23 September 2012

The Diaoyu protests, class warfare and nativism

One of the better and more penetrating articles I have read on the recent protests in China has been, oddly enough, in Comment is Free, by professor at the London School of Economics Dr Lin Chun. Her thesis is that the protests, though their explicit purpose was to reclaim the Diaoyus from Japan (and therefore to boycott Japanese goods), was actually motivated and fed by a number of other highly disparate concerns and anxieties, not all of them to do with nationalism. Class-based anxieties, for example, and mistrust of government officials played key roles; a number of people at these protests used the opportunity to critique local policies or even the government itself (these were quickly rooted out, however). Government in various levels has allowed protest in only one direction: as far away from itself as possible, preferably in a Japan-ward vein; though some observers have reverted to paranoid fantasies about the government sponsoring the protests, I prefer the more simple explanation that the CCP just wants, like any party of government, to cover its own arse, and is selectively policing against protests which could harm its interests. (It is worth noting that the day after 18 September I managed to see only one red flag the entire day in Baotou - though quite a few police vans on the streets.) However, given that a number of the protesters in the larger cities were, in fact, migrant workers (generally themselves people who live in a constant state of economic stress and insecurity), Dr Lin’s analysis strikes me as hitting fairly close to home.

Her analysis is further bolstered by the analysis from Tea Leaf Nation, which shows a rather disheartening picture, even in the online community, of comments which condone class warfare (with some going so far as to dehumanise and blame poor people), and of comments speak more to regional bigotries than to any kind of real patriotism. Though it is sad and angering to see classism and nativism rearing their ugly heads in the aftermath of the protests, it does indeed speak to the view that there is far more going on under the surface of these protests than mere nationalism. As in Japan, the issue of control of the Diaoyus serves both as a lightning-rod for, and a distraction from, other equally important issues which do not get the full airing they deserve. It is an important issue, as I have said before - but it would be a mistake to place undue emphasis on the nationalist angle of it, as has happened in both Chinese and Western media.

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