I’m sure the recent and ongoing turmoil surrounding the Olympic torch relay has been quite distressing and shocking to many. By now, the media is filled with stories of the mostly pro-Tibet protests and condemnations of China, and its alleged human rights abuses that have accompanied almost each stage of the torch relay, in light of the fact that China will host the upcoming Olympics. The angry reaction by Chinese, both in China and in places where the relay took place must have been surprising to many as well, in the amount of ferocity and wounded pride that characterised the reaction of many of these Chinese. There is no doubt that the acts of some of these people have been nothing short of thuggish and irrational. Yet there is also no doubt that for many Chinese, the worldwide criticism of their country has aroused a lot of genuine hurt, anger and even fear, driven by memories of past abuses by European and non-European nations against China and the deep poverty and weakness which has characterised China for most of the 19th and 20th century.
While there is a growing worldwide feeling that China is a menacing power whose murky human rights record and increased military capability, along with its mighty and growing economy, will make it a future aggressor, even an reincarnation of Nazi Germany, the truth is that China is still a relatively weak and cautious nation whose people still bear a lot of insecurity and vulnerability over their place in the world. From personal experiences talking with people from China, many of them are freely critical of their nation and describing problems within their society. None of them would seek to portray their country as a strong and developed nation, and certainly not as an aggressor like the US. Many academic articles and book chapters I’ve read for my courses written from or about the official Chinese perspective also give the same impression, of a nation seeking to improve itself and increase its prestige and influence with great caution.