HONG KONG: Tibetans have a strong case against Beijing. But mixing it in with the Olympics and Darfur is a red rag to a wounded young bull.
Nationalism is more often aroused by setbacks than success, so the Tibet problems and the possible threats to a triumphal Olympics are stirring it in China.
On the horizon is the possibility that these will combine with high inflation, stagnating exports and trade tensions with the United States to create a perfect nationalistic storm.
The Chinese leadership faces a difficult balancing act.
As its legitimacy is now based on national achievement, not communist ideology, it must appear in step with popular feeling. Yet stability at home and good relations abroad require keeping nationalist emotions in check. The paranoia about evil foreign designs that thrived under Mao and was discarded by Deng Xiaoping is still close to the surface.
Almost all of China is offended that foreigners are so keen to lecture them and to encourage the petty boycotts that could spoil the Olympic party. It genuinely infuriates the Chinese that they are blamed for Darfur while their Western critics occupy Iraq. Beijing is happy to let such nationalist resentments vent in the sometimes violent language of Internet blogs and chat rooms.
The anger, in turn, makes it easier for the government to pin the Tibetan problems on foreigners and Tibetan exiles headed by the Dalai Lama, to arrest human-rights advocates and crack down on foreign media.
Beijing plays up the foreign threat - much like the U.S. government used the Al Qaeda threat as a justification for invading Iraq. For example, Beijing has raised the specter of Tibetan suicide squads organized by the "Dalai Lama clique" attacking the Olympics.
Such acts cannot be ruled out. But a cooler government would quietly strengthen defenses rather than raise the temperature - and raise fears that terrorist outrages might be staged to discredit the Tibetans.
Under pressure, officials have fallen back on Cultural Revolution language and lies. The Communist Party secretary in Tibet described the Dalai Lama as a "monster with a human face."
Less dramatically, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said that the channel for dialogue with the Dalai Lama was open so long as he "abandoned claims for Tibet independence" and used his influence to "stop the violence in Tibet." In fact the Dalai Lama long ago accepted the principle of autonomy within China, so long as it was real autonomy. And he is at odds with many Tibetans who oppose his advocacy of peaceful means.
Equally important is the way official Chinese media has depicted the violence in Tibet as attacks on Han Chinese. This predictably arouses the hackles of the Han, who comprise 90 percent of China's population, and who tend to view Tibet as a backwater they improve by their modernizing drive.
They see no reason why Tibetans should be unhappy with Han migration and dominance of trade, and they resent that Tibetans do not feel grateful for the money poured in by the government.
"The Communist Party is like a parent to the Tibetan people and is always considerate about what the children need," declared the Tibet party secretary. The party, he said, was the "real Buddha" for Tibetans.
This racial/cultural aspect not only makes it even more difficult for China to resolve minority issues, it also raises the Han identity issue in a wider, international context.
Racial mythology as well as cultural identity run strong, whether vis-à-vis immediate "barbarian" neighbors - be they Japanese, Mongol or Russian - or toward the Westerners who long lorded it over the Middle Kingdom.
How will the Chinese react if the Olympics really do become noted more for demonstrations and boycotts by Tibetan-inspired foreigners than for the achievements of China's athletes and organizers? At whom will popular anger then be directed?
If the party is spoiled, whether by Tibet or air pollution, the demand for top level scapegoats may be irresistible.
Worse still is if this coincides with heightened trade tensions with the United States, which could arise as the U.S. economy enters a recession.
If the Chinese come to perceive that the benefits of globalization have peaked, will the leadership retreat from 30 years of Deng-ist engagement?
None of this has to happen. But ethnic pride and thwarted ambitions are powerful forces. It is worth recalling that foreign economic pressures, patriotic fervor and rising military power made a once liberal Japan into the expansionist, militarist and hyper-nationalist Japan of the 1930s.
Tibetans have a strong case against Beijing. But mixing it in with the Olympics and Darfur is a red rag to a wounded young bull.