On Waking Sleeping Giants


During my six-year sojourn in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, one of the things I came away with was a sense of how generally un-nationalistic and non-patriotic the Chinese people were.

Caught up in the struggle first to simply survive and then, in the mid-90s, to try and grab onto the moving train that was China’s new Great Leap into Capitalism, average mainland Chinese, whether out in the remote farmlands of western Anhui Province or in the rundown house lining the hutongs of Shanghai or Beijing, had no time for patriotic displays or nationalistic concerns.

When Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing would beat the drum of nationalism over Taiwanese independence efforts in the 1990s, it evoked mostly yawns among average Chinese people, and in fact, to Beijing’s embarrassment, a popular computer game featured a war-game in which Taiwan defeated the People’s Liberation Army.

That all started to change when the US, early in the first term of President George W. Bush, taunted the Chinese by flying a spy plane into Chinese airspace, damaging a Chinese fighter jet that flew up to intercept it, and getting forced down itself on Hainan Island. That incident aroused a lot of anger among ordinary Chinese who felt that the US was pushing their country around, and who felt pride at their country’s willingness and ability to stand tough and take the American plane hostage.

Now, the Tibet uprising, which has garnered global support, particularly in Europe and the US, has further inflamed Chinese nationalism, with most Chinese seeing Tibet as part of China’s historic imperial realm, and the global backing for Tibet nationalists as a throwback to 19th Century and early 20th Century imperialist attacks on China by the West.

In a way, the Tibetan riots have been a golden opportunity for China’s sclerotic Communist Party leadership, which has been feeling growing pressure to open up the political system, but which can now ride a wave of unthinking nationalism and push those democratic pressures aside, at least for a time (much as 9-11 allowed Bush and Cheney to do the same to democratic traditions and the rule of law in the US).

The 2008 Olympics set for Beijing, which many Chinese democrats had hoped would force China to open up space for them, thanks to the wave of western tourists and journalists and all the global media attention that they would bring to the country, will now be held under tight police guard on the largely trumped-up excuse of threats of Tibetan terrorism.

There is a lesson here for America, though I doubt that the policymakers in Washington are of a mind to take it. That lesson applies to Iran.

The neoconservatives who have dominated the Bush administration, and who appear to be gaining the ear of Republican presidential presumptive nominee John McCain, and whose neoliberal relatives in the Democratic Leadership Council also seem to have Hillary Clinton in their pocket, all talk of taking a hard line with Iran over its alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Bush and Vice President Cheney talk openly of attacking Iran, and indeed Cheney may have been preparing for just such a disastrous action with his so-called “peace trip” to the Middle East last month (a trip that was followed by a nationwide five-day mobilization in Israel, and by calls from the Saudi government for preparations for a possible wave of nuclear fallout to hit that country). McCain, meanwhile, has entertained supporters by bastardizing a Beach Boys hit and singing “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb! Bomb Iran!” Hillary Clinton, for her part, signed on to a war-mongering piece of legislation sponsored a few months ago by Senate warmonger-in-chief Joe Lieberman (D-CT), which gratuitously designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a “global terrorist” organization-an open invitation for Bush to order an attack on military bases in Iran.

The problem with this mad strategy of attacking Iran is that its effect would be to galvanize the Iranian people, who like the Chinese, currently have little love for their repressive theocratic government, and little interest in nationalist heroics, not to mention little innate hostility towards America, and to turn them into super-patriots ready to fight and die for their country.

Like China, Iran is an ancient and proud civilization, and one of the oldest continuous polities in the world today. Its culture, thousands of years old, helped to engender what we today call Western civilization. Its writers, poets, musicians, scientists and artists have produced ideas and creations to rival those of any other nation on the globe.

If the US were to attack Iran-even if that attack were carefully targeted at only government buildings, nuclear facilities and military bases-the country’s largely apolitical population would predictably stand together as one to rally in defense of their nation. Just as the Chinese people have rallied ’round the flag as China is attacked-in this case from within by Tibetan separatists and from without by supporters of a Free Tibet-Iranians would rally ’round the flag if their country came under attack-especially if that attack came from the same country which undermined and overthrew their popular democratically elected government half a century ago, installing the hated Shah.

Now talk about stupid policies!

I agree that China has no business owning Tibet-any more than the US should own Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands, or the lands it stole from the indigenous peoples of America. And I agree that the mullahs who rule Iraq with an iron hand are a despicable bunch of bigots and misogynous sociopaths who should go back to their mosques and stay out of politics-just as bone-headed fundamentalist church leaders should stay out of politics here. But threatening these countries, as America did with its spy plane flights near China in 2001 and with its current rhetoric about “regime change” in and war against Iran, is not the way to achieve those ends.

If China ultimately lets Tibetans have self-determination or independence, it will be because the Tibetans demanded it and because the Chinese people agreed to let them have it-or it will be because central authority in China, and with it control over its boundaries-has collapsed, as it historically has done a number of times.

Similarly, the if Iran ultimately ousts its theocratic leadership and returns to the democratic path so abruptly derailed by the CIA two generations ago, it will be because its own long-suffering people made that change, not because of the American military and America’s blustery leaders. In fact, American politicians and generals can only delay that day by their threats and by any actual ill-conceived military action.

DAVE LINDORFF, a Philadelphia-based journalist, was a two-time Fulbright Scholar in China, and majored in Chinese language at Wesleyan University. He has lived in Shanghai, Xian, Hong Kong and in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net






CounterPunch contributor DAVE LINDORFF is a producer along with MARK MITTEN on a forthcoming feature-length documentary film on the life of Ted Hall and his wife of 51 years, Joan Hall. A Participant Film, “A Compassionate Spy” is directed by STEVE JAMES and will be released in theaters this coming summer. Lindorff has finished a book on Ted Hall titled “A Spy for No Country,” to be published this Fall by Prometheus Press.