Next week, China's majority ethnic group, the Han, will celebrate the Olympic torch's arrival on Mt. Everest. It will be a pinnacle experience, literally, for a people who see the Beijing Games as their ascendency to restored world glory. One problem, though: Everest's peak is in Tibet.
China's bursts of Han nationalism – often resulting in violent indignation – have been marked by such contradictions. Popular calls to boycott Western imports over the recent pro-Tibet actions against the torch, for instance, have been squashed by officials – to prevent boycotts of Chinese exports.
A more worrisome conundrum for China's leaders is that their own past attempts to incite domestic anger at other countries – mainly Japan and the US – have now opened the door to grass-roots protests that can quickly escalate with private mobilization over the Internet. The Communist Party, which has intensified "patriotic" indoctrination since 1994, has lately insisted on what they term "rational" nationalism.
Two weeks ago, for instance, Internet-driven protests almost got out of hand in several Chinese cities against French-owned Carrefour supermarkets. People were upset at actions in Paris against the torch relay and a famous Chinese athlete. A follow-up protest against Carrefour May 1 was contained by officials who banned online searches for the word Carrefour.
The real rub for the party: Unfettered nationalism might cause people to turn against it. Officials are busy enough suppressing hundreds of local protests a year by farmers and workers increasingly venting anger at misrule, inflation, land grabs, or graft. And during the Tibet crisis of the past few weeks, China has seen zealous protesters turn on fellow Chinese who don't take a hard line. One Chinese student at Duke University who tried to mediate between pro-Tibet and pro-China activists on campus was called a traitor back home, and her family there was threatened.
The party's difficulty lies in defining a "rational" identity for a country that suppresses non-Han minorities (about 8 percent of the population) and floods the Muslim west and Tibet with Han Chinese (thus the anti-Han riots in March).
Near-xenophobic nationalism is a useful tool to unify a land of 1.3 billion people. It provides cover for official mistakes and jailing of dissidents. But aggressive action against foreigners only portrays China as a bully, hurting its "peaceful rise" to power – especially just before the Olympics. A recent poll showed that Europeans now see China as the world's biggest threat to world stability.
Foreign talk of boycotting the Olympics, and thus marring China's "coming out" party as an economic giant, only fuels nationalist anger and revives memories of past humiliations by foreign powers. Beijing might become less cooperative on trade, nuclear proliferation, and other issues, and not be a "stakeholder" in global affairs.
China's potential to implode under its nationalism is, ironically, a result of the party's insecure grip on power and thus its need to command authority by lighting a patriotic torch. But love of country should not mean hatred of others.
When the Olympic torch finally reaches Beijing Aug. 8, will the Chinese see it as the world's? Or as their own?