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China Changes Course, Advocating Tempered Response to Its Critics

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

BEIJING, April 22 -- After weeks of expressing outrage at Western protests over Tibet and the Olympics, officials here have begun tempering their rhetoric in recent days and telling Chinese people to be "rational" about their response.

In state media, Chinese officials had called the protests in the United States and Europe "vile" and "blasphemy." On Tuesday, however, the state-run China Daily said Chinese "should be ready for criticism."

"As the country becomes the locomotive of the world economy and plays a bigger part in global affairs, it draws more attention from the rest of the world," the paper said in an editorial.

The new approach does not amount to China's backing down from international challenges to its policies on Tibet or human rights. But with less than four months to go before Beijing is slated to welcome 500,000 foreign visitors for the 2008 Olympic Games, the Communist Party is trying to marshal domestic support for the same policies that are drawing international condemnation.

China's move to squelch dissent in Tibet has generated particular criticism abroad.

"They got their first taste with Tibet. Now they can have trouble every day until the end of the Olympics," said a Beijing-based European diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I think they will become more measured."

On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said that, although the government does "not agree with some individual, radical actions" by Chinese counterprotests, "the Chinese people can express their feelings in a rational and legal way," she said.

Taking a cue from the government, Web sites and Internet discussion forums that had been hotbeds for planning demonstrations and boycotts of Western products and stores have begun deleting posts supporting such actions. Rao Jin, founder of anti-CNN.com, a Chinese Web site that exposes errors in Western media and publicizes examples of what it sees as bias, said the site had deleted about 1,000 postings supporting a boycott of Carrefour, the French-owned supermarket chain that has more than 100 large stores in China.

"If you boycott Carrefour by yourself, that's your own personal choice," Rao said. "But don't affect the social order."

One activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said authorities told him "it would not be convenient" to grant a permit for a new protest at Carrefour.

John Kamm, executive director of the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes dialogue between China and the United States, said China is faced with "how to do something to placate international opinion without seeming weak at home." China's image abroad, he said, "hasn't been this unpopular since Tiananmen Square," when the government used tanks in a deadly confrontation to crush student-led protests in the heart of Beijing in 1989.

Zu Jiahe, a professor at Beijing University, said it is unlikely there will be more large-scale demonstrations of nationalist sentiment in China. "Students understand what is more important now is the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games," Zu said. "They won't 'spoil the ship for a halfpenny worth of tar,' " he said, using a Chinese idiom.

"Rational patriotism," Zu said, "is a calm, controlled and emotion-free action. The action should benefit the national interest in the long run."

Still, emotions among many Chinese people continue to run high. Ouyang Bingfeng, 21, an exhibition designer in Beijing, said he has been participating in online discussions about how best to show the world that Chinese people are unified against Tibetan separatism. "Don't insult us," he said he wants to tell the world. "We are a 5,000-year-old, big country and we are unified."

But those who joined in the Carrefour protests for that very reason are being accused in online forums of being unruly, he said. People are sending messages saying the Carrefour protests were violent incidents.

That's a big shift from last week.

Ma Ruibin, a 31-year-old engineer in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in western China, went with three friends to a Carrefour on April 17 and handed out leaflets encouraging people not to boycott the store, which employs thousands of Chinese and sells many Chinese-manufactured products at low prices.

"A lot of people called us traitors," Ma said in a telephone interview. "The patriotic youth are very irrational. Their overreaction will damage the country's image. We want to show a different opinion. China is trying to join the international community. To do that we have to be more rational and open."

Chen Huai Yuan, 26, runs an Internet company that helped popularize a "heart" icon in the MSN Messenger program meant to express love and support for China. He said his company first queried 1,800 of its users about posting the heart icon, which appears next to the word "CHINA," alongside their screen names. Within 24 hours, 6 million users had adopted it.

He hopes people keep using it.

"Expressing your patriotism is not only about when bad things happen," Chen said. "Nationalism can be a long-term thing."

He said "there's culture shock" as China takes a higher profile on the world stage. "The Chinese way of thinking is different from the Western way," Chen said. "In the West, they think Chinese people don't have human rights. As Chinese, we have social security, we have a legal system. We don't feel like we don't have enough human rights."

Several people said they were unclear what form their expressions would take from here, though bloggers are encouraging people to do meaningful work that earns international respect. Sun Fa, a 28-year-old protester, said, "Everyone has a different view of what is rational."

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.

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