Tue, 15 Aug 2000

Chinese xenophobia still brooding

By Peter Harmsen

BEIJING (AFP): One hundred years ago on Monday a contingent of 20,000 troops -- mostly Japanese, Russian, American and British -- fought their way into Beijing, relieving the staff of foreign legations who had been under siege for two months.

Their adversaries were the Boxers -- a xenophobic semi- religious movement named for the martial-arts practices of its members -- who had spread terror among foreigners in China, killing them at random, often with the consent of local officials.

One century later, anti-foreign sentiments are still brooding in China, and they are fomented by suspicions that a cabal of countries led by the United States will not allow a modernized China, bristling with economic might, to take its rightful place in the world.

"A century ago, China was exploited by western imperialism," said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong. "Today there is a concern that the United States and other powers are unwilling to see a strong China emerging."

The circumstances leading to the showdown that ended on Aug 14, 1900, when Sikh troops from the British contingent entered the legation quarters near what is now Tiananmen Square, have parallels in today's China, although none of them should be overdone.

China at the turn of the last century was a country left hopelessly behind other nations by a backward leadership, its crumbling social fabric throwing people into a situation not unlike the one laid-off workers and underemployed farmers face today.

Uprooted individuals found consolation in the Boxer movement, which originated in eastern Shandong province, now a hotbed for the outlawed spiritual movement Falungong.

The Boxers targeted foreigners, especially Christian missionaries who were seen as a threat to traditional culture and values, and again today, xenophobic sentiments are never far from the surface.

The big difference between then and now is in the scaled-down vehemence of the anti-foreign mood -- Boxers typically hacked missionary families to death -- and in the attitude of the politicians.

While the Chinese leaders of the early 21st century may still find it opportune to harness xenophobia to their own purposes, like the Mandarins of the late Qing Dynasty, they know where to stop.

"Today China's leadership is also willing to exploit nationalism," said Cheng. "But there is a limit, and the leadership knows that."

In May last year, crowds attacked U.S. diplomatic missions in China, pelting them with rocks and paint bombs, to protest the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during NATO's air campaign in Kosovo and Yugoslavia.

Chinese officials encouraged genuine national feelings among the people, even organizing buses from Beijing campuses to the capital's diplomatic area and delineating march routes past the U.S. embassy.

But after a few days, as the national outrage ran its course and attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions threatened to get out of hand, officials stopped the demonstrations.

Chinese leaders recognize they cannot do without trade and finance, science and technology, and the foreigners who can provide it.

"One hundred years ago, the leaders were against reform, strongly rejected it," said Cheng. "Today's Chinese leadership understands the need for reform."