By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
BEIJING, April 28 -- At an airport in northeast China, a young security guard recently spotted a foreign airline passenger with shaving cream in his carry-on bag. "No," he said sternly, wagging his finger like a cross schoolteacher. "No, no, no."
In a country where airport security is unfailingly polite and efficient, the guard's stiff attitude spoke volumes.
Just weeks ago, most Chinese were welcoming foreigners as Olympic guests and partners in the country's meteoric economic development. But as the country enters the final 100 days before the Olympic Games in Beijing, the mood has changed. Many Chinese have begun to regard foreigners as adversaries interfering in domestic affairs or, at worst, bigots unwilling to accept China's emergence as a great power.
The Olympic torch left China only a month ago on what was billed as "a journey of harmony." Instead, the torch became a moving target for protesters worldwide. The focus of most demonstrations was China's crackdown against the Tibetans who rioted March 14 in Lhasa. Other protesters criticized China's role in the Darfur conflict. By the time the torch was paraded Sunday in Seoul, poor treatment of North Korean refugees was added to Beijing's list of sins.
The government's reaction to the unexpected avalanche of criticism was shrill. It described the protesters as "separatist elements" and asserted that they were seeking the breakup of the country, perhaps as part of a conspiracy. It railed at foreign media coverage, accusing reporters and editors of unspecified "ulterior motives."
The coordinated campaign was framed in an us-and-them mode, sharply at odds with the spirit of the Olympics, whose slogan is "One World, One Dream." The party's official newspaper, People's Daily, ran an editorial Wednesday suggesting Chinese should be confident enough in their own greatness to rise above the criticism. The headline was a Chinese aphorism that means roughly: "A gentleman does not worry about the dogs yapping at his heels."
The circle-the-wagons approach found a ready audience in China. A recent survey by a Beijing polling group found that more than 80 percent of those questioned believed Western news media were conveying a biased image of China abroad.
"The Chinese people do not like outsiders to make comments on China's domestic affairs," said Victor Yuan, who runs the polling group, Horizon. "They think it's their business, not your business."
A farmer near the northeastern city of Changchun echoed that sentiment not long ago. After seeking attention for a dispute over land that had been confiscated from her and others, she suddenly decided against talking with a foreign reporter. "I'm pretty patriotic," she explained.
Meanwhile, a fervidly nationalistic campaign flared online, as Internet users suggested that foreigners were bigoted against China and that Western businesses should be boycotted. Demonstrators gathered in front of stores run by Carrefour, the French superstore chain, in several cities around the country.
Carrefour received special criticism because Chinese bloggers spread reports that its owners had donated money to India-based Tibetan exile groups run by the Dalai Lama. The firm's headquarters in Paris denied that was true, but the bloggers paid no heed.
Chinese Internet censors, who control what people say online, did nothing to dampen the fervor. And police, who prevent most demonstrations, blocked protesters from reaching the French Embassy in Beijing but otherwise allowed the outraged youths to vent their fury.
A Chinese woman working for The Washington Post was pushed around at one such demonstration by young Chinese men who suggested she should be careful about working with a foreign publication. An American man who showed up at another Carrefour store for some shopping was roughed up as well, perhaps on the mistaken assumption he was French.
In recent days, Chinese authorities have sought to pull back the nationalist tide. Editorials in the controlled press suggested to youths that carrying out their assigned tasks is the best way to demonstrate patriotism. Internet censors started blocking items with the word Carrefour.
Yuan said his poll findings do not suggest that the current troubles over Tibet and the torch will last long enough to generate an unfriendly atmosphere during the Olympics. Similarly nationalistic protests against Japan two years ago have long since faded from the screen, he noted.
"Maybe during the Games Chinese spectators will boo the French teams, but they will not overreact," he said.
Behind the public mood, however, has come a simultaneous tightening of security that officials say is likely to last until after the Games. It, too, has contributed to the change in atmosphere.
Olympic security has been threatened by a variety of anti-government groups, officials say, including Tibetans, the Xinjiang region's Uighur separatists and foreign human rights campaigners. As a result, the number of police deployed in Beijing's streets has grown visibly. People's Armed Police forces guarding embassies and other diplomatic compounds have been reinforced by Public Security Bureau personnel who can be seen lounging and smoking in their white cars and minivans.
Foreign residents of the capital report that police have started checking their identification cards and passports with greater regularity, in some cases visiting homes and offices to do so. According to Chinese law, foreigners should always have their passports with them, but the rule has been allowed to lapse in recent years as the number of foreigners working here increased.
Some of the many foreigners working on multiple-entry business visas -- instead of the requisite work visas -- have found they cannot get a renewal until the fall, forcing them to leave the country and lose their jobs.
The Foreign Ministry declared it has made no changes in visa rules and seeks to facilitate travel to China. But travel agents in Hong Kong, backed up by chambers of commerce there, said multiple-entry business visas have been suspended and more documentation is required for short-stay business visas, which previously were granted on demand at the border between Hong Kong and Guangdong province.
Hong Kong itself has tightened visa rules, seeking to limit entry to foreigners who might be planning to stage protests when the torch returns to Chinese soil later this week.
But perhaps nowhere is the new mood more palpable than in Tibet, a premier tourist destination that has been closed off to foreigners since March 14. As a result of the ban, most foreign journalists have been barred from covering the torch relay through Tibet, including plans for a photogenic climb up Mount Everest. Nine foreign newspapers and broadcasters have been allowed in to cover part of the relay, but only for 10 days in a carefully shepherded trip.