Posted by: Shaun | April 19, 2008

China Struggles to Maintain Image Control

In the latest round of reaction to international criticism of Chinese policies, anti-French demonstrations sprouted up in cities including Beijing, Kunming, Wuhan, and Qingdao, often targeting the French line of grocery stores, Carrefour.  The outbursts were a reaction to the Paris protests against Chinese human rights abuses that coincided with the passage of the Olympic torch through the city.  More specifically, they were driven by rumors that the owners of Carrefour had endorsed Tibetan independence.  (Finally, the U.S. and China have found some common ground…hating the French.)

Such protests have not been uncommon in recent weeks and they are often accompanied by Internet attacks against Western media outlets, governments, and even individuals, as the case of Duke Student Grace Wang demonstrated.  All this has prompted the Chinese government to issue a statement through Xinhua urging its citizens to ease off of the online ire.  The government has also reportedly instructed its small army of Internet police to begin blocking access to certain inflammatory websites and to delete particularly hostile posts.

Meanwhile, China’s position is further complicated by the controversy over a shipment of arms to the embattled government of Robert Mugabe, which is currently being held by union dock workers in South Africa.  The arms were purchased before the recent election debacle in Zimbabwe, but they nonetheless highlight China’s relations with certain unsavory international actors who supply it with critical natural resources.  (Wow, America and China should really hang out more often, we have a lot of similar interests.)

All this leaves Beijing fighting on two fronts to control its international image ahead of the 2008 Olympics.  On the one hand, it must dampen global criticism of its human rights policies generally and toward Tibet in particular, while on the other, it must try to control its own increasingly nationalistic citizens as they lash out against perceived foreign slanders leveled at their homeland.

This was, perhaps, the inevitable result of a desire to put China in the international spotlight, but one wonders if the central government overestimated its ability to manage its own image.  Indeed, it may have painted itself into a corner by using traditional nationalism to fill the void left by Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought.  After all, how can it criticize its citizens for acting on the same values it has so vociferously advocated for the last decade?


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