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Nationalist fervour runs amok

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Beijing — By taxi and bicycle, the young men arrived near the Japanese embassy. They carried loudspeakers and sirens and giant red Chinese flags. They wore shirts with anti-Japanese slogans.

It could mean only one thing. The Chinese patriots were on the prowl again.

"Flag-holder, come to the front," shouted an organizer as the patriots began to march. "Hold it higher, so that everyone can see!"

They waved their flags and unfurled two red banners denouncing Japan, and marched down the street to the embassy. They chanted slogans, listened to an emotional speech, sang the national anthem and delivered a petition to the embassy mailbox. "Japan, apologize for your crimes," they shouted.

Among the marchers was one of their chief organizers, an earnest 29-year-old computer programmer named Lu Yunfei. His boyish face, with his conservative haircut and wire-rim glasses, is the new face of China's resurgent nationalism: a well-organized movement that exploits Internet technology to launch petitions and verbal attacks against Japan and the United States.

As communism slides into irrelevance, the new nationalists are emerging as a powerful force in China, with ominous implications for its neighbours.

After a soccer match between China and Japan in Beijing this summer, hundreds of angry Chinese men chanted "Kill the Japanese" as they pelted Japan's team bus with plastic bottles and forced Japanese fans to hide behind a police barricade for hours.

A few years ago, Mr. Lu spent his weekends strumming his guitar and singing karaoke at Beijing nightclubs. Today, he spends all of his spare time — up to 50 hours a week — on his work with the Patriots Alliance, a network of nationalist activists with close to 100 volunteer workers and 79,000 registered supporters on its website.

He has postponed his wedding to his fiancée three times in the past year because he is so busy with the alliance. He has helped organize more than 10 public protests in the past two years — a stunning number in a country where such gatherings are normally illegal.

The nationalist mood seems to be gaining strength every year here. The schools are filled with "patriotic education" classes. Young people are organizing boycotts of Japanese products. Web petitions against the Japanese government are attracting millions of supporters. The Japanese are routinely denounced as "devils" and "little Japs" in chat rooms on the Chinese Internet, and one bar in southern China went so far as to post a "Japanese not welcome" sign.

A few years ago, optimists had hoped democracy would be nurtured by China's growing personal freedoms and its new Internet culture. But in reality, it is the nationalists, not the democrats, who have scored the biggest victories from the relaxed atmosphere.

"All of our events are very exciting," Mr. Lu boasts. "Everything we're doing is unprecedented. Nobody has done it before. People nowadays have more freedom to express their feelings and put them into practice."

While most of Mr. Lu's activities are aimed against Japan, he is also quick to vent his hostility against the United States. He fully expects a war between China and the United States, and he vows to be the first volunteer in the battle against the Americans if there is a war over Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province. "I love my country deeply," he says. "I have a stable job and a good income, but if a war happens, I'll go to the front lines without hesitation."

In some countries, a small protest by 20 people at an embassy might be a routine event. But in China, where everything is carefully regulated, the protest at the Japanese embassy last month was highly significant. The protest was held quite openly, with full police knowledge, on the third day of the annual conference of the Communist Party's central committee, at a time when police were strictly banning all protests by anyone else.

Thousands of petitioners and protesters in Beijing had been rounded up by police during the Communist Party meeting to avoid any embarrassment to the political elite. Yet even as arrests continued, the Chinese patriots were allowed to carry out their demonstration freely, under the noses of police officers who carefully supervised the event and even escorted one of the organizers inside the embassy's fence to deliver his petition.

It was further evidence of Beijing's semi-official approval of the new nationalists. The Communist leaders are seeking to harness Chinese nationalism as a unifying force, a sentiment that can be tapped by authorities to build loyalty, to quell opposition, and to fire the passions of young people who might otherwise drift into dissent.

"With the decline of Communist ideology as a source of legitimacy, the Communist Party depends even more on nationalism to legitimize its rule," wrote American scholar Peter Gries, author of the book China's New Nationalism, in a forthcoming issue of the China Quarterly.

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