Will the Earthquake in China Stoke Nationalism? How can the West use it?

chinese earthquake

CNN: Quake kills thousands, traps hundreds

This year’s Beijing Olympics, as any good wonks knows, was supposed to be a coming out party for the new China. To say it isn’t going well is an understatement. First came the Darfur activists. Darfur activists, in particular Amnesty International, had been preparing massive protests and boycotts for the 2008 Olympics because of China’s support for the government of Sudan. That was before protests in Tibet. Protests in Lhasa and the harsh crackdown that followed inspired a new group of protesters that wanted greater autonomy and freedom, if not independence, for Tibet. Even more recently, there have been calls for China to disassociate itself from the government in Myanmar after the disastrous cyclone there.

These protests have created a backlash in China and around the world. Chinese nationalism has been stoked. But as The Economist warns in the previously linked article, new nationalism is also a danger to the current Chinese regime. “Popular anger, once roused, can easily switch targets,” the magazine editors write. “[P]rotests at perceived slights against China's dignity could turn against a government accused of not doing enough to safeguard it.”

In the same way 9/11 increased patriotism in America, so will these quakes in China. That much is certain. What is questionable is which route this patriotism will take: will it be let out on the Communist government, or on foreign countries?

It depends on how the governments of the world respond. Will Hu Jintao’s administration fail miserably at natural disaster response, or will it shine? Will they cover up the extent of the disaster? How will Western media portray the disaster? Will Western governments send disaster relief? How much? These questions will only be answered by time.

How we can respond
Of course, instability in the world’s largest production factory is not what any Western politician wants right now. Therefore, suggesting backing for Chinese dissidents (for example) may not be politically feasible.

We’ve also got to keep in mind: this is a humanitarian catastrophe, not just an event to be used politically. We definitely can and should send aid.

However, that does not mean we can’t leverage the Chinese government for whatever we can get.