Recently we’ve been treated to a few events that have brought out the reactions of Chinese netizens across the spectrum of opinion, from the reform-minded to the nationalistic, and what we have read in the state-owned media and in the comments on Sina Weibo helps to shed a bit of light on Chinese society.
Chinese have little or no control over their leaders, their governing Party or the morality of the average citizen. When the Bo Xilai scandal broke, the overwhelming response online was disgust and shame … disgust at the rampant corruption and the shame of having the nation’s dirty laundry aired across the global media and within the halls of the US Embassy. Chen Guangcheng’s dramatic escape and his struggle with the central authorities, the local government in Shandong and the US government in the persons of Ambassador Gary Locke and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton elicited similar reactions. In both cases, Chinese supported, or at the very least didn’t violently oppose, foreign efforts to meddle in “internal affairs” because those affairs were not issues of sovereignty.
The average Chinese citizen feels he/she practices little sovereignty over the actions of the government, so the majority reaction supported reform, freedom and liberal responses to issues that in the past were treated with hardline discipline.
For me, the incident in Guangzhou, in which a Brazilian was beaten by thieves for helping a woman whose purse was stole while gawkers stood and … gawked … is related. The reactions were, again, laced with shame and disgust. Netizens sliced into the collective morality of a society that has consistently displayed an unwillingness to do the right thing when confronted with injustice. The overall lack of morality on the streets of China is something the whole nation is struggling with. On an individual level, no Chinese person would advocate standing around while a person is beaten for coming to the aid of others, but on a group level, the situation is less positive. Here, in my opinion, is another example of the lack of control the society has over an issue. The Chinese media has been rocked time and time again by examples of collective and individual immorality, injustice, corruption and perfidy, yet nothing seems to change.
In stark contrast to those issues, and how the majority of netizens reacted to them, are the recent clamors for war with the Philippines over islands in the South China Sea and the vitriolic outpouring of hatred on Sina Weibo for the foreigner caught messing with a Chinese woman.
When it comes to territory and women, there is no question of sovereignty. The language itself dispels any doubts: Our China, Our Chinese women, We Chinese are all very common phrases. I have watched the video and there is no clear evidence of rape (or a beating for that matter) and no one is really sure what happened that night, but just the idea of a foreigner infringing upon sovereign territory (Our Chinese women) is enough to bring out the most violent reaction. It reminds me of what happened to black men messing with white women in the US not so long ago. People get emotional when it comes to women, but only if their bodies are at stake. Raping a purse is a minor offense.
The conflict with the Philippines is also based on dubious claims of sovereignty over islands that are much closer to the Philippines than to China, but the proof or lack thereof of sovereignty does not matter. For Chinese, the issue is clear cut: the islands belong to Our China and are therefore inviolable and any infringement upon them should be met with violence. To draw a (perhaps too tenuous) parallel, it is completely rational to demand the US mind its own business when a much larger nation bullies a much smaller one, but just as rational to deride Chinese society for minding its own business when a group of thugs beat up a Brazilian.
Perhaps Chinese are just picking their battles. The average person here knows that the princelings are corrupt, that local governments are brutish and oppressive and that the society at large is fully capable of watching a bad deed go down without lifting a finger, but there is little that can be done to change that. At least in the near term.
But when it comes to foreigners abusing Chine