Thursday, May 8, 2008

Are Overseas Chinese More Patriotic?

Last Sunday, May 4th, two counterpoint Chinese activities occurred, one in New York, involving an estimated ten-thousand people, and another in Boston, conducted by one man. The media had counter-counterpoint reactions to these two events: a total silence on the former and enthusiasm, albeit to limited market, on the latter.

I was out of town in Vermont and did not know about the New York Chinese rally until a friend emailed me a video clip two days later. I couldn't believe that there hadn't been any media coverage. I have a daily email subscription to New York Times' "Today's Headlines," and also Salon's news coverage. In addition, despite CNN's biased reputation, it is the easiest venue for current news and I check its website several times a day.

According to a Chinese post on, the New York Times did send reporters but apparently chose not to publish any report. That the NY Times would smother news on such a huge event in its backyard is oddly surprising. The vast silence from all the US media is simply bizarre. It makes one suspect a sanction or conspiracy. A familiar uneasiness crept through my nerves as I researched this: Am I living in America or China?

The main body of the pro-Olympics rally was overseas Chinese students, but there were also people from all walks of life, including some Americans. Thousands of people shouting "We love China, more than ever!" and singing China's national anthem, "Rise, rise, …use our blood and flesh to build our new Great Wall" can really be blood boiling. Even as I watched the video I felt a slight urge to open my mouth and follow the chorus – what a familiar song can do to you. The friend who sent me the video clip, a high-tech professional in his early fifties, reflected on his participation: "I come to show my support. I just feel I am back to my student time in Chengdu and that is a great feeling."

Nationalism is a strange thing – it is more an emotion than rational thought. I didn't even think I had it. I was a political dissident when I lived in China. In my twenties I nearly went to jail for a "contentious" story I wrote. Two decades of living in the US further opened my mind to all points of view and to otherwise unavailable historical materials. Since I began to write in English in 2002, I've always been critical – if more rationally than when I was young – of things in China. I was becoming more and more American. Once I even asked myself in a diary entry: Am I having deeper feeling toward America than toward China now?

Yet look what the media's overdone bias can do to a person like me: it unearths whatever little Chinese nationalism I'd had. This is called backfire.

Growing up during the Cultural Revolution, I'm usually suspicious of any mass activity. The excitement alone can be an irresistible magnet and rationality need not play a role. Similarly, rampant nationalism, be it American or Chinese, is a double-edged sword. It can unite a nation; it can also be divisive and make inter-cultural understanding that much more difficult. It can even lead to imperialism. In short, I have issues with nationalism. Still, even with all those misgivings, I felt strong sympathy toward the Chinese ralliers in New York. The Western media has shown too much animosity in its reporting related to China. When CNN considers it commentary of the day to describe Chinese as "goons and thugs," perhaps a bit of Chinese's nationalism is called for as a balance.

This said, it is time for the young Chinese to watch out for their overheated nationalism. Things turn to their opposites when they reach the extreme, as the adage goes.

Given this large background, I have mixed feelings toward the other, much quieter, event on the same day, at a different location: the launch of Yang Jianli's "Citizen Walk," starting from Boston and destined for Washington DC. The Boston Globe has a long, enthusiastic report on this titled "A Sense of Direction."

It is a bit ironic that, Chinese who are either pro Beijing Olympics or protesting China's government find May 4th a meaningful date for action, and both sides claim to carry forward the spirit of the 1919 student movement that began the modern history of China. The holding of the same symbol for opposite reasons seems another example of "four blind men touching an elephant." From an objective point of view, the May 4th movement in 1919 had both positive and negative impacts on China's development, but when people need a flag to wave they only talk about one side of it.

I learned about the "Citizen Walk" from another friend's email days before. I don't know Yang Jianli personally, but have heard about his arrest and five-year imprison in China. More than sympathy, I admire his courage and determination to protest against injustice. My concern, however, is whether his timing is right in light of the recent events.

