Posted by: Frederik Balfour on September 17, 2009
The latest trade dispute between China and the U.S. over tire tariffs has inevitably given way to a flurry of angry rants by Chinese netizens on internet chat forums against Washington. It has also unleashed a string of anti-American sentiments in the comments section of news stories carried by the international press. While the America-bashing [and international media-bashing] hasn’t reached the feverish levels seen during the Tibet riots last year and the Olympic torch relay, and more recently during the Urumqi unrest, the growing level of vitriol from both international and Chinese bloggers and commentators is a disturbing trend.
This notion was argued very persuasively by Kaiser Kuo, the former digital guru of Ogilvy China guru whom I heard speak at the CLSA China Forum in Shanghai on Wednesday. He said the internet is leading to increasing polarization of views between China and the U.S. in what he describes as “Red necks vs Red Guards.” Ironically, he notes that Sino-U.S. relations since Obama took office have been better than in any time in recent memory. But while things look smooth offline, online “things have deteriorated really, really badly.”
This matters because the Chinese leadership is becoming increasingly sensitive to views disseminated in chat rooms and blogs within China, and popular opinion is, for the first time in the Middle Kingdom becoming something Beijing is wary of. “It is not just in western democracies where populism is percolating up to national policies,” he said. “Unchecked this will strain the political relationship [between the U.S. and China] and constrain policy choices.” The internet is making us “more tribal, more fractured, more polarized…..people are touching noses but not seeing eye-to-eye in Cyberspace.”
He proposed several ways that western readers might help close this chasm of opinions.
First, they should drop their condescending attitudes that assume because the Chinese are caught beyond the Great Firewall that they are to be pitied. Second, try to learn what the Chinese think when they aren’t on the defensive. Third, learn some Chinese history, especially from the last 150 years. And finally, take advantage of bridge bloggers who monitor the Chinese internet and provide a summary for non-Chinese speaking readers. His recommendations include Hong Kong-based Roland Soong’s EastSouthNorthWest blog, Danwei.org Chinageeks and for a more salacious take on the zeitgeist of China, Chinahush.