FREE CORSICA! A Study of Contemporary Chinese Nationalism



On Monday 7 April, 2008, disabled Chinese fencing pro Jin Jing 金晶 went from being a somewhat unknown Paralympian to a household name on the Chinese mainland. Chosen as torchbearer for a short stretch of the torch relay’s Paris leg, Jing found herself ringed by countless security guards and French gendarmery, sandwiched between the hoards of pro-Chinese and Free Tibet activists lining the route. Following a repeat of what were described as “chaotic scenes”[1] in London just twenty four hours earlier, protestors and Free Tibet activists made several attempts to extinguish the torch and disrupt the procession. Despite some activists getting within very close proximity, Jin held on to the Olympic flame before local and Chinese security services were, just as had been the case in London, forced to put it on a bus for the remainder of the route. In the days that followed, Jin’s apparent determination to tightly hold on to the torch despite her relative immobility became the talk of many Chinese wangmin 网民 (netizens), leading some to dub her the zuo zai lunyi shang de weixiao tianshi 坐在轮椅上的微笑天使 (smiling angel in a wheelchair). [2]

Some days later, similarly chaotic scenes unfolded as uncontrollable crowds overwhelmed and outnumbered security personnel in what would later turn out to be a related event. Whilst the setting was once again French, the protestors were Chinese. Thousands of miles away from the events of the Paris torch relay, the Chinese branch of the French supermarket chain Carrefour was the target of their demonstration. In a somewhat blurry mobile phone video that surfaced days later, large numbers of protestors can be seen entering the supermarket and swarming the checkout area of the shop.[3] Fists in the air and determined in their tone, an impassioned crowd answered the rallying cry of a lone protestor, leading repeated chants of “Dizhi Jialefu! Dizhi Jialefu!” 抵制家乐福! 抵制家乐福! (Boycott Carrefour! Boycott Carrefour!) in front of bemused shoppers and worried-looking Carrefour employees. Yet, strange as such a case may seem, it was by no means unique. All across the country, Chinese people received text messages and read BBS[4] posts  that read buyao qu Jialefu gouwu 不要去家乐福购物 (don’t shop at Carrefour).[5]

In Wuhan, Hubei Province, protestors blocked the streets outside a branch of Carrefour and once again rallied behind chants of Dizhi Jialefu! and anti-French sentiment. Some protestors covered the French tricolour flag with deliberately provocative slogans such as “Jeanne d’Arc = Prostitute, Napoléon = Pervert, FRANCE = Nazi, FREE CORSICA!!! [sic].”[6] Over two hundred miles away, at a Hefei branch of Carrefour, local lorry drivers used their vehicles to form a blockade around the shop’s entrance, severely restricting access to the store.[7] Indeed, similar protests were developing all across the country as hundreds of people demonstrated in Beijing, Kunming, Qingdao, as well as Hefei and Wuhan.

As anti-French sentiment and calls to boycott Carrefour continued across China, it became clear that the government was growing increasingly nervous about the direction the movement was heading in. In an odd twist, the word Jialefu 家乐福 (Carrefour) became a sensitive term and was censored by China’s biggest search engine Baidu (百度) –– a procedure normally reserved for highly political and sensitive topics.[8] Some users trying to search for anything Carrefour-related were surprised to receive the message “results that may contain content that does not conform to relevant laws, legislation and policy have not been displayed”[9] instead of the thousands of advert-filled results for discounted shopping deals such a search would normally return.[10] It became apparent that, fearing such vocal nationalism had the potential to damage China’s national image in the face of worldwide attention, the government had stepped in. On April 22, 2008,  in an “exclusive interview”[11] with state press agency Xinhua Tongxunshe 新华通讯社 (Xinhua News Agency), Carrefour chairman Jose Luis Duran both condemned the disruption of the Paris torch relay and affirmed his and Carrefour’s support for the Beijing Olympics.[12] Described as “timely”[13] by some, Duran’s interview marked a consciously government-endorsed attempt to quell the growing unrest amongst Chinese netizens and protestors. In an arguably equally timely interview in the more liberal weekly newspaper Nanfang Zhoumo 南方周末 (Southern Weekend), former Chinese ambassador to France Wu Jianmin 吴建民 denounced the boycotts as “self-proclaimed ‘patriotic’ actions that have damaged the interests of the [Carrefour] employees, damaged the interests of China and damaged China’s national image.”[14] Indeed, at a time when the focus of world attention was on China and patriotic fever was running high, nationalist sentiment looked set to grow at a faster rate than the government deemed comfortable. The fine line between portraying an open, friendly and welcoming China and maintaining firm political stances was becoming more and more difficult to tread as demonstrations against Carrefour grew.

These events raise some questions. What happened in those days between the Paris torch relay and the Carrefour boycott? Why did Carrefour and not other French brands become the target of nationalist hatred and patriotic criticism? Why did the government prevent people from searching for Jialefu on the internet? And, most curiously, how did cries of “Free Tibet!” kickstart a small Chinese campaign to “Free Corsica!”? This study will aim to analyse relevant primary sources to shed some light on the events surrounding the Carrefour boycott and, in the process, highlight some of the recurring themes and issues within contemporary Chinese nationalism.

  • Theories of Nationalism

In order to better understand the state of contemporary Chinese nationalism, other academic works on nationalism (both within and outside the realm of Chinese Studies) are helpful in constructing a framework for analysis. Indeed, the debate surrounding the nature of nationalism in China has been of great interest to the media and academic world for some time, particularly in latter years as China has adjusted to its newfound prominent position in international politics –– a role that has arguably created a new and more measured dynamic in the tone of China’s diplomatic rhetoric. Nationalism has consistently been a notable feature of recent Chinese history and, although some conflicting theories as to its nature do emerge, there are a few salient commonalities worthy of discussion.

In China’s New Nationalism: Pride Politics and Diplomacy, Peter Gries argues that the allegedly anti-Western nature of Chinese nationalism that was once instigated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has since been independently adopted by a new generation of Chinese.[15] Using events such as the US bombing of the Chinese embassy during the Kosovo War as a model, he cites how “the Belgrade bombing, in this Chinese view, was not an isolated event; rather, it was the latest in a long series of Western aggressions against China.”[16] Gries goes on to argue that the influence of Marxist thought on the 1949 revolution has led many Chinese analysts to suggest that nationalism in China is more accurately described as a ‘popular’ movement, led by the masses who were “by their very definition, an anti-imperialist social force.”[17] This, he argues, is in contrast to the idea of an exclusively top-down, elitist or state-led nationalism that many Western observers seek to propagate, a view he contends would be a “grave mistake”[18] to hold. Indeed, Gries concludes that this popular form of nationalism now undermines the monopoly the CCP once had over political discourse in China[19] and, to avoid threatening regime stability, it can rarely be seen suppressing or quelling such outbursts. [20]

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CESRAN Papers 6

James Pearson is currently reading for a Master’s in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge. He completed his undergraduate degree in Chinese and Korean at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London. This paper was awarded the SOAS Y C Liu prize for the best dissertation in Chinese Studies.

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