Anti-China protests polarize and ignore context


By Wei Ji Ma

April 10, 2008; revised May 1, 2008


In recent weeks, fierce and sometimes violent anti-China protests have surrounded the Olympic torch relay. According to most pundits in the US and Europe, they were commendable, deserved, and potentially effective to improve China's human rights situation. Political leaders followed suit by announcing boycotts of the Olympics opening ceremonies. In my view, many of these protests have been unnecessarily inflammatory and will have unintended effects. Attempts to force political reforms in China through boycotts or superficial political interference, without acknowledging the complex social, cultural, and historical context, are doomed to fail and counterproductive. They also do not do justice to the changes which are already taking place or to the truly urgent challenges that China is facing.

Confrontation is counterproductive

The Olympic torch relay has attracted anti-China protesters of various ilk, many of whom have never been to China nor know Chinese history. Imagine the reverse situation: people in China go out on the streets and dispense anti-American, incendiary rhetoric in order to shame the U.S. into denouncing its treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Nobody will believe that the American government or the American people would be swayed by such protests. "No matter whether we're right or wrong, it's nothing of your business," will be the response, and understandably so. No country takes public humiliation lying down, but especially given Chinese culture, in which saving face is imperative, a shaming strategy is ill-advised. The reactions that are being seen are predictable: the Chinese people will support the authorities, the government will feel stronger and dig its heels deeper into the sand, and reforms will be further away than ever.

"The Chinese are a proud people. They want freedom and greater rights, but they know they must fight them from within. They know that no one can grant them freedom and rights from afar," wrote actress Joan Chen (Washington Post, 4/9/08). Foreigners who have lived in China for a long time are often surprised how many diverse voices can be heard in domestic public discourse, many of them critical of the government. Despite official censorship, Chinese citizens have dared to express their frustrations in the media relatively openly. However, hostility from foreign countries is the most effective method to silence internal critics, as they will be forced to bow to national unity.

Political reform in China: work in progress

Because progress on political reforms is slow but steady, it can easily be underestimated from the outside. Experiments in democracy have been ongoing at the village and township level, where local socio-economic circumstances allow for it. The Carter Center has supported and facilitated these efforts, and reports great successes. Furthermore, China has made progress in involving the public in decision-making. In 2004, the "Administrative License Law" was issued, giving people affected by an administrative decision the right to access information from the government regarding the decision and the right to demand a hearing. "The Decree of Government Information Openness", which took effect in May 2008, institutionalizes citizens' right to access government information. Also, Chinese students who have received education abroad and then return to China are building a new generation of leaders with a global attitude. China clearly has a long way to go, but the notion that western outsiders without any understanding of Chinese culture can instantly bring about change that many people within China have worked on for years is not only naive, but also disrespectful. It took Europe several centuries to become truly democratic and it is unwise to expect China to do the same in a few years.

One way in which other countries can help strengthen the voice of the Chinese people is by supporting the NGO sector in China. In recent years, environmental and social NGOs have acquired some amount of freedom to operate, but they often lack expertise. Moreover, the notion of civil society is still not widely known to or supported by the Chinese people. Knowledge and experience from other countries can contribute to making Chinese NGOs more effective and more embedded in society.

A broader context

In the past decades, China has also made large progress on many other fronts: 300 million people were lifted out of poverty, illiteracy was all but eradicated, and students from China are academically successful across the world. Demonizing China can easily create an atmosphere in which other countries refuse to draw lessons from the many things that do go well in China. Moreover, it distracts from the most pressing challenges in China, those related to large rural-urban inequality. Those issues - partly in the domains of migrant labor, environment, education, and health care - are severe, affect hundreds of millions of Chinese people, and have big repercussions for the rest for the world. They also have a direct causal link to democracy, because it is well-known that the latter can only flourish in the presence of a stable, well-educated middle class.

We should also keep in mind that American values are not always shared by people from other cultures. When I asked a Singaporean friend of mine what her dream job was, she paused and said "The notion of a dream job is very American. In Singapore, we believe that everyone has a role in society that fits him or her best, and we strive to fulfill that role." Similarly, the American idea of human rights is centered on self-expression and self-actualization, but in China the interests of the collective count much more, and this is deeply rooted in China's history and culture. (This is not to say that in every case when the government infringes on the rights of individual citizens, it is for the benefit of the collective.) Appreciating such cultural differences is necessary, but reducing complex issues to sound bites will do nothing to further that.

