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    Greater China
     Nov 18, '13

Nationalist blowback to China's typhoon aid
By Jack McLoughlin

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

As aid efforts continue in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which is estimated to have left 500,000 people homeless and caused 3,600 deaths in the Philippines, [1] an ugly side effect of China's heavy-handed manipulation of public opinion has again been exposed.

While Beijing last week upgraded its aid offering from US$100,000 to $1.6 million for its neighbor following shocked global reaction to the nation which now has the second highest GDP in the world giving markedly less than several multinational companies, the

Chinese-language internet exploded in dissent, with many opposing all donations.

A poll attached to the end of a jingoistic Chinese-language article posted on QQ titled "Should China Aid The Philippines?" showed that a staggering 85% of close to 200,000 votes opposed the government's offering of any aid, as reported on Shanghaiist.com. [2] This is despite China itself having recently been the victim of several high-profile natural disasters in which the appalling grief they can inflict on innocent people has been extensively documented by state media. At time of writing, the first screen of comments on the article in question were almost entirely against giving any aid at all and included such sentiments as:
"People from Hong Kong were killed by a Filipino [referring to a 2010 incident in which a tourist bus was seized by a gunman and eight tourists from Hong Kong died during the resulting siege and battle with police] - wait for their president [Aquino] to apologize [for that incident] and after the American bases are removed we can help, but not now as if we give them money they may use it to buy weapons." ...

"America will use this opportunity to curry favor with the Philippines with the objective of acquiring a naval port, containing China and at the same time defame China in a shameful act". ...

"Just like the tsunami in Japan... showing friendship to our enemies is showing cruelty to ourselves". ...

"200,000 [US dollars, including the figure donated by the Chinese Red Cross] is so much! Give it to poor children so they can buy school buses or books! Don't waste it on our enemies!"
and ...
"[Those that] say we should give money should be arrested, they may be spies".
While the final comment may be intended as satire, polls can be manipulated. People's lack of sympathy on the Internet is by no means exclusive to China, and those who have lived there will appreciate that such reactions to natural disasters are not confined to social misfits and basement-dwelling trolls.

It is not uncommon to see otherwise respectable and capable people who gave generously to dubious charities in the wake of the devastating Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 suppress a smirk or offer an asinine political observation at the mention of recent Philippine or Japanese humanitarian misfortune.

The nationalistic reaction is part of a trend which should worry any thoughtful policymakers in Beijing, as too many people in China time and again evince sad double standards and casual cognitive dissonance in reaction to humanitarian disaster.

In China, the people, in particular the army and government, are coming together to help bring relief to terrible tragedy. but where tragedy occurs in rival countries however, it can provoke cold-hearted indifference or even wry amusement, as reactions in China at the time to the tsunami and Fukushima power plant meltdown that battered Japan in 2011, and the more recent Typhoon Haiyan, show.

The root cause of this appears to be the steady drumbeat of political and economic nationalism that the average mainland Chinese cannot avoid, even if they never engage with blatant government propaganda such as the Xinwen Lianbo news program or indeed much of the state media produced content related to politics, history or economics.

As every newsworthy piece of information is filtered through the lens of the ambitious interests of the ruling Communist Party before being broadcast (or not) on official channels, the London riots and recent murder sprees in the United States were reported with an unsubtle subtext implying that this is due to the inherent instability of the First World's so-called free societies, and if you managed to miss it some editorials just said it outright. [3]

Territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are reported one-sidedly and with barely suppressed anger as foreign states, and the people that live in those states, are conflated into one over-simplified malign entity in an interesting anti-parallel to how the Chinese media aims to meld the Chinese state and people into another over-simplified positive entity in the mind of its public.

This anger is then amplified by more xenophobic and paranoid editorials, literature and blogs published with at least the consent, if not explicit encouragement, of the central authorities.

Inevitably, the result of this demonization of some other countries and insistence of the inherent righteousness of vague concepts like the infamous Nine-Dash Line, which is not accepted by the international community and looks absurd on a map of the South China Sea, is that when a situation such as Typhoon Haiyan requires emphasis on our common humanity, even if governments don't get along, the first thought in the heads of many angry nationalists who have faithfully followed the state media's position will be that the victims in that country barely deserve sympathy and certainly don't deserve Chinese money.

Furthermore, when the state media attempts to appeal to calm and reason in the face of enraged blowback as ordinary people take a chance to angrily vent their frustrations in a politically safe way, the same media responsible for the legitimization of these hostile emotions then begin to appear starkly out of touch with the mood of the nation and uncharacteristically out of control.

That is exactly what happened in the wake of the nationalization of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands by the Japanese government in 2012. Chinese state propaganda whipped a large number of people up in to a frenzy over a small, uninhabited island chain that has never been effectively administered by a Chinese government and many people were until then only vaguely aware of, if at all.

The result of the subsequent massive public anti-Japan demonstrations were that many Japanese businesses, vehicles and even some non-Japanese entities that were mistakenly or opportunistically perceived to be Japanese were targeted by criminals and thugs.

Suddenly, the online censors and opinion managers found themselves switching from patriotic indignation at the affronts to the motherland to deleting the more inflammatory posts and urging for "rational patriotism". [4]

While Beijing may confidently feel it knows what it is doing, emotive political manipulation of China's large population to acquire short-term political leverage or punish rivals will always have unintended consequences which can be difficult to predict or control, not to mention very self-destructive. And anyone who knows modern Chinese history would think that that lesson should not need to be re-learned in China.

1. China's Philippine aid controversy, BBC News, November 14, 2013.
2. See here (in Chinese).
3. London riots lead to second thoughts about online speech, People's Daily Online, August 19, 2011.
4. China calls for "rational patriotism" amid anti-Japanese violence, CNN, September 17, 2013.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Jack McLoughlin is a UK-based teacher and writer who lived in China for six years.

(Copyright 2013 Jack McLoughlin)

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