A Primer on China from Jeffrey Wasserstrom





In China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, just published by Oxford University Press, Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom provides answers to a wide range of commonly asked questions about the world's most populous country. The excerpt below describes two of the topics the book addresses: nationalism and the web.

What is the role of the Internet in political dissent?

Many bloggers are not interested in promoting political change yet remain passionate about being able to express their opinions about topics that interest them and to follow stories that strike them as important. Depending on the issue, they may end up writing things that line up very neatly with official government positions or veer off markedly from these.

A good example of this came in the months before the Olympics. In March and April 2008, government spokesmen often complained about Western protesters causing disruptions during segments of the torch relay (e.g., when a Chinese torch-bearer was roughed up by a crowd in Paris, and when "Free Tibet" banners were unfurled in Europe and the United States). Many bloggers in the [People's Republic of China] PRC echoed this patriotic sentiment, and indeed, sometimes used much more vitriolic language to denigrate the foreigners interfering with China's Olympic moment.

And yet, when a devastating earthquake hit Sichuan [province] that May and the torch run continued, the official press initially ran stories about the natural catastrophe alongside upbeat ones about the Olympic flame's welcome in the PRC.

But some of the same bloggers who had been in step with the government propaganda did an about-face. How could anyone who claimed to care about the nation, they asked, continue the torch run and celebratory activities when so many of the people of that nation were suffering? The tone of many posts became critical of the regime, as bloggers called for a moratorium on the relay, a sign both of how complex a force nationalism can be and why the categories of dissident and loyalist are incomplete....



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