The Boxer Shorts Rebellion

In Reports

THE TERM fenqing—literally, “angry youth”—was first coined for reform- minded activists in 1970s Hong Kong. Today’s fenqing have change in sight, too; they are critical of the government’s Japan policy and relative openness toward the West, although sometimes their priorities can seem diffuse. There is no official organization or leadership, but, when leaders emerge, they tend to be hothead Internet sensations like Feng Jinhua, who rose to power by defacing Japan’s Yasukuni war memorial in 2001. Exact numbers of fenqing are difficult to pin down, but staunch nationalists probably number somewhere between the thousands who take to the streets during demonstrations and the 44 million who signed a 2005 online petition to bar Japan from a permanent Security Council seat—nearly half of China’s Internet users at the time. They’re abundant enough, at least, to inspire hatred among the liberal intellectuals they replaced: When writing about the nationalists, Chinese moderates sometimes replace the character for fen with a homophone, so that fenqing reads ”shit youth.” In 1989, when the fenqing generation was still in middle school, it witnessed an earlier crop of young activists erect a mock Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square—and get gunned down by the People’s Liberation Army. After China emerged from the shock of the massacre, intellectuals questioned the wisdom of embracing American-style democracy. And, with Chinese dissidents dead, jailed, or abroad and their Russian counterpoints starving, they had a point. In 1996, a group of writers and New Economy figures, at least two of whom had participated in the Tiananmen protests, distilled this new thinking into the blockbuster China Can Say No: Political and Emotional Choices in the Post-Cold War Era.

Pro-American sentiment, argued China Can Say No, had become an ”infectious disease.” The Middle Kingdom needed to turn inward. In 1999, when U.S.-led nato forces bombed—apparently accidentally—the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Chinese youth got their chance. Young people marched on two dozen cities, stoning KFC and McDonald’s franchises where American consulates were lacking. Lady Liberty appeared again, this time on a sign, but now her face was a skull. Americans looking for updates on the protests from the website of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing were confronted with a page that read, ”Down with the Barbarians!” ”Patriotic hacking” was born.

In the years that followed, China’s economy continued to explode, while Internet cafes multiplied, bringing millions of Chinese unprecedented access to information. But, while outsiders saw a country modernizing at breakneck speed, young Chinese looked out and realized how far they had to go. Their parents were taught that China was the East’s great power. Now it was clear that Japan— a small country seen to have borrowed China’s culture and written language—was wealthier. Meanwhile, American and European companies were setting up shop in Shanghai and Beijing, employing educated Chinese workers at low wages even as company directors spent their evenings, a la Chinabounder, sleazing about clubs. When, in 2003, a Chinese man living in Illinois posted an essay suggesting that the English-speaking West assigns the suffix ”-ese” to nationalities it deems inferior, it hit a cultural nerve, ricocheting around popular forums.

In April 2005, thousands of fenqing marched down my quiet, tree-lined street in Shanghai’s French Concession, hurling rocks and eggs at the block’s two sushi restaurants and yelling, ”Japanese pigs get out!” That year, protests swept across nearly a dozen Chinese cities. The next spring, Chinese Internet users forced MIT to shut down the website for the course ”Visualizing Cultures, ” where professors had posted racist Japanese woodcuts to accompany a critical discussion on Japan’s treatment of China during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894- 1895. In late 2007, hackers created a virus that installed a Chinese-language operating system on computers configured in other languages. Still, in January, Guo Quan, the Nanjing philosophy professor at the helm of the Greater China Anti-Japanese Alliance, hinted to me that the big struggle is yet to come: ”There are a lot of patriotic young people today, but their patriotism and courage hasn’t been put to the test yet.”

China’s rulers, who are trying to sell the world on China’s ”peaceful rise,” are concerned. If they let the nationalists vent their anger, they risk sabotaging relations with both the West and Japan (recent efforts at Chinese- Japanese reconciliation have been overshadowed by fenqing-led boycotts of Japanese products and anti-Japanese rallies). Where the Chinese government once set out to inspire nationalism, its challenge now is how to contain it.

To that end, Beijing monitors nationalist chatrooms and activists, clamping down just when they threaten to veer out of control. Propaganda operatives initially condoned China Can Say No, for example, only to condemn it after the publication of Why is China Saying No?, How Can China Say No?, and China Can Still Say No. But, with patriotism just about the only ideological underpinning the Communist Party can still cling to, it can’t afford to quash the movement outright. ”If the state comes out against popular nationalism, it undermines its claim to nationalist legitimacy,” says Peter Gries, author of China’s New Nationalism. In the meantime, he adds, an untimely political event—something analogous to the Belgrade bombing, for example—could trigger a major international incident.“We’re hostage to chance.”

ONE RAINY SATURDAY night in January, I find Zhang Jiehai, the psychologist- turnedblogger who sparked the Chinabounder manhunt, chain-smoking Davidoff cigarettes and drinking tea with the editor of a local business magazine in a Shanghai coffee shop. Zhang, a 36-year-old with a prominent goatee and a peculiar sense of humor, introduces the editor as a Public Security Bureau officer and then says, without cracking a smile, “Just kidding.”

Zhang recently published a book titled I Am Angry: The True Story Behind the Immoral Foreigner Incident. Chinabounder’s blog, he says, is a good ”textbook” for gauging foreign attitudes toward China. “People think the moon is rounder in the West. They should know what some foreigners really think of them.”

The fenqing who joined the manhunt, he says, did so because they feel threatened by foreign power. But he takes issue with my suggestion that their rage reflects a swelling of nationalism. “Does this Chinabounder type of man still run around China?” I concede that he does. “Did anyone lower foreigners’ salaries? Did anyone beat up foreigners in the street?” He sounds disappointed.

Zhang snubs out his cigarette. ”So, what nationalism?” he continues, raising his voice. “If China were the richest and the strongest country in the world and we had this kind of activity, that’s what might be called nationalism.” I’m not sure I want to be around for the real thing.

This article appeared in March 26, 2008.

First published in the New Republic.



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Mara Hvistendahl
Mara Hvistendahl is a contributing correspondent at Science magazine and the author of Unnatural Selection, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Mara has written for The Atlantic, Harper’s, Scientific American, Popular Science, The Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Policy. A longtime correspondent in China, she now lives in Minneapolis.

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