Give China Some Face

Patriotism at the expense of another nation is as wicked as racism at the expense of another race…Let us resolve to be patriots always, nationalists never.

– Rev. William Sloane Coffin

On May 19th, the one-week anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, the entire Chinese nation stood at attention for three minutes to remember the victims of the Sichuan Earthquake. Newspapers and websites across the nation were in stark black and white – dressed in mourning for the more than 60,000 victims of the quake.

In the center of Chengdu, Tianfu Plaza, thousands of people gathered at the appointed time and bowed their heads in silence as air sirens and car horns blared throughout the three minutes. A clarion call of sorrow.

Afterward, the crowd chanted “Go China!” for hours to show support not only for the people affected by the earthquake, but also the nation as a whole.

Some onlookers – and all Westerners – were disconcerted by this strong show of mass nationalism. It was scary to watch, thousands of people pumping their fists in the air and crying out the name of their homeland. In the English language, there is a distinction between the words patriotism and nationalism, as evinced by the quote above, but in the Chinese language, both are expressed today by the phrase "Ai Guo Zhu Yi" which translates as "Love the Country-ism." Whereas we may see images of Nationalist Germany and shudder, in Chengdu that afternoon it was a natural patriotic outpouring of angst, love and defiance – devoid of guilt.

China has had an eventful year so far. The nation’s already strong Ai Guo Zhu Yi has been ratcheted up to Revolutionary Era levels, when the rallying cry was "Kang Re" (Confront the Japanese), whereas today it’s "Kang Zhen, Jiu Zai" (Confront the earthquake, save the victims).

The build-up began suddenly in March, as protests in Lhasa erupted and the nation banded together in condemnation of the Tibetan "rioters" and the "evil Dalai clique" that supported them. When the foreign media weighed in against China, the nation got tighter. After the Olympic Torch became a political tool, the whole world got their first good look at Chinese patriotism as busloads of students demonstrated in defense of China everywhere from New York to Seoul. China was becoming nationalist, turning against its enemies, be they Tibetan separatists of foreign meddlers.

Now that disaster has struck, Chinese from all over the world see an opportunity to express love for the Motherland by helping out their Sichuanese brothers. There are thousands of volunteers all over the disaster area – loosely connected to the government, if at all – climbing into some of the hardest hit areas and bringing water and encouragement with them. Suddenly, there were no enemies, only friends.

In a refugee camp in Mianzhu, a couple guys were passing out leaflets to all the refugees. The leaflets were from the Public Security Bureau letting everyone know that rumors of Tibetans roaming the camps stealing stuff were false and inflammatory. In every place I visited, they called me “an international friend” and thanked me, spoke with me, offered me a seat and some water.

Few nations can unite around an issue or cause like China can. The Chinese fused as one several times during the 20th century and carried out massive campaigns for social reform. Its old hat for the Party to throw something into the consciousness of the nation and have every man, woman and child discussing it and, if ordered to, implementing it. The social cohesion relies on political tools like big character posters, slogans and the media, an entire canon of thought concerning the harmonious society, ruthless peer pressure and above all the concept of face. For many in China, it is very hard to be different.

Never underestimate the power of face. It binds everything in this nation. It defines, organizes, regulates and gives purpose to all aspects of society. In March and during the foreign media blitz, China lost a lot of face. When the torch was violated on world television, China lost a grip of face.

Now, China is regaining all of that lost face, just in time for the Games. Nothing has changed here – Chinese see no need to repudiate Ai Guo Zhu Yi and the government will do all in its power to make sure they never do. China has gained face, collectively, and the nation is high. Anything is possible when a Chinese feels he has gained face: you will never meet more magnanimous people. The society demands that anyone who receives face, must pass it around, or risk losing what he has so recently gained.

I am glad I did not grow up in a society that demands my patriotic love as a precondition for me living with them, but I also admire and envy the Chinese their family ties. Ai Guo Zhu Yi represents both the aggressive defiance needed when threatened and the proud love expressed in times like now – the selfless volunteers and the fist-pumping patriots.

Right now, the troubles in Tibet are off the map. The dead and suffering of Sichuan are the top China story, turning China from pariah to darling. Things have happened so fast here and we still have three months until the Big Show.

Is it possible to have a benevolent, peaceful wave of patriotic love that could surge across China’s borders? I think that entirely depends on how the world reacts to a nation bursting with pride and emotion, as China is now.

Imagine if China, in a gesture born of brimming passion and goodwill, invited the Dalai Lama to the Olympics and sat with him as cousins should. Imagine if all of the western politicians who have threatened to boycott the Opening Ceremony quietly reconsidered, and came anyway.

For Chinese there is no question about the success of the Olympics, but rather a question of prestige. People here "live in the words of others": if no bad news pops up between now and then and the world lays off China then it is possible to avoid a nationalistic China.