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By Richard Bernstein, RealClearInvestigations
Ocotber 14, 2019

The appearance at Columbia University last month by two leading Hong Kong pro-democracy activists was drawing to a close when, suddenly, students from mainland China arose from their seats and fervently belted out two tunes, “Song of the Motherland” and China's national anthem, “March of the Volunteers.”

At Columbia University, they couldn't carry a tune, but they carried a message: Singing patriotic Chinese confronted Hong Kong democracy advocates.

The loud singing wasn’t on key, but it was on message. Within hours pro-Chinese government websites like Global Times, the leading English-language organ of China's propaganda machinery, posted video of the incident, praising the students for their “patriotic” gesture.

The irony was palpable. Here were Chinese students, living and studying in the West, exercising the freedom to raise a ruckus at an academic conference and implicitly to denounce the pro-democracy yearnings of their Hong Kong counterparts. Their singing echoed the official view of China's authorities, who have branded protesters, including the two who spoke at Columbia, Brian Leung and Joshua Wong, as secessionist “terrorists.”

The episode at Columbia, though small in itself, was of a piece with what appears to be a general readiness of many Chinese people, at home and abroad, to express their outrage against what their government deems to be “anti-China” opinions in other countries, dramatically illustrated this month by the chorus of denunciation against the NBA over a team executive’s single pro-Hong Kong tweet. But the patriotic demonstrations by Chinese abroad reflect something else: a broad generational cultural shift in China, mostly unexpected and little noticed in the West.

Pro-Beijing views of China's young today are a far cry from 1989, when a man facing down tanks became the symbol of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests.

Just over 30 years ago in Beijing, hundreds of thousands of an earlier generation of students led the biggest pro-democracy demonstrations since the communists came to power. Occupying Tiananmen Square for two months, they held hunger strikes, displaying a statue they called the Goddess of Liberty, before hundreds of them gave their lives when the army opened fire.

Now, by contrast, many Chinese young people in the post-Tiananmen generation, including some studying in the U.S. and other democratic countries, hold the opposite view, not just in their hostility to their Hong Kong counterparts but in their general support for their decidedly non-democratic government.

Rather than being transformed by exposure to Western values, many Chinese students, swept up in patriotic fervor, seem to be embracing their nation’s authoritarianism. Result: Instead of educating a new generation of leaders who might make China more liberal, U.S. schools may be training an oppositional cadre more interested in acquiring American know-how than American values. This is occurring against a larger backdrop in which a resurgent China aggressively trumpets its cultural norms, demanding that foreign businesses – from Google to the NBA – play by its rules. 

Why has this happened?

Part of the answer involves the way China's authoritarian system works. There is growing evidence that the Chinese government coordinates with students, encouraging them to protest activities that its leaders deem insulting to the national dignity, whether it's inviting the Dalai Lama or pro-democracy activists to speak on an American campus. It's likely that significant numbers of Chinese living abroad sympathize with the Hong Kong movement, but they don't dare express their views for fear they will be ridiculed on social media or suffer reprisals when they return home.

With some 300,000 Chinese students studying in American colleges and universities, the danger to Beijing's authorities is that they could become a center of pro-democratic dissent. China has responded with a mixture of patriotic appeals and implicit threats. Many of these students, moreover, come from China's newly emerged upper middle class, whose members have the most to lose if they run afoul of the authorities. They are described by their teachers as diligent, ambitious, and firmly instructed by their families back in China to study hard and stay out of politics.

“Following the party line is always the safe way in China, always,” Priscella Si, a graduate student in family therapy at the Central Connecticut State University, told RealClearInvestigations. “There are always people around who say, 'You are Chinese. Why are you saying things against China?'”

Still, many Chinese students at universities and colleges in democratic countries around the world, such as the anthem singers of Columbia, seem genuinely outraged by the Hong Kong democracy movement. In rejecting the view of the protests common in their host countries – that they reflect a natural yearning for freedom from Chinese-style dictatorship – these Chinese students exemplify their nation’s growing confidence. No longer a poor and politically weak country, it has become a globally feared and respected powerhouse that does not just coerce but also inspires feelings of patriotic pride in its citizens, including its American-educated students abroad.

Olympic pride, patriotic fervor: A model parades in a Chinese team uniform, 2016. 

“I think that even compared to 10 years ago, the whole vibe among Chinese students has changed,” said Echo Wang, a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism in New York. “A common thing that I've heard is that the Olympic Games [held in Beijing in 2008] marked a big change for the country, creating a lot of patriotic pride, and so was the financial crisis of that year when China did incredibly well economically when the West did poorly.

“The conviction in China is that we're on the right track,” Wang added. “The vibe is that the system we have is better than the West's.”

In Toronto in August, a march by pro-Hong Kong demonstrators was blocked by counter-protesters shouting, “One China!” after which Canada's foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, warned of “a rising number of unacceptable violent incidents,” referring apparently to clashes between pro-Hong Kong and pro-China groups.

Similarly, pro-China protesters have confronted pro-Hong Kong marchers in London, Paris, New York, and Vancouver, waving their nation’s flag, hurling epithets at the pro-Hong Kong demonstrators, and displaying placards with such slogans as “Love China/Love Hong Kong” and “No riots/No secession.”

In Australia in August, the foreign minister, Marise Payne, warned Chinese diplomats there against undermining free speech by “encouraging disruptive or potentially violent behavior.” The Chinese consul-general in Brisbane had praised the “spontaneous patriotic behavior” of Chinese students who attacked pro-Hong Kong demonstrators at the University of Queensland.

