x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

China's nationalism is a threat, but it's no longer personal

As former president Jiang Zemin made clear this week, the death threats in China were the product of bad foreign policy, not my crummy teaching.

A message on the chalkboard was how it started. "We kill you," someone had scratched into the slate. Then came the menacing phone calls. "Teacher Greg," a muffled voice managed in mangled English. "Leave China now, or you will die."

It was my first death threat: clear, concise, unambiguous. And, as I learned this week, entirely insincere.

It was May 8, 1999. Ten months after I'd arrived in the oil capital of Dongying to teach English to Chinese geologists, a series of bombs fired by Nato warplanes a continent away in Yugoslavia pummelled the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Three Chinese citizens were killed in the ensuring blasts, a "barbaric attack and a gross violation of Chinese sovereignty", state television declared.

Americans, quickly on the defensive, blamed the strike on inaccurate maps, an odd admission given the usually capable US military. And yet there the US President Bill Clinton was, expressing remorse on Chinese television for the "tragic mistake", lending credence to the line that American warplanes simply got it wrong.

Or at least that's what I've been led to believe for the last 12 years. It turns out that Washington's response, and China's anger, was little more than a ruse. Jiang Zemin, the former Chinese president, has written in his yet-to-be-published memoir that he personally permitted Serbian military intelligence units to hide in the basement of China's embassy in Belgrade that spring. Hence the US targeting.

Instead of admitting his political miscalculation, however, Mr Jiang struck a deal with the White House. Mr Clinton in turn issued a false apology so that China might save face.

And there you have it. Death threats for me. "Face" for a Chinese president.

Looking back, the wave of anti-Americanism that surrounded my hotel that spring was to be expected. China's national psyche in those days was one of perpetual punching bag; long before that day in May I sensed among my students an entrenched belief that they had something to prove, and that China was also unfairly treated by more powerful nations.

The Chinese leadership skilfully tapped into this vein. Nationalism was then, and had long been, an antidote to internal unrest. As far back as 1919, when thousands of students marched in opposition to the Treaty of Versailles's handover of territory to Japan, nationalism has been used as a unifying source of pride, and justification for the country's policies.

After Belgrade, Beijing played this card to perfection. "The bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia by the US-led Nato has aroused the utmost indignation and strong patriotic feelings of the Chinese people," then Vice President Hu Jintao said in a televised address to the nation. "The Chinese Government firmly supports and protects all lawful activities of protest in accordance with law."

University classes were cancelled the following day in Dongying, and foreign teachers, all eight of us, were sequestered to our hotel. Armed policeman stood guard at the gate to turn away angry mobs.

From the roof of the foreign teachers' residence I watched long lines of students, many of whom I'd been instructing for months, march towards us. They waved banners and shouted Communist Party slogans. Kids with American nicknames, like Jerry and Michael, called for the US imperialists to take off their masks and stop treating China like dogs. Some called for boycotts of the US economy.

The anger seemed to flow easily and I imagined, for a moment, that I was stuck in Tehran in 1979, not the eastern seaboard of China two decades later.

But I was lucky; the students eventually dispersed and, a few days later, I was back in the classroom, emotionally bruised but otherwise unhurt. In Beijing, the scenes were far scarier. Chinese-run television ran non-stop coverage of the protests, and mobs of over 100,000 Chinese, mostly youths, marched on the American embassy. The government reportedly bussed in protesters from nearby universities, and American students were beaten on the streets.

In hindsight, perhaps I should have been a bit more flustered. And yet, for some reason I couldn't help but chuckle when my students, not much younger than me, parroted the Communist Party line during those tense few days. I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, but there was something innocent and naive - even dishonest - about their vitriol.

These were the same kids I'd watched movies with (Titanic), chatted about American culture with (Michael Jackson), and learned how to use chopsticks with. On my first day of class, over 200 kids showed up to hear me go on about American pop culture. They wanted to know if I was married, had children, if I liked McDonalds.

And now they wanted me dead?

It's taken 12 years to understand that the answer to this question is no, not really. But as the details of Mr Jiang's memoir make clear, national interests lead people to do things that aren't always what their guts will of them.

I haven't been back to China since, but those who go frequently say China's nationalistic push is even more pronounced today than in years past. Joshua Kurlantzick, an expert on China's domestic policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, believes that over time, China will need these tools to promote unity among its people, especially as its leadership becomes less authoritarian and "more of a collective".

Hopefully I'll return to the Middle Kingdom one day. But for now let me just thank Mr Jiang for finally coming clean. And to everyone else who wanted me dead so long ago: apology accepted.