Thursday, September 23, 2010

There's nationalism everywhere ...

I just had a very enlightening conversation with a couple of Chinese students at Ray's Bar and Grill on campus. We were standing in line to order, and all three of us noticed the following fliers pinned to the message board:

The two Chinese students were actually quite dismayed by this, and expressed surprise that this sort of nationalistic rant would crop up here at Stanford. According to them, the 愤青 "angry youth" phenomenon is really more of a domestic Chinese phenomenon, which takes hold among the "... er ... less well-educated students in China." They have some level of educational attainment, but are not the top students in the country. (Those ones usually end up going overseas). What concerned my fellow diners the most was that these "angry youth" only know a little bit about the issues, and then with this limited, often inaccurate understanding of history and world affairs, they go off on a rampage. "It's just not logical or rational," one sighed. He felt that most well-informed people wouldn't undertake such acts.

I realized suddenly that they were as embarrassed by these ultra-nationalists (so-called 爱国主义者), as we Americans are distressed by our Muslim-hating/Koran-burning/refudiating Tea Party brethren who wave American flags in the name of "patriotism," while they eviscerate the principles of pluralism and religious toleration that our Founding Fathers stood for. It turns out that rabid nationalism, ethnically-motivated anger, hate-filled invective, and poisonous political rhetoric are cause for concern to decent people everywhere who worry about extremist views taking root in their societies.

Now I don't know if this realization should assuage anybody. I cannot, for instance, ascertain how prevalent the view of these two Chinese students really is. And part of me is a little bit apprehensive about asking around, as this could be a really touchy subject. (People have been roundly criticized, even beaten for less). We must recognize that these (so-called) nationalists are a real force. Their discourse impacts society, and as they agitate for discriminatory policies or outright war, we cannot assume their voices will be diminished by other more logical actors. Still, it's encouraging to know that not everybody falls to their knees when someone waves the flag.

Personally, I still want to reiterate a question I raised in an earlier post: When claiming to be patriotic, why do we care about islands, but not about people?


Anyhow, the three of us conversed over dinner, which also included some interesting discussion about Mongolia (i.e. the country of Outer Mongolia, which one of them had visited during the summer), and how the economy there is largely based on the extraction of mineral resources. ("Developing countries are definitely not all in the same category," he sighed. "Mongolia is not well developed.") According to him, many products like socks and cups are still largely imported -- largely from Russia, Japan and Korea, as the Mongolians don't appear to like the Chinese much. (Many fruits and vegetables do have to be imported from China, however reluctantly).

"Why don't they like the Chinese?" the other fellow at our table inquired.

"There's a historical narrative that paints China as wanting to take over and dominate its neighbours," the first guy said. "It's in their textbooks. You know the way our textbooks portray Japan and its rapaciousness? Well, that's the way Mongolian textbooks depict the Chinese."

Sometimes tables turn.


I don't mean to suggest that all history is simply constructed -- good textbooks should be based in historical truth, though of course there are judgements on what is to be emphasized. But the history on which we can rely should be less of a propaganda tool and more of an educational aid to create thoughtful and discerning citizens.

Indeed, a history based in truth can inoculate a population against discrimination and tyranny, because it strives to uncover cause and effect, while leaving room for ethical understanding. Such texts make it more difficult for demagogues to appeal to the masses, because their tired tropes are recognized for what they are: ideological propositions that radically over-simplify problems.

The text must take a look at the hard parts of history, but need not delve into victim-hood. (For instance, a "century of humiliation.") I do not believe this characterization of China's modern history is healthy. It is a recipe for entitlement and seems to excuse all the petulant and bullying behavior that comes eafter.

Instead, an inspirational story of perseverance and magnanimity under unfair circumstances could ultimately be a healthier and more appropriate reflection of what happened. But then again, that's only if you want balanced, free-thinking citizens who are proud of who they are and what their country stands for -- and who care about humanistic and universal norms -- rather than subjects who are simply grateful for being "rescued" and angry/resentful at the intrusion of outsiders.

In the end, a lot of it comes down to education and the kind of national narrative that is crafted. I'll post more about this topic some other time, but the implications of the different versions of history in textbooks are sometimes pretty worrisome.

BONUS: Video of ninjas and pandas clashing. Via WSJ.

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