The angel and the demon

May 11, 2008

The Olympic torch relay has illuminated the silent conflict that rages vocally outside China's borders, writes Ching-Ching Ni.

As the Olympic flame continues its tumultuous journey, the lives of two young Chinese women, immortalised by their brief gestures during the relay, have taken centre stage in the black and white world of Chinese public opinion.

One is Jin Jing, a one-legged former fencer who defended the torch from her wheelchair when pro-Tibet protesters tried to snatch it from her on the streets of Paris. She has been elevated to national hero status and dubbed an "angel in a wheelchair".

The other is Wang Qianyuan, a newly arrived student from China at Duke University in North Carolina who turned up in the middle of a shouting match during a pro-Tibet campus rally on the day the torch passed through San Francisco. She is viewed as a traitor.

The tales of the two women illustrate the wide sweep of cyberspace and the deep emotions in China over issues of national pride.

"Chinese people all over the country salute you and thank you Jin Jing! Those who want to split our country will never succeed," read one internet chatroom message.

"This traitor hurt the feelings of the entire Chinese nation. She deserves the death penalty!" another chatterer wrote of Wang.

In the case of 20-year-old Wang, the flaring tempers facilitated by the ease of communication among an internet-savvy generation have elicited a sort of mob mentality. Even the Communist Party is trying to curb the outrage for fear it could spiral out of control. But Beijing should not be surprised by what is happening, some observers say.

"This just shows that Chinese people have lived too long in a world with unbalanced information," says Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at People's University in Beijing. "After listening too long to only one side of the story, we have developed zero tolerance for a difference of opinion. In this mindset, you are either on our side or you deserve to be stepped on forever."

It has been a rude awakening for Wang. She thought she had escaped restrictions on expression in her move to America.

"I never expected something like this would happen to me in the States," she says. "If they can shut me up, it will be just like another Cultural Revolution. People who try to speak up will be labelled as traitors. It's just a vicious cycle."

So what did she do to create so many enemies that within hours videos and pictures were posted on the internet with the word "traitor" across her forehead, along with directions to her home in China plus telephone and personal identification information?

She says she merely sought to encourage dialogue between hundreds of flag-waving Chinese students and a couple of dozen pro-Tibet demonstrators carrying pictures of the Dalai Lama, who were engaged in a shouting match.

To critics who believe that Tibet should remain part of China, Wang was betraying her motherland just by standing on the side of the students holding the Tibetan flag. It didn't help that she wrote "Save Tibet" on the back of a student. Wang said she did so on condition that the student would talk to the other side.

"I think the Chinese and Tibetan sides were both very emotional," says Wang, who hopes to study psychology and economics. "The Olympics can come and go. Those problems and issues will remain. I just hope people can start to think from a different perspective."

Scott Savitt, a visiting scholar at Duke who has spent years working in China, says: "I watched her do this and the Chinese part of me is saying this is bad; she should stop.

"Then I thought: she's in America. This is the education process. She's doing what she's supposed to do."

On the other side of the world, Wang's parents are paying the price for their daughter's freedom in America. Their personal information has been exposed on the internet and they have felt forced to go into hiding.

Angry netizens even accused Wang of working with the CIA to sell out her country in exchange for a permanent US residency card. A strongly worded apology letter, said to be from her father, a Communist Party member, appeared on Chinese websites begging for forgiveness. "She will always be our daughter," it read. "She wants to tell everybody in this clearcut political issue she is wrong ... Please give her a chance to make amends."

Wang, who has been in touch with her mother by phone, strongly denies the authenticity of the letter.

"My mum said it's definitely not him," Wang says. "My father would never do something like that without consulting me."

Jin, on the other hand, has been bombarded by a different kind of spotlight. Since returning home to Shanghai, she has been treated like a superstar, mobbed by fans and reporters, racing from one public appearance to another.

The 27-year-old lost a leg because of a tumour when she was nine years old. At age 20, she joined the Shanghai wheelchair fencing team, but no longer competes. She later worked temporarily as a hotel telephone operator but has since struggled to find a job. Job offers have been pouring in following her return from Paris.

"I haven't decided on anything yet," she says. "I am not a hero. I am just a protector of the torch."

Yet even in her case, anger has mixed with pride.

Jin's fans have initiated a global hunt for the man believed to have attacked her in Paris and have focused on a Tibetan immigrant living in Salt Lake City. The man says he has received threats and has moved to a hotel for security reasons.

"Even if he's not the one who attacked Jin Jing, his claim that China lacks freedom of religion and freedom of expression will make him the scapegoat for the real attacker," one chatroom participant wrote.

As damage control, French President Nicolas Sarkozy issued an apology to Jin and sent a top envoy to China to kiss her hand in public and invite her to return to Paris.

But the French might need to kiss a lot more than one hand to restore goodwill in China.

"I have already stopped using French cosmetics, and I know all the Chinese ladies in my company are doing the same," one blogger wrote. "I know the boycott thing might be childish and immature, and it does no good in the long run. But other than that, we have no better way to express our outrage and disgust."

Source: The Sun-Herald