The reason that Yang Jianli chose June 4th as his arrival date at Washington DC is apparent. He had participated in the 1989 student movement, and June 4th is another symbolic day. (It seems that a symbol is essential to any activist.) I don't know if he is aware of Chinese people's attitude change toward that symbol. When the Tiananmen massacre occurred, I had already moved to the US, and I remember it as the only time that all people I knew, inside or outside of China, Americans or Chinese, had a united attitude. We cried for the students. We cursed Deng Xiaoping. A decade later, when I returned to China for a visit, I was shocked to hear in private conversation that old friends and acquaintances, including participants in 1989, saying the government took the right action in suppressing the student movement. Otherwise, they argued, China wouldn't have had today's prosperity; the students were actually impeding China's economic development, something everyone wants. (Well, I disagree, but my reasons would require another long entry.) They believed that the ends justify the means, and China's economic success has proven Deng Xiaoping's vision.

On the other hand, the June 4th's gunshots and tanks became a fixture of China's image in Western eyes. This view won't change for a long time even as China's political situation improves.

Given this, I'm not sure whose awareness Yang Jianli's walk will raise. Is it Americans or Chinese? If it's the latter, will a walk from Boston to DC achieve anything? I'm also not entirely clear why his action is titled "Citizen Walk." It is a confusing banner: citizen of what, America, China, the world?

I had planned to report Yang Jianli's walk, but wanted to clarify a few points and gain a bit more understanding. I sent an email on May 3rd to ask the following questions, but did not receive a response.

- How do you think this walk will impact people now living in China?
- What is the distinction between "Citizen Power" and "people power" as the term used in 1960s-70s America?
- Do you think the strong nationalism among China's young generation today is going to be impediment to achieving democracy in China?
- Why do you need to connect your activity with the Tibetan monks, given that they don't even want to be citizens of China?

I will share his response if I receive it – so far it doesn't look like he will.

The quiet steps of one man echo in the media while the shouts of thousands find no ears. It is easy to impress the Western media with any anti-Chinese government activity, unfortunately that may not be an advantage if Yang Jianli wants to get his message across to the real audience – the Chinese. This is not his fault; rather the complex situation makes his mission a more challenging one. A more thoughtful approach might be called for.

To put things in perspective, let me end this entry by quoting Zhou Shuguang, a 26-year-old blogger who lives in my home city Chongqing at the moment. He is neither elite nor privileged, and he often makes good points. The following is from a post on his blog the other day: [In translation]

"I feel overseas Chinese students are more patriotic than us. They attach more importance to their identification possibly because they are discriminated against and experiencing cultural dislocation abroad. For those of us who live domestically, we don't feel what they feel. …they at worst are bullied by a different race; we who stay in the Mainland suffer from our own."

For this reason I give my best wishes to Yang Jianli; meanwhile I hope he will take the time to mull over my questions.


Matthew said...

This is a terrific post. Thanks for this commentary.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Thanks for reading, Matthew.

Rocking Offkey said...

Good read.

Actually I think it's very understandable NYT chose not to report the rally. I'm a bit at lost why they choose to rally at 5/4 in New York, especially the timing.

For the U.S. media, Olympics controversy and frenzy is yester-news, for now. And they have run enough pieces on Chinese nationalism and angry China etc. The message of the rally isn't very clear or interesting for the media either. Chinese diaspora supports Olympics, waving Chinese flag in NYC? That's hardly news, and nothing too interesting to the U.S. public especially in the election season.

For the media, sometimes it's not the number that counts, it's the story. I bet if there were two Chinese students silently protests outside of central station, that would attract more genuine interest of their course from by standers and media etc; because that has the story potential.

On to the 6/4 and Overseas Chinese patriotism, I prefer not to litter blog with lengthy comments. I prob need to write a post on that given time.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Rocking offkey -

Thanks for the comments. I don't buy the argument that the news was below the threshold. There are lots of uninteresting things in the paper and everywhere in the media, while the silence on the 5/4 rally was broad based.

BTW, your blog is quite cool. The Chinese entries are especially enjoyable to read. They made me nostalgic.

Maryanne Stahl said...

as usual, a most interesting contemplation. I appreciate your scrupulous attention to balance and self-examination.

Jerry Waxler said...

Here is some excellent synchronicity. I just heard from a friend and mentor who it turns out has been helping a diplomat write a memoir about the Mao years. The book is called "The Man on Mao's Right" by Ji Chaozhu with Foster Winans. It sounds right in line with your interests.

