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Chinese Nationalism, at Home and Abroad

Chinese navy personnel perform at a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy in Qingdao, China, April 22, 2019. (Jason Lee / Reuters)

My Impromptus today offers a mélange of important issues, and some unimportant ones, too. Subjects include the mask wars, and mask attitudes; Biden, the Democrats, and spending; Israel in the crosshairs; and the continuing saga of Trump and the GOP. Toward the end of my column, I have a note on the epic clash — or at least a clash — between two conductors, both named Riccardo, in the principal dressing room of La Scala.

Here in the Corner, I would like to publish a letter from a young friend of mine. He was responding to my Q&A podcast with Gulchehra Hoja, the Uyghur-American journalist who works for Radio Free Asia. Almost 20 of her relatives are in the concentration camps back in western China. I also wrote about Ms. Hoja, here.

Says my friend,

Your question about what Chinese people think of Uyghurs was a good one. My sense is they have almost completely bought the propaganda line that Uyghurs are all dangerous terrorists. I know people at my conservative Baptist church who were raised in China and actually defend the government. They were fed propaganda from the day they were born, and many of them can’t let it go. (Some can and have, to their credit.)

I think almost all people want to believe there was truth in their upbringing, so Chinese really, really want to believe that what they were told wasn’t a load of garbage top to bottom, because that is an indictment of their whole Chinese identity (they think).

So, regarding the Uyghurs, they say, “You don’t get it, there was a big terrorism problem that we had to deal with,” or, “There were a lot of problems in Xinjiang that we had to fix.” Or the classic “It’s not as bad as people say.”

Chilling though it may be, a friend of mine — seriously, someone I worship with — told me that it’s false to say you can respect the Chinese people and not respect their government. She mouthed some bromides about how in the East they are too wise to differentiate people from their government, as we do in the West — they understand the truth that we are collectives. Creepy stuff, and she seemed genuinely to believe it.

Others I have known who aren’t as brainwashed have the attitude that the truth about the Uyghurs is somewhere in the middle. Most of these people seem peculiarly uninterested in delving too deeply into the matter, even those who dislike the government.

Yup. Chinese nationalism is a great and fearsome thing. (Indeed, it is nationalism — good old-fashioned Han Chinese nationalism — that is persecuting the Uyghurs right now.) I have long said, “A brave Chinese dissident, being tortured to death, will use his last breaths to gasp, ‘Tibet is an irrevocable part of China.’”

Now, there are great, great exceptions to this, as Perry Link pointed out to me when I raised the question with him recently. (For the relevant podcast, go here.) Professor Link, as you know, is a famed scholar of the Chinese language and Chinese literature, who has been an outstanding friend to dissidents and democracy advocates. Fang Lizhi, Liu Xiaobo — men at this level of greatness are free of the blind-nationalism thing. They have a broad outlook, and an understanding of right and wrong. But, as Professor Link pointed out, nationalism is strong throughout the diaspora. Support of the Chinese dictatorship — or at least non-hostility to it — is common. Professor Link contrasted this with the Cubans who live in South Florida and elsewhere. You would be hard-pressed to find a pro-Castro Cuban exile. They exist, but they are very, very exceptional.

Anyway, this is a big and multi-layered issue — the subject of endless books and articles — and I’m typing a blogpost. Again, for today’s Impromptus, go here.

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