Illustration on strange Chinese-US bedfellows from the Oct. 24-30 edition of The Economist.

Are online relationships between China and the US boiling over? Rednecks against Red Guards?

by Bob Page on 31 October 2009

Years ago, as I expressed frustration with German grammar, a professor at Davidson College gave me a dark version of encouragement: “Look, there are 80 million people in Germany. Lots of them are really stupid, and almost all of them can speak German. It can’t be that hard.”

Never underestimate the equitable distribution of human stupidity. This is a key lesson of a 6 October lecture by Chinese-American writer Kaiser Kuo at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Formerly director of digital strategy for Ogilvy’s Beijing office, Kuo has written for Time, China Economic Review, Asia Inc. and the South China Morning Post. I first met Kaiser in 2006, when he was preparing a Red Herring cover story about Lenovo.

In the online Internet world, Kuo says, Chinese people have a place for public discussion of political views for the first time in their history. Chinese government officials at all levels respect and fear this forum. Simultaneously, there is a rise in Internet access and in Chinese who can communicate with the English-speaking world. Almost 340 million Chinese have online Internet access today, up from 8 million in 1999.

“For most of the 30 years since China’s reforms began, Chinese and American civilians rarely met face-to-face in significant numbers,” Kuo says. “When encounters did take place, they were typically stage-managed events among civil, often painfully polite participants in sister city arrangements, trade delegations and cultural exchanges.

“In March 2008, in the run-up to the Olympic Games, Chinese people were curious about what the world would say about them…. But they were blindsided by negative English-language reporting. While hundreds of millions of Chinese had risen out of poverty, while the Chinese economy had grown by 10 percent annually for nearly three continuous decades, while China’s biggest cities had become forests of skyscrapers with vibrant cultural scenes, none of this was deemed newsworthy by Western news media….

“Instead, Chinese and Americans went after each other in the comment sections of news stories, blog posts, YouTube, forums and boards in an escalating people-to-people brawl that continues to this day. They fight over a litany of issues: Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen, trade, Internet censorship, religious freedom, Myanmar, Darfur, sanctions on Iran, carbon emissions, and so on. The first real people-to-people encounter between the world’s reigning and rising superpowers did not bode well.

“Many Chinese come away from these encounters more certain than ever that America, its government, its media, and even its people simply ‘have it in’ for China, that Americans are fearful of its rising power.… Americans, meanwhile, see confirmation of Chinese people locked in a dogmatic, nationalistic world view, perhaps the result of government-fanned flames of jingoism.

“You can see the irony, here, right? Each side seems well prepared to believe the worst about the other. But this is the Internet we’re talking about, which many of us believed would bring down barriers and usher in the death of distance, the good times of a global village. Instead, it has made us more fractured and tribal…. It’s also true within America, where nowadays you only read the political blogs and viewpoints of those who happen to be on your side of the political aisle.

“Listen only to those who are shouting the loudest on each side and one could very easily conclude that this is a war between Red Guards and rednecks.”

In the event of new international conflict on the scale of May 1999, when American bombs destroyed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Kuo says, we must be extremely wary. Social networks have grown enormously in 10 years. Chinese volunteer vigilantes range from reactionary “patriotic hackers” who leap unbidden to defend online national honor, to “human flesh search engines” who attempt to humiliate, bully, and trample the privacy rights of people they believe have done wrong. They often succeed.

“The next time something like Belgrade happens, involving the United States or Japan or wherever, Beijing is going to have a hell of a time trying to reign in popular nationalistic fury,” Kuo says. “Bet on it.”

In addition, global issues such as climate change require cooperation by China and the US. This includes policy change by governments and behavioral change by individuals. Unfortunately, Kuo sees obstacles.

“A growing number of young Chinese now see Western environmentalism as the latest in a long line of sticks used to bludgeon China. They’ve been browbeaten again and again by an incessant American media drumbeat about China’s polluted cities, about its coal addiction, and these young Chinese are increasingly galvanized. They’re resentful of a hypocritical United States that has gorged itself for 100 years at the trough of fossil fuel. Unless the developed West bears what the Chinese believe is a fair share of the costs, the Chinese won’t be begrudged their own turn at the trough. The number of SUVs I now see prowling the streets of Beijing, including a shocking number of Hummers, appalls me. When I ask people why they drive such conspicuously wasteful vehicles, they invariably point fingers back at the American consumer.”

To bridge this gap, Kuo prescribes three remedies for thoughtful Westerners who would like to create understanding:

1. Do not be condescending with Chinese on the Internet. They know how to access information and circumvent firewalls, using proxy servers and virtual private networks. Do not assume they are brainwashed drones. It does not support constructive dialogue.

2. Learn what Chinese people actually think when their defenses are down. The conversations taking place when it’s not believed ‘whitey’ is around are decidedly more nuanced. Westerners can read this dialogue, translated into English from Chinese, on “bridge blogs” such as ChinaGeeks, ChinaSmack, ChinaHush, and Danwei. [Another valuable resource: EastSouthWestNorth.]

3. Read a book of relevant history. China is freighted with historical baggage, and it’s not something Chinese people easily shrug off. To start, Kuo suggests “The Search for Modern China” by Jonathan Spence.

Illustration from the 24-30 October edition of The Economist, with a 14-page report on “The odd couple,” China and America.


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