Tuesday, 21 June 2011
Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, is an admirable man, a martyr to free thought in the way that Socrates was a martyr to free thought. But it’s wrong to assume that he somehow represents a huddled Chinese mass yearning to breath free. He is, in many ways, deeply untypical of the mood of his nation, deeply untypical of its history.
When it comes to history the Chinese have a particularly long memory; and one of the most abiding memories is that of national humiliation at the hands of foreigners. It’s a memory particularly strong among a section of the national community known as the fenqing – angry youth –, who have no interest at all in the values upheld by the Nobel Prize Committee, supporting, rather, a robust version of Chinese nationalism. Without too much exaggeration it’s tempting to see them as the modern Boxers, after the movement involved in the anti-foreign uprising of 1900.
This phenomenon is not entirely new. Unlike the Nationalists, who saw the Boxers as ‘bandits’, the Communists have always taken a more positive view. During the Cultural Revolution Mao’s Red Guards occasionally referred to themselves as the ‘new Boxers.’ Though the Boxer-style violence of the Red Guard has been eschewed by the ruling Communist Party, the original movement is increasingly promoted as an example of anti-imperialist patriotism. In 2009 The People’s Daily published an article praising the Boxers for the panic they had caused among the foreigners trying to carve up China.
It’s all very well, of course, to try to harness into a patriotic tradition but there are dangers here for a regime not always that certain of its continuing hold on power. I can understand that, in a mood of national pride, the Chinese may wish to reinterpret parts of their history. But Boxer violence was not exclusively directed against foreigners. Indeed, far more native Chinese died in their excesses than outsiders. The government of the day, headed by the Empress Dowager Cixi, originally gave encouragement to the movement before they realised the dangers of the dragon. The Communist Party might choose to think that patriotism begins and ends with itself. It does not, as it might eventually discover to its cost.