The Chinese students' rally last Saturday was a deeply unsettling experience. There was a lot more to it than meets the eye.
For starters, the students were putting on a public face that was less than genuine. They shouted the slogan (in English) “we love China, we love New Zealand”, but the flyers promoting the rally read “維護祖國統一”, which translates into “Defend the Unity of the Mother-country”. While some had signs and t-shirts which said politics should be kept out of the Olympics, others held signs for “One Country, One Family”, with the very clear – and very political – message that Tibet should remain a part of China. Not that it really made much difference. The students might have tried to tone down the bright-red nationalism of their message with New Zealand flags and so forth, but when hundreds of Chinese waving giant Chinese flags start singing the Chinese national anthem, the message is anything but ambigious.
It's understandable that the students want to ramp up the message to mobilise a crowd, but their efforts to tone it down also showed some awareness of the problems that their message posed.
The demonstration of nationalism showed that they prioritised their national identity as Chinese first – not just above any kind of attachment to New Zealand, but above the broader concerns that the West was expressing. There is no stronger way to say “I'm not one of you”. More importantly, though, the kind of nationalism they are promoting also renders the rally pointless. Their message was that: “We don't care about what you care about (Tibet, human rights), but we want you to care about what we care about (China's prestige and territorial integrity).” How can they expect the rest of the world to care about China when they don't care about the rest of the world?
It's a fact that they lacked self-awareness about: Chinese nationalism is exclusively about the wellbeing of China.
Say what you will about the hypocrisy of USA and France in modern times, but their ideas of nationhood – the way they express nationalism – are tied to concepts of freedom and democracy; New Zealand and Australian identity is infused with egalitarianism. Chinese nationalism, on the other hand, is entirely concerned with China. Of course this makes the West concerned and suspicious about Chinese nationalism, and rallying around Chinese nationalism when confronted with human rights challenges just serves to confirm those suspicions.
But it's time for the West to look at Chinese nationalism anew, too. To state the really bloody obvious, it's real. Coverage of the protests gave much credibility to claims that they were backed or organised by the Chinese government, implying that a) the Chinese government had enough control over the students here in New Zealand that they could mobilise 600 students in Wellington and 3000 in Auckland in the space of a week, and b) that Chinese nationalism is somehow artificial, something that only exists by mandate of the government.
Yes, Chinese nationalism is actively promoted through the schools, but every conception of nationalism depends on a selective and conscious retelling of history, and China's no different. It's taught as a historical narrative of China being once a great power, weakened by corruption and in-fighting, humiliated and subjudicated by a series of colonial powers; this narrative frames modern China from Sun Yat Sen onwards as a project to strengthen and protect China – from internal corruption and fracture, as well as from foreign interference.
These are not imagined historical greviences – part of it is still living memory, and its effects have been passed on through generations. More importantly, it matters to individuals now. It's a source of empowerment in a world that's still culturally dominated by the West, and it's a way for Chinese to understand their place in the world, as part of a powerful, rising China. It's all the more important as Chinese move out into the world – as these international students have. They might be young, but they are also educated and cosmopolitan. They are also a group that's not usually involved in public demonstrations – so the fact that so many turned out showed just how much this matters to them.
Calls for Tibetan independence need to be seen in this historical context. Apart from the very tangible prospect that it would inflame ethnic separatism across China, the symbolic significance is that it would be a roll-back of the China project. To lose Tibet is to refragment and weaken China, and by extension, it's a rejection of the extraordinary but costly gains that China has made over the last century. That's why they're so upset.
So the conclusion is ugly and pragmatic: To push for Tibetan independence is to inflame Chinese nationalism, which will only result in smothering any hopes for cultural autonomy in Tibet.
But at the same time, China – and oversea Chinese students in particular – need to think long and hard about how they want to engage with the West. The only message that rallies like last week's send is: “We are upset.” It can change actions, up to a point, but it does nothing to change people's opinions. It might have made those students feel better to voice their sense of grievance, but as China's bridge to the world, the international students should aspire towards better.