The Australian incident was a rare explicit gesture by Chinese officials encouraging students to act against those they see as enemies. But by all indications such students are ready to take action even without any encouragement. After the Columbia anthem-singing incident, for example, pro-China websites lit up with posts – sarcastic, angry, and bitter – against Wong and Leung. “Why did Columbia receive Joshua Wong?” read one on the Global Times website. “He's a fly looking to be swatted,” read another. “Well done, patriotic hearts,” a third comment said of the students who sang the patriotic songs. The three posts together received more than 22,000 “likes.”

The College Daily, a website aimed at Chinese students abroad (its Chinese title translates as North American Foreign Student Daily) got more than 100,000 “likes” for posting video of the anthem-singing part of the Columbia meeting. “Today we should say 'Thank you' to the Chinese students for standing up, to show a different voice in the face of these blurred facts,” an editorial comment on the website said. “These students should be the future of China, not the rioters of Hong Kong.”

It is, of course, impossible to say who, or what, generated those likes, but they certainly encourage anti-democratic feeling.

The informal and official pressure to conform is not being exerted only on the Chinese. In the last couple of years, many foreigners or foreign companies, from Marriott Hotels to Mercedes Benz, have provoked outpourings of “patriotic” outrage at some statement or gesture, leading them to apologize.

Better days for the NBA: Yao Ming, China's most famous basketball star, dunks for the Houston Rockets, 2009. Now the team is a symbol of the pressure on foreign businesses to conform to Chinese demands.

The most recent case of this came when the Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, posted a social media comment supporting the Hong Kong democracy movement. The furious response to this inside China led Morey to apologize, and to withdraw the offending tweet, and though the NBA itself rejected China's demands that he be punished and reaffirmed its member's right of free speech, the incident reflected how intense the pressure is to conform to Chinese demands. If major American corporate entities are shaken by this kind of pressure, how likely is it that individual Chinese students will stand up to it?

Pro-government attitudes, moreover, are not limited to the question of Hong Kong. In the past, Chinese students in the United States and other countries have loudly protested their schools' speaking invitations to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who is reviled as “jackal” and “splittist” in the Chinese media.

Similarly, early this year the Chinese Student and Scholars Association at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, tried to shout down a Uighur activist, Rukiye Turdush, who spoke on campus about the widely reported detention in China of a million or so ethnic Muslims, supposedly for their “reeducation.” The student union at McMaster took away the CSSA's standing as a campus club when other students charged that has coordinated its campaign against Turdush with Chinese diplomats in Canada, providing video of the event to the Chinese consulate.

Exactly how frequently or closely Chinese student associations coordinate their activities with the government is unknown. But the few examples that have come to light have created campus concerns that these organizations are under Beijing's control, and that they might be channels to report on students who express “unpatriotic” views. At McMaster, the student union's decision to strip the CSSA of its status was in part motivated by an anonymous letter it received from a Chinese student accusing the CSSA of sending “a chilling message to students on campus: Toe the Party line or you also will be reported, and suffer the consequences.”

Above and top photo: a patriotic mural in Beijing. 

For Westerners, it is shocking that Chinese students who have received the benefit of Western educations and have been exposed to Western democratic ways would support their government even when its actions are condemned as blatant human rights violations – as with the detention of a million Uighurs. That view underestimates two elements in the picture: One is the feeling among Chinese that the most important of these issues – Tibet, the Uighurs, and Hong Kong – are questions involving national unity. In all three of these issues, where Western human rights groups see blatant violations of basic rights, many Chinese see efforts to split from the motherland, and this is an important reason for their difference with the Tiananmen generation.

“They challenge the analogy,” said Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia who has had numerous Chinese students in his classes over the years. “Tiananmen was about a perception of corruption and a belief that the government has lost its way. Hong Kong is about a local identity that's trending away from the Chinese identity.”

Nathan said “they feel that Tiananmen was about them. It was their own uprising. The movement in Hong Kong they see as a wish to separate from China and this arouses patriotic feeling.”

Intense feelings over Hong Kong: A defaced  election campaign poster for a pro-democracy candidate, 2016.

It can't be forgotten in this sense that several generations of Chinese students have gone through what's called “patriotic education” which puts great stress on what is called “the hundred years of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers. The humiliation began with China’s defeat at the hands of the British in the Opium War, one result of which was that Hong Kong became a British colony.

It's for that reason that Hong Kong's reversion to China in 1997, under the principle One Country/Two Systems, was a matter of deep national pride, a sense that no residues of the humiliation remained. And so, when some Hong Kong demonstrators display British flags and call on foreign countries for help, the reaction among many Chinese is anger and resentment.

“They are waving the British flag, the American flag, the Hong Kong colonial flag,” one post on College Daily said, describing the scene at a pro-democracy Hong Kong demonstration. “The only flag they don't display is the Chinese flag.”

Some students and faculty also speak of an almost palpable annoyance that many Chinese feel at the way China is portrayed in the Western press, and their reaction is reflexively to leap to the defense of the homeland.

“The attitude of Chinese people toward the Western media has changed,” Echo Wong, the former Columbia journalism student, said. “Before, the Western media seemed like real journalism, as providing trustworthy news. Now, there's a feeling that the Western media only presents facts that don't look good for China.”

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