Eye on China: Arrogant new elite just spoiling for fight

Being almost 40, married and not fond of martial arts or visits to the gym, I almost never get into fights. Alcohol, bars, the proximity of young women and the belief that you can punch yourself out of trouble tend to provoke fights - none of which are relevant to me.

But many of my younger friends in Beijing, in their late twenties or early thirties, complain that there is a vein of brutality running through this city.

I used to brush this aside as being as much, if not more, their own fault as that of any Chinese aggressor.

But a recent experience has shown me that a foreigner will not get the benefit of the doubt from a certain type of Chinese.

I had been waiting for a little boy to finish up in a McDonald's bathroom, after an interview with a Chinese source north of the third ring road.

The boy finished, I stepped closer - and another little boy rushed around the corner in front of me. With avuncular firmness, I told him to "hold his horses" and wait his turn.

Just then, a Chinese man in his late twenties or early thirties, tanned and crop-haired, stepped out of one of the stalls.

I suspect that from his perspective he must have thought he saw a foreigner queue-barge a Chinese boy. He came up to me in the most insolent way imaginable, peered over the side of the urinal and told me in slow and carefully-enunciated Chinese that the little boy should have gone first.

I was initially baffled (I was also in the middle of an operation which is best done fully focused) but rallied somewhat and told him that the boy could wait his turn like everyone else.

Frankly, the last thing I wanted was to get involved in a fight over Chinese toilet patriotism at 3 o'clock in the afternoon in a largely Chinese location.

I walked out and washed and dried my hands quite thoroughly. I had the strong feeling that the fellow was itching to punch me and I didn't want to give him any excuse.

At the same time, I didn't want to run away with my tail between my legs. It was really very strange being in a situation of latent physical violence in such an innocent location: no "booze or broads" for miles around and broad daylight outside.

After I had walked out and stepped into a taxi, my blood was boiling.

It seemed unfair and ridiculous to pick on me as a foreigner - especially one who has spent 10 years in or around China, has mastered the language and, irony of ironies, had just mounted a small press campaign to help out a Chinese worker who had not been paid by his boss.

The man who had acted so threateningly may have been military or a student. More likely he was the son of a member of the Chinese governing elite.

It's this younger generation that personifies Chinese nationalism, perhaps because their breathtaking arrogance is fed by being at the top of the corrupt and vicious pile which passes for a hierarchy in China.

The fights my younger friends have been involved in often revolve around the behaviour of these spoiled brats as they roar up and down Beijing's famous "Bar Street" behind the wheels of their fathers' or ministry-issued luxury cars. Invariably in gangs, they expect people to jump out of the way. The Chinese prudently do.

Occasionally, a boozed-up Westerner will take umbrage and slam his palm against the side of the car - immediately the trigger for a free-for-all. In my experience, the Westerner, usually some earnest language student or junior diplomat, gets beaten up.

In fact, one of my Irish friends was recently sent to hospital in a coma after being repeatedly kicked in the head by a bouncer at the club Mix in Beijing, a club with close ties to senior government figures. It all leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Nationalism blossomed in China in the 1990s and is even now especially virulent with regard to Japan. For a European, it's hard to grasp the blind hatred that shines out of people's eyes as they march up and down on one of the anti-Japanese parades.

Reports out of Korea recently will immediately confirm a Westerner's gut reaction about nationalism: that it's used to cover another agenda or even a multitude of sins. Thus, in Korea (a mere 60 years after World War II), the left-leaning government has finally launched an investigation regarding Korean collaborators during Japan's brutal occupation.

How strange that such an investigation is only coming now, given that Korea has the most strident and unpleasant "patriotism" I have yet to come across. In fact, as George Orwell would have easily predicted, all the nationalism and Japan-bashing coming out of Korea served the function of concealing how many members of the governing class in Korea sold their souls to benefit from the Japanese occupation.

One pre-war scholar who carried out propaganda on behalf of the Japanese occupation was made the head of a Korean university after the war. Similar cases of collaborators moving seamlessly into senior positions after the war are coming to light every day.

A parallel can easily be drawn with China. I see few signs of nationalism at street level. There is a genuine curiosity and friendliness among many locals who are, in any case, eager to benefit from liberal Western spending habits.

Sometimes, locals will even turn to Western journalists and diplomats for help when they get let down by their own governing structures.

The people who whip up the nationalism - the elite students and the sons of the wealthy - are precisely the ones who will benefit the most from jobs in Western companies and from the kickbacks provided by Western investors in return for the economic privileges which the Chinese Government so jealously guards.

It's profoundly disheartening to see the governing classes in Asia using techniques which, at least in Europe if not the US, have been long discredited.

* Eye on China is a journalist based in Beijing.

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