Riots and pandas and monks, oh my!

Youth trend expert P.T. Black

By Published on .

SHANGHAI--Judging from the countdown clocks that litter every public space in China, it would appear that the Olympics is finally almost here. The Beijing Games are bound to be a spectacular display–surely one of recent mankind’s great triumphs of vision, planning, and sheer daring.

But these Olympics come with a heady dose of host nationalism, and it’s hard to know what to expect. As the events of this past year show, nationalism in China is a complicated topic with more than one face. Thus, in the spirit of the five rings and five Beijing Olympic mascots, I present today the five key nationalist moments of 2008 – from a youth perspective:

The first major nationalist moment of 2008 was the Tibetan turmoil that rocked much of China’s remote southwest. The details are complicated and contested, and there was a broad reporting gap between local and international media that led to confusion and resentment.

One local DJ in Beijing summarized the youth perspective succinctly, “Look, I don’t know all the details, and don’t really care that much about politics. But I certainly know more than those rioters in Paris who upset the torch run. At least I can find Tibet on a map.” The bumbling comments of a handful of Western commentators added to the accusation of ignorant meddling, and even cosmopolitan urbanites were upset at the violent treatment the Olympic torch earned overseas.

For young people accustomed to expressing themselves through their shopping, the next step was obvious: boycotts. The Tibetan protests and their support from overseas ignited China’s deep suspicion of Western motivations, and led to a massive boycott of French retailer Carrefour.

But that tension took a very different turn in mid-May. The devastating earthquake of May 12 was a call to action for young people across the country. People sprang to attention and initiated a broad series of large and small-scale activities to help the impacted people. The defensive groupthink of the past months became a generous solidarity that was put to immediate and practical use. Artists hosted charity auctions, musicians held benefit concerts, and everybody gave at the office.

The West was a mostly irrelevant story here- Coca-Cola’s generous donation of 35 million RMB ($5.1 million) and thousands of cases of water was easily dwarfed by local tea brand Wang Lao Ji’s 100 million RMB ($14.58 million) promise. Remarkably, young people kept track of the gifts, gossiping about who gave how much like a massive, morbid bridal shower.

In spite of the competitiveness around corporate giving, the biggest lesson of the earthquake is how generous and helpful young people can be. Watching an office full of exhausted white-collar workers quietly donate half of their monthly salaries to far-away farmers is enough to make you forget everything you have ever read about spoiled little emperors.

Not all of this year’s nationalism news has been tragic. The open-mindedness and good humor of China’s youth can be seen in their instant embrace of Hollywood’s “Kung Fu Panda.” The movie is a thoroughly American take on unquestionably Chinese topics, but instead of provoking possessive anger it has instead brought laughter and a growing urge for self-inspection.

Why did it take Hollywood to make such a perfectly Chinese film? That’s the question on everyone’s lips, and the film’s artistic and commercial success is prompting some deep introspection among the creative community. It is a kick in the pants to the unsteady Chinese film industry, and poses a national challenge to lift the quality of creative work.

The good news continued in July with the opening up of direct flights from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan. The psychological value of this is immense. For years Chinese youth have been singing Taiwanese songs and watching Taiwanese television, but have not been able to visit Taiwan.

Taiwan is the most obvious place for leadership of mainland youth culture, but mainlanders have had tremendous difficulty getting to Taiwan for a visit. That is now changing, and another one of the 20th century’s wounds on China’s psyche is starting to heal.

The final story around nationalism is, of course, the upcoming Olympics. It’s hard to say yet what face of nationalism will be most prominent. It could well be the anti-Western grievance of the spring, or it could be the generous togetherness that the earthquake revealed. Like Kung Fu Panda, the games might provoke constructive self-criticism. Or they might inspire an exuberant triumphalism like the Taiwan flights.

My suspicion is that all will be present – and it will depend on what day and what channel you tune in. But whatever you do, do tune in. It’s the story of the decade, and you don’t want to miss it.


P.T. Black is a partner at Jigsaw International, a boutique lifestyle research agency based in Shanghai that looks at the direction of change in China, particularly among young adults. He can be reached at inquiries@jigsaw-i.com.
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