As Chinese nationalism flares across cyberspace, the government is growing concerned that passions could spill over into the real world, and that anger directed against foreigners could turn inward.
Critics contend that Beijing has had a role in fanning the xenophobic sentiment to counter international condemnation of its crackdown on Tibetan rioters, but now Chinese officials appear to be trying to rein in the vitriol.
Chinese censors have quietly warned cyber-police and Internet businesses to delete all information related to protests against Western policies, nations or companies that have proliferated in the wake of demonstrations surrounding the global Olympic torch relay and high-level calls to boycott the opening ceremony of the Summer Games in Beijing.
The notice issued this week by China’s “Internet Inspection Sector” instructs recipients to reset the keywords used to block access to certain websites, relay the instructions through all Internet distribution channels and delete the notice in a timely manner.
The censors’ notice cites the danger that Internet-fueled emotions could lead to unrest.
“Internet users are in a most intense mood toward Western countries,” it said. “Such information has shown a tendency to spread and, if not checked in time, could even lead to events getting out of control as they did with the April 9 incident against Japan.”
That was a reference to April 2005, when demonstrators attacked Japan’s embassy in Beijing and consulate in Shanghai, burned Japanese goods and beat Japanese citizens because of Tokyo’s bid to join the U.N. Security Council and over Japanese textbooks that downplayed Tokyo’s World War II aggression.
A planned event to give away patriotic T-shirts near Beijing’s Qinghua University this week reportedly was halted by police. Internet postings say police have contacted people who issued online calls for other demonstrations and told them to drop the idea.
The growing resentment toward foreigners comes during a year when China is hoping to showcase its hospitality to the world for the Beijing Olympics on Aug. 8 to 24.
The Chinese government is caught in something of a bind as it tries to manage foreign criticism without appearing weak in the eyes of angry Chinese; “otherwise, it becomes the target of that anger,” said Chu Shulong, a professor at Qinghua.
France has become a particular target of mass Chinese anger after pro-Tibet, Darfur and other human rights activists attacked the Olympic torch this month in Paris, forcing bearers to retreat to a bus and shorten the route. Earlier, French President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first world leader to suggest that he might boycott the opening ceremony.
Chinese Internet users called for a boycott starting May 1 of Carrefour, the French supermarket chain with more than 90 stores in China, after a rumor spread that company shareholders supported the Free Tibet movement. Carrefour has denied any such support, but one online survey this week found 210,000 supporters for a boycott.
“The French really make Chinese people angry,” said Zhou Shuyang, a 22-year-old student. “And we don’t want to be treated this way by the Western media, which lies. If we were allowed, a lot of people would join in protests, and I would as well.”
Chinese have called for boycotts of French products made by Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Airbus, Renault and others. The statements often have been fueled by rumors that the companies support the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, and donate sizable sums to pro-Tibet groups.
“This is totally groundless,” Bernard Arnault, chief executive of Louis Vuitton’s parent company, LVMH, told the French daily Le Figaro in an interview published Wednesday.
The French and European Union embassies in Beijing have received numerous harassing telephone calls. Several Western reporters have been besieged by death threats since their cellphone numbers and other details were posted online.
“These young people get very emotional,” said Li Datong, former editor of the Freezing Point, an influential newspaper supplement. But “it’s unthinkable for the government to let demonstrations happen before the Olympics.”
Some see a more general pattern of restrictions on foreigners, though Chinese also are subject to tightened security these days. China has implemented more restrictive visa policies and stepped up deportations. As many as 40 French teenagers in a Beijing bar were detained during a drug sweep in early April, apparently part of a broader pre-Olympics cleanup that authorities say is aimed at drugs and prostitution. Some drugs were found and one student was held for 15 days.
Rules requiring foreigners to register with police anywhere they stay have been more tightly enforced. Foreign businessmen visiting the Canton trade fair this year were told to obtain police certificates stating that their Chinese employees aren’t criminals.
In recent weeks, China’s propaganda ministry has tolerated and even fueled an outpouring of postings, blogs, Internet chats and other manifestations of anger against Western media. China’s state-run media, meanwhile, featured articles on Western media bias prominently.
CNN has been singled out for using a photo in March on its website that cropped out Tibetan rioters attacking Chinese targets, focusing instead on a Chinese military vehicle. This week, passions flared anew when CNN commentator Jack Cafferty described China’s leaders as a “bunch of goons and thugs.”
Anger has also spread overseas. Dozens of Chinese American groups are planning a demonstration in Los Angeles today against the broadcaster.
China’s Internet, which is not subject to as much control as conventional media, has become increasingly influential. The number of Internet users hit 228 million in March, according to the Beijing research firm BDA China, surpassing the 217 million U.S. users. But the government has what is believed to be the most sophisticated Internet control system in the world, relying on website and keyword filters, cyber- police, self-censorship and the forced cooperation of online companies.
He Yanguang, a photojournalist with the state China Youth Daily, free speech advocate and former Red Guard, thinks that both citizens and the government could take a different approach.
“China has been using nationalism to hide its own problems,” said He, who opposes a boycott of French products. “Our propaganda and education departments should focus on the education system that has spurred this.”