Two examples of the conflicting tug of nationalism for China:
The authorities are dampening down the protests against French-owned superstore chain Carrerfour in response to the pro-Tibet protests in Paris when the Olympic torch was in the French capital on Apr. 7, the FT reports. As a result the proposed boycott of Carrefour stores on May 1 fizzled out.
Beijing is used to dialing up or down the level of nationalism at home whether it is directed against the French, the West in general, Japanese, Taiwanese or its own minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs. (The Council on Foreign Relations has a useful backgrounder on the history of Chinese nationalism.) These national mood swings have to be carefully calibrated. Too much makes the rest of he world uneasy; too little and the societal glue nationalism provides doesn’t stick.
But in Hong Kong, where the Olympic torch made its first stop on Chinese soil, thousands turned out to see the torch, waving Chinese flags, wearing red and cheering. And unlike the pro-Chinese rallies when the torch visited the Australian capital, Canberra, these supporters weren’t bused in to drown out protestors. But it did provide a glimpse of the potential power of nationalist fervor which if unleashed could as easily be turned against the authorities, and why Beijing knows it has to keep firm control of the reins.
China’s Internet censors have blocked searches on the name Carrefour, China Tech News reports.
The French superstore chain that is one of the largest foreign retailers operating in China with sales of €3 billion ($4.6 billion) last year, was the target of anti-French demonstrations earlier this month in retaliation for pro-Tibet protests when the Olympic Torch was in Paris on April 7. China Tech News speculates the reason is that “there are many webpages in China recently that talk about Carrefour that contain subtle information about Sino-France relations, Tibet independence and other ‘illegal’ content”.
The chain has its staff in its Beijing stores don Beijing Olympics caps and T-shirts in a gesture of goodwill, the China Daily reports. However, the games’ organising committee complained that the caps were for ‘commercial use’ and so infringed its copyright. The FT says that Carrefour is bracing for a further round of protests on May 1, though the authorities are likely to keep a firm lid on things getting out of hand.
The anti-French demonstrations that have been going on in China since the April 7th pro-Tibet demonstrations in Paris when the Olympic torch visited the French capital provide an bellwether test of Beijing’s ability to dial up and down nationalist sentiments.
While the protests intensified over the weekend, spreading to cities around the country with local branches of the Carrefour hypermarket chain the focus, official media have sought to distance themselves from the demonstrations and calls on Chinese blogs and online message boards for a boycott of French goods. Weeks of anti-Western rhetoric over the torch relay demonstrations around the world are being toned down, with Xinhua urging calm on Sunday after Saturday’s protests outside Carrefour stores in Beijing, Qingdao, Wuhan, Hefei, Kunming and Xian.
In the past anti-Japanese sentiment has been whipped up at will, though on the last occasion it went further than the authorities would have liked. France, though, is not the devil to most Chinese that Japan is. And it must concern the leadership that if such popular sentiment can be generated outside its ambit, the same thing might happen over domestic issues such as unemployment, inflation and official corruption.
As the Olympic torch continues on the Asian leg of its journey to Beijing, it has left behind TV images of chaos from Paris, London and San Francisco. This Bystander has noted China’s PR problem before, but what damage, if any, has that done to China’s international reputation? Media Tenor, a media research company that advises companies and governments on their reputation management, says in its current newsletter:
Media Tenor’s analysis of international TV news shows how the image of China has been severely damaged and that the Chinese underestimated the political connotations of hosting the summer Olympic Games; China’s aim to become one of the most respected players in the international arena has been quickly dashed as it has been unable to handle severe criticism by western broadcasters.
That stands in contrast with a study the firm did earlier in the year that showed that China’s efforts to be recognized as a responsible global player following its diplomatic efforts in Darfur and its work to intensify and improve trade and political links with Taiwan and India, had been reversing criticism of it for oppression and human rights violations.
That at least is how it all seems from looking at the Western press and broadcasters. Witness the protests against French supermarket Carrefour in several cities across China on Saturday, in reaction to pro-Tibet demonstrations when the torch was in Paris, for the tenor inside the country.