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Protecting The Paper Tiger

United States

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Twin Terrors / WORLD OPINION

Touched by terror

Protecting the Paper Tiger
by Trini Leung

China’s President Jiang Zemin was among the first world leaders to declare sympathy with and support for the US in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. The occasion marked the first significant thawing of Sino-US relations since the Chinese capture of two American military jets earlier this year.

As many analysts have pointed out, it is understandable that the Chinese Government has this time rallied behind the US. China has itself been beset by growing domestic terrorism. Ethnic separatists from Tibet and particularly from the Muslim Xinjiang region have from time to time resorted to sabotage in pursuit of independence. There have also been numerous incidences of bomb attacks carried out by workers and peasants desperate about their deteriorating lives. What is more, the Government probably saw an immediate advantage in trading off a strategic favour to the US for a free rein in its handling of the potentially explosive ‘reunification’ with Taiwan.

The Government’s and the people’s views, however, are not necessarily the same. Little is known outside China about the much-suppressed popular anti-American sentiments which expressed themselves on this occasion in support of the terrorist attacks. Euphoric messages about the spectacular attack on the hegemonist superpower of America circulated in the streets and internets of China. One such message read: ‘The US has always carried out state terrorism. They are only getting back what they’ve done to other nations.’

So rife and so strong were the anti-American sentiments that the authorities found it necessary on 13 September to censor and remove all such messages from its controlled websites such as the China Youth Daily and the People’s Daily. The Government also ordered the media to tone down its reporting and analysis of the incidents so as to cool down anti-American feeling.

This apparent dichotomy between the official and popular stances on the terrorist attacks is largely the result of decades of government propaganda. From the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 under the rule of Mao Zedong, America was portrayed as the arch-enemy of the Chinese and the oppressor of all people in the Third World. China’s second revolutionary ruler, Deng Xiaoping, changed course and started a new era of rapprochement between the US and China in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nevertheless, US denunciation of human-rights violations in China – especially after the bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in June 1989 – continually caused rifts between the two countries. The Chinese Government, in its domestic defence against the pro-human rights propaganda, began fanning anti-US sentiments again in the mid-1990s.

The anti-American flame flared up when the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was attacked in a supposedly mistaken US air raid in 1999. The official media waged all-out propaganda warfare against the unforgivable attack. The three victims were given the kind of state funeral reserved for national heroes. For the first time since June 1989, spontaneous mass demonstrations were allowed in the streets of China – this time not campaigning for freedom and democracy but denouncing the US.

Half a century of indoctrination has meant that most people in China have grown up in a climate of hostility or suspicion towards the US. It is hence not too surprising that many people hailed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as a victory against the ‘Paper Tiger’ (Mao’s old phrase). Many people drew parallels between the 11 September attacks on the US and the American bombing of Belgrade two years ago.

Do most people in China hate the US? Not exactly. Many people, especially the young and urban élite, aspire to all things American. Most would like to go to live in America if they could, either temporarily or permanently. In the last few months many aspiring students have been refused visas for America. They could be among those who sent the recent hate-America messages onto the internet. Many people in China have a classic love-hate relationship with the US.

The quasi-official China Social Survey Bureau published on 14 September an opinion poll conducted among a sample of 1,450 people in five major cities. The results were:

•    98 per cent of respondents thought the American people deserved sympathy and
      that China should lend a helping hand;
•    57 per cent thought the US should keep calm and not take irrational revenge;
•    73 per cent thought that US government policy caused the terrorist acts;
•    80 per cent felt the attacks showed that the US was a ‘paper tiger’.

So while many Chinese people may identify the United States as a promised land of prosperity, freedom and democracy, many others feel threatened, irritated or even repelled by US foreign policy. This latter fact might be a little hard for most Americans to stomach, but it’s the reality.

Trini Leung is an independent analyst of Chinese politics and social movements.

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New Internationalist issue 340 magazine cover This article is from the November 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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