A case for learning and dialogue

When Pierre de Coubertin helped create the modern Olympic games, he envisioned an event that would bring nations together, to have the youth of the world compete in sports, and to celebrate global unity. Sadly, the Olympic spirit has been tarnished on several occasions by politics, protests and boycotts, and this year has been no different. A serious debate about human rights and democracy in China should be separate from the Olympics and will require intellectual honesty, sensitivity, and nuance. Prof. Ling-chi Wang of UC Berkeley wrote,

"Humility and compassion, not hypocrisy and self-righteousness, is what is needed. I am not opposed to free speech and legitimate protests against China's wrongdoings. However, I am opposed to using the Olympics to demonize China and its people, and disruptive, confrontational, and violent tactics." (CNN, 4/9/08)

For those interested in Tibetan issues specifically, a first step is to learn about Tibet's complex history. "Pro-Tibet" statements quoted in the media typically reflect either a lack of knowledge of these complexities, or an attempt to deliberately ignore them. Here is a good starting point: Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth, by Michael Parenti. One of the more sensible criticisms of Chinese government policy in Tibet is, in fact, seldom discussed. It was mentioned in a recent article in the New York Times:

Students argue that China has spent billions on Tibet, building schools, roads and other infrastructure. Asked if the Tibetans wanted such development, they looked blankly incredulous. “They don’t ask that question,” said Lionel Jensen, a China scholar at Notre Dame. “They’ve accepted the basic premise of aggressive modernization.” (New York Times, 4/29/08)
This is a real issue that is well-known to anyone working in international development but unfortunately of a kind that is rarely discussed in the mainstream media.

Many Chinese people, both in China and abroad, are generally open to discussing about problems in China. However, aggressive protests and uncritical media make such constructive dialogue much more difficult. They fuel hostility and hatred, instead of opening a door to increased mutual understanding, which is a necessary precondition for contemplating common goals. Moreover, they legitimize the Chinese government in rousing nationalistic fiery, making it harder to stay focused on the real problems. Finally, an obsessive focus on specific human rights issues does not do justice to everything that China has achieved and has to offer. I invite the people in Europe and the US to follow the voice of reason and not give in to emotional, simple-minded rhetoric on complex issues.

Wei Ji Ma

Wei Ji Ma is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Rochester, president and co-founder of the Rural China Education Foundation, and a citizen of the Netherlands.

Writing a letter to a newspaper

Parts of the article above have appeared as letters in the Washington Post (April 15, 2008), the University of Rochester Campus Times (April 17, 2008), Het Financieele Dagblad (April 15, 2008), and De Telegraaf. If you also make to want your voice heard, getting letters published in newspapers will give you a decent audience.

Here are some writing tips (copied from

  • Reference a Recent Article: If possible, it is best to include a reference to recent article that appeared in the newspaper you've selected and then write your letter as a response, building on what was printed or pointing out how your viewpoint isn't included. This greatly increases the likelihood that your letter will be printed.
  • Include Your Contact Information: Most newspapers will only print a letter to the editor after calling the author to verify his or her identity and address. Newspapers will not give out that information and will usually only print your name and city should your letter be published.
  • Be Clear and Concise: Keep your letters brief and to the point. Newspaper editors often edit for length, so try to keep your letter to less than 200 words. The shorter it is, the more likely it will be printed.
  • State Your Point Early: Be sure to state your main point in the subject line and in the first sentence of the letter.
  • Keep to One Topic: Keep your letters focused on one subject.
It is also possible to submit longer articles, but those are harder to get published. A higher-yield strategy is to extract your key point and submit that as a concise letter.

Here are email addresses of some large national newspapers in the US:

  • USA Today (circulation: 2,602,556): This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  • Wall Street Journal (circulation: 1,820,600): This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  • New York Times (circulation: 1,130,740): This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  • Los Angeles Times (circulation: 1,014,044): This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  • Washington Post (circulation: 796,367): This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it