What China's Talking About Today: What Makes a Chinese Patriot?

Often alluding to the Great Wall, web users debate what does and does not count as patriotism.

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Chinese poster collector Yang Peiming gestures at his Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. (Reuters)

In Chinese, to be patriotic is to ai guo, literally "to love [one's] country." But what does it really mean to love your country? Does it mean unconditional support for your country's government, warts and all? Or is there more room for nuance -- can you disagree with the government's policies, but still be a patriot?

In a recent essay titled "Writing about Patriotism on May 12," Chinese writer and blogger Li Chengpeng writes movingly of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and its impact on his idea of what it means to be a patriot. A translation of the essay was published in the New York Times on May 25 under the title "Patriotism with Chinese Characteristics." The essay was originally published in Chinese on Li's blog and Weibo account on May 12, the four-year anniversary of the devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake that killed over 69,000 people and injured 374,000 more.

Li calls on his fellow citizens to use logic and reason to appraise the government's policies, both at home and abroad, without fear of being labeled "unpatriotic." He writes:

Some people now call me a traitor. Some call me an agent of the foreign devils. But how can I be an agent of the foreign devils when I don't even have a U.S. green card, when unlike much of the Chinese elite my child doesn't drive a Ferrari or study at a prestigious foreign university, when I don't own any real estate in the United States or Europe. I love my country, but I cannot love a government that is responsible for so many shoddy "tofu structures." ...

After witnessing events in 2008 -- not only the quake but also the Olympic Games and the melamine milk scandal -- my definition of patriotism changed.

Patriotism is not about robbing our own people while claiming foreigners are looting us. Patriotism is not about bullying mothers of children who died in the earthquake, while calling for people to stand up to the foreign bullies of our motherland.

Patriotism is about taking fewer kickbacks and using proper construction methods when building classrooms. Patriotism is about constructing fewer extravagant offices for the bureaucrats and building more useful structures for farmers. Patriotism is about drinking less baijiu (a fiery Chinese spirit) using public money. Patriotism is about allowing people to move freely in our country and letting our children study in the city where they wish to study. Patriotism is about speaking more truth. Patriotism is about dignity for the Chinese people.

I am a patriot. I would love to see a little island added to our vast territory of this great nation. But I would much prefer to see the names of countless of extinguished souls engraved on humble memorials in my country.

The essay has received more than 12,000 comments on Li's blog and on his Weibo account and it has been reposted more than 52,000 times. Many of the comments are brief but positive, congratulating Li, or "Li Big Eyes" as he is known, for a well-written and thoughtful essay. Other comments are more considered and reveal the lack of consensus in China about the meaning of patriotism in China.

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Amy Qin is a graduate student studying Politics and China at Oxford. Previously, she worked in China at Baidu and NBA China.

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