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WEB EXCLUSIVE
Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Love-hate relationship

By GEOFFREY YORK
Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, Jan. 8, 2004

Lushan, China — At first glance, it seemed authentic: a thatched cottage, more than a century old, marking the site where the Japanese military won control of a strategic port in northern China in 1905.

The cottage had me fooled. But like so many other things in China, it was a clever imitation. The real cottage — where a Russian commander had signed a formal surrender to the Japanese army in the port of Lushun on Jan. 5, 1905 — had been dismantled as war booty and shipped back to Japan many decades ago. China later built a near-perfect replica of the cottage and made it into a museum.

As I gazed at the counterfeit cottage, I was puzzled at first. Why would China go to such lengths to preserve a symbol of its national humiliation — its failure to prevent Japan and Russia from carving up its northeastern provinces in the early years of the 20th century?

The answer was in the propaganda posters that are prominently displayed inside the cottage in an effort to provoke Chinese outrage at the misdeeds of foreigners. Nationalism is a potent weapon in today's China, and the government can never resist another chance to fan the flames.

"Two imperialist powers fought tooth-and-nail on the land of Lushun for the evil purpose of invading and occupying Chinese territory," one sign proclaims. "We preserve this old site to teach our descendants to remember history and go all-out to make our country stronger."

As a foreigner in China myself, I've noticed that China has an awkward love-hate relationship with all things foreign. On the one hand, the Chinese are fascinated by foreigners. English signs on shops and restaurants are fashionable and prestigious. American-style housing suburbs are all the rage. Western sports stars and Hollywood celebrities have massive fan followings here. After decades of Maoist isolation, the Chinese are eagerly travelling to foreign countries, studying English, watching Hollywood movies, eating Western food and listening to Western music.

At the same time, the Chinese can instantly turn hostile to foreigners at any perceived slight. Huge national scandals frequently erupt when a foreigner is seen as disrespecting China or its people, even in relatively petty incidents such as traffic accidents or street disputes.

I suppose the quick anger is understandable. Going back to the Opium Wars and the foreign-controlled treaty ports of the 19th century, on through the Japanese invasions of the 20th century, the Nanjing massacre of 1937 and the American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, China has plenty of legitimate grievances against foreigners, and plenty of reasons to feel suspicious and insecure.

It is China's relationship with Japan that most often reveals these raw emotions. Anything that can be portrayed as a Japanese insult or Japanese arrogance is swiftly seized upon by the Chinese media, often provoking a national controversy.

Prostitution, for example, is routinely accepted in every major Chinese city, with the police turning a blind eye to it — except when Japanese customers are involved. An incident in the city of Zhuhai in September, when hundreds of Japanese tourists hired Chinese prostitutes during a three-day visit, sparked an uproar across the country. Chinese Web sites were inundated with thousands of furious messages from outraged citizens who saw it as a national insult.

There was a widespread belief (without evidence) that the Japanese had deliberately arranged the incident near the anniversary of Japan's 1931 occupation of Manchuria in an intentional effort to humiliate China. The response was swift. Within a few weeks, suspects were arrested, a trial was held, and heavy prison sentences — including two life sentences — were imposed on 14 Chinese citizens who had arranged the prostitutes, while arrest warrants were issued for three Japanese men.

In a similar incident a short time later, a mob of 1,000 people marched through the streets of the Chinese city of Xian after three Japanese students had performed a bawdy skit at a local university. The mob was convinced that the students were somehow mocking or insulting China.

And when some Chinese were poisoned by Japanese chemical weapons that were left over from the Second World War, more than 1 million people put their names on petitions on the Chinese Internet to protest the incident and demand compensation.

Even Canadians can be swept up in the anti-foreigner hostility. In late December, a Canadian teacher in the Chinese island of Hainan was surrounded by a mob of 500 people when he got into a confrontation with bystanders after a car accident in which he was a passenger. After much pushing and shoving, he struck someone and the mob got angrier. Within a few hours, it was a national scandal. Photos of the Canadian teacher were posted on one of China's biggest web sites, and more than 1,460 people wrote angry messages to the Web site.

"Ugly and arrogant foreigners will be beaten," one person warned. Another complained: "There are countless cases where Chinese people are insulted by foreign dog."

The incident was compounded by the fact that the Canadian teacher was black. Many of the comments on the Web site were full of racist curses. Hundreds demanded that criminal charges should be filed against him.

When I spoke to the teacher, he was still shaken by the fury of the mob. Yet he had decided to stay in China. He had too many Chinese friends, and everyone assured him that the incident would pass. No charges were laid. In the complex psychology of China's relationship with foreigners, the brief moment of fury was over.

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