself to the international community, and it will only likely exacerbate the problems in Xinjiang as Chinese citizens show an unwillingness to re-evaluate why Uyghurs are so dissatisfied with Chinese rule. There are certainly several different lessons China can learn from this week’s violence in Urumqi. It might choose to view the situation as a state of war in the way that the Israelis have done with the Palestinians (at least one Israeli commentator has drawn this parallel in his empathy for the Chinese), and – as with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the tension in Xinjiang will continue to fester and become even more violent with time. Alternatively, it could heed these events as a sign that things must change in terms of minority rights as the U.S. realized after African-American led riots destroyed cities throughout the country in the late 1960s.

The path China chooses will have important ramifications for the country’s future. I do believe that China can change. I believe that China could empower Uyghurs to have a greater voice in how development proceeds in Xinjiang, including the prospect of real ethnic autonomy. But, as I look at the commentary of Han “netizens” that floods the internet these days, I am worried that such changes are not likely in the near future. Instead, the near future will probably only bring deeper ethnic divides, more frustration among minorities, and – most unfortunately – more bloodshed.

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