Jerry Waxler
Memory Writers Network

Xujun Eberlein said...

Maryanne -

Thanks for your kind comments.

Jerry -

The book sounds quite interesting. I'll make sure to get it to read when it comes out.

Rocking Offkey said...

I don't buy the argument that the news was below the threshold. There are lots of uninteresting things in the paper and everywhere in the media, while the silence on the 5/4 rally was broad based.


So are you suggesting conspiracy? or collusion of sorts? ;)

Xujun Eberlein said...

Wish I knew the answer...

Tang Buxi said...


Really an excellent post. I appreciate your perspectives and writing, a very insightful and interesting look.

I was referred to your site by another writer on our blog. I hope you'll take a look. We combine a Chinese-centric perspective with English-language writing, hoping to make the Chinese voice more approachable to those in the West.

And in fact, we have an entry discussing the cold shoulder the Western media gave the rallies in New York (and earlier rallies in San Francisco):

We'll definitely be keeping an eye on your blog going forward as well. Zhongguo jiayou!

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Tang Buxi,

Nice to see you here. Actually your blog is already on my China blog list - not sure if you've noticed. To tell you the truth, I hesitated a bit when I linked to your blog. I think the difference between your blog and mine when it comes to commenting on China-related issues is that you apparently have an agenda, and I don't. I merely want to speak my mind and feelings, while you seem to be trying to prove or defend something. This said, you are an eloquent speaker and I admire that. I do find your blog entries very interesting and well-written. And I have to say it is sometimes pleasant to hear voices biased toward China given the western media's bias against it. Yours is a balancing force in this sense. Just thought it polite to warn you about our differences, now that you've "discovered" me. But perhaps we have more commonalities than differences - we'll see.

Anonymous said...

This is called BRAINWASHING. I see you are not really an American, even though you married West and got a passport, you are still really a brainwashed Chinese person. So why then did you come to America? Most immigrants from Europe LEFT Europe behind, but you did not leave China behind, you are still in the grip of its brainwashing power. That song, I know, my students in Shanghai ahve to sing it every Tuesday, it makes MY blood boil. Brainwashing is bad, wake up dear!


"....and singing China's national anthem, "Rise, rise, …use our blood and flesh to build our new Great Wall" can really be blood boiling. Even as I watched the video I felt a slight urge to open my mouth and follow the chorus – what a familiar song can do to you."

Yes, it is called BRAINwashing.

Anonymous said...

that song as you know, was a Chinese military song used against the evil Japanese who were invading China at the time....and that song is still used for brainwashing. I am surprised that you, as an American, still love communist China. You are not really an American i can see. so sad.

Anonymous said...

"When CNN considers it commentary of the day to describe Chinese as "goons and thugs," perhaps a bit of Chinese's nationalism is called for as a balance."

see? you are not even paying attention? CNN did not say that, one opinionated commentataor jack something, said it, NOT CNN. but you think CNN said it. CNN did not say it. ONE person who appears in a CNN show said it and he was right, the Commie leaders are goons and thugs, you know it. He was not criticzing the Chinese people, he was criticzing the commie leaders. wake up already. u been in USA 20 years and you are still brainwashed little teen.

Anonymous said...

Though many of the protest/march participants appreciated the fact America lets them do this, how many of them actually participate with an underlying dislike of the only place they have found that will give them the "right" and opportunity to really protest?

Anonymous said...

Hate to break it to you, Xujun, but when it comes to China and chinese people, the NYTimes is as bad and biased as they come. If you do an analysis of their reporting on China, you'll find many many outright lies. Journalists are often even worse when it comes to bias, because once they have attached themselves to one side of a conflict, they become fanatics and feel it is their journalistic duty to "prevail". They usually end up blinding themselves to facts while spreading falsehoods to the masses.

And BTW, @Anon, when Jack Cafferty speaks on CNN, he IS CNN. Period. Even if he was just talking about the CCP, which I have sever doubts about, what kind of journalist on a major national platform calls government officials of another country "goons and thugs"? Can you imagine what the the reaction if the roles where reversed? Chinese journalists, apparently, have more class.