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OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16


Eugene Hoshiko/AP.
China's youngsters remain uneasy about their relations with the outside world

Playing Games with Patriotism
The most outward-looking generation in Chinese history is also turning out to be one of its most fiercely nationalistic
By HANNAH BEECH

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The video games that 24-year-old Yao Xijun sells at his stall in Beijing's Haidian computer district are definitely not child's play. For those who want to confound America with a strategically placed missile, he offers Anti-Imperialist Danger Troupe—a cd-rom that glamorizes Slobodan Milosevic, Ho Chi Minh and, startlingly, Adolf Hitler. Itching to send an invasion force to uppity Taiwan? Boot up Cross-Strait Justice: The Attack Begins, and in just 10 minutes flat you can be master of your very own renegade province. "Sometimes," Yao says as he uses his cursor to pick off a U.S. cruiser in the Taiwan Strait, "when we realize how weak China appears to the rest of the world, it helps to feel strong. Even if it's only pretend."

Yao's most frequent customers, though, are kids—not Long March veterans or officers of the People's Liberation Army. Often they're students from Beijing's best universities, many of whom would kill for a chance to study in the very countries they're attacking onscreen. Their trigger-happy ways testify to a growing patriotic anxiety among Chinese youth: a generation that grew up admiring a Hollywood version of America also senses in current Sino-U.S. relations yet another episode in a long saga of Western domination. This love-hate relationship is proving combustible, as China's young raise their voices on campus, on the Internet, even in the streets.

Things got really hot last year when NATO forces bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade—a strike that most Chinese still consider deliberate. The attack so inflamed Peking University student Ma Cheng that he joined a mob of 3,000 other students who tore up the streets of Beijing and papered campus walls with anti-U.S. posters. "After the bombing, the Beijing government did nothing because it didn't want to hurt relations with the West," says Ma in soft-spoken English. "We wanted to show that China will not let other countries push it around."

Today, those same university walls are plastered with notices for English classes and U.S. graduate-school prep courses. The anti-NATO protests dissipated quickly, after the government, worried that young demonstrators could refocus their ire against Beijing itself, urged students to go back to their books. Most did, pragmatically turning their attention to polishing their rEsumEs.

But the national pride that the bombing sparked is still very much alive, and China's youngsters remain uneasy about their relations with the outside world. History Ph.D. candidate Liu Hui, 26, worries that dignified heroes like Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, are being squeezed out by brash Americans like Madonna, the mother of self-promotion. "What we should be importing from the West are a good legal system and democratic ideals," says a Peking University math major. "Instead we get bad things like commercialism and materialism."

Polemical tracts like America's Global Hegemony and China's Fate, authored by a trio of young military officers, have helped foster a jingoistic undercurrent among university students. Earlier this year, a Beijing think-tank found that Chinese from 19 to 25 were by far the age group most supportive of invading Taiwan, should the island declare independence from the mainland. "Because they have never experienced it, war is just like a video game to them," says a Beijing Normal University politics professor. "Young people don't realize that the real thing is much more complicated than what a computer has to offer."

Computers have fueled this nationalist fervor by giving students a new forum to air their opinions. "As another oppressed people, we Chinese must support the Palestinians who are being massacred by the evil Israelis and Americans," a Qinghua student writes in a university online chat room. Others have used the Internet to do more than speak out. When Taiwan's former President Lee Teng-hui declared last year that "special state-to-state" relations existed between China and Taiwan, Chinese hackers defaced an estimated 10,000 Taiwanese websites.

For now, most of the anger directed at the West is confined to reasonably safe arenas. Classes were suspended at Peking University when the Chinese women's soccer team met the U.S. at the Olympics, in a rematch of last year's thriller. When the Americans prevailed again, a collective moan reverberated around campus, but no one took to the streets. "I know it was just a game," says Ma. "But it would have been so wonderful if we had won." Yao's stall is now stocked with soccer cd-roms, which are proving popular with young people who want to play a virtual rematch. The patriot game, at least, shows no sign of waning.

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

government ALSO IN YOUNG CHINA: GOVERNMENT
National Pride: Patriotism makes a comeback

Sport: The basketballer denied an outside shot

Invisible Fences: Authorities keep a rein on kids partly by not telling them what is and isn't allowed

Getting High: Ecstasy becomes the urban drug of choice

Country Girl: A villager moves to the big, bad city

Getting Green: Activists seeking to avert an environmental disaster are tapping the ranks of the very young

Home Sweet Home: Citizens now aspire to buy a flat

Looking Inward: Today's artists are beginning to explore individual rather than collective themes

Big Think: Intellectualism did not die with the 1980s

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