Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Is becoming Chinese a goal worth striving for?

Daniel A. Bell

Daniel A. Bell’s last piece, “Why anyone can be Chinese”, has certainly raised a few eyebrows. In the article the Canadian professor, who has made a name for himself as a defender of China’s political system, argues that after twenty years in China he would like to be seen as Chinese. This silly reply has been delivered in the Huffington Post, by someone far too steeped in American identity politics to have anything useful to say on this matter.

Daniel Bell is often dismissed as an apologist for the Chinese government. He is most well known for the contention that China’s political system is actually a “meritocracy” which produces leaders more capable than those elected in democratic systems. I don’t generally agree with his arguments, but I must admit that unlike certain other high-profile Western apologists for the Chinese system (for instance Martin Jacques or John Ross, who can’t speak a word of Chinese between them), he at least puts his money where his mouth is: he has lived in China for over twenty years and speaks fluent Chinese, as well as having a Chinese wife.

Bell argues that Chinese identity wasn't always racially defined throughout history, and that during much of China's ancient past the "dominant elite culture" saw cultural belonging, rather than race or ethnicity, as the bedrock for being Chinese, so outsiders could "learn to be Chinese". This was certainly true during certain periods, for instance the famed Tang Dynasty, when China's only traditional community of Jews established itself in Kaifeng and pretty much became Chinese, in spite of having arrived from abroad. 

Bell complains that nowadays, however, the Chinese view their identity through a racial lens, and in spite of speaking Chinese better than many Chinese, doing his best to fit in and being "committed to Chinese culture", he is still seen as a complete outsider (incidentally, his interest in Confucianism and his penchant for wearing Chinese-style clothing at conferences rather than a suit and tie are actually very un-Chinese characteristics).

Bell is correct that nowadays the Chinese see being one of them as a matter of blood lineage (even though in principle China is supposed to be a multi-ethnic country made up 56 ethnic groups, including a few thousand ethnic Russians in the North who may well look like me. But I think that for the average Han Chinese this is nothing but a detail they rarely think about). As a foreigner living in China I understand where Bell is coming from, but I think that perhaps arguing about whether a foreigner can ever be seen as Chinese is missing the point.

I personally do not feel Chinese, and have no particular wish to be seen by others as Chinese. I also think it is probably pointless to hope China will ever approach North American norms on this issue. In societies historically based on immigration, like the US, Canada, Australia or Brazil, foreign immigrants can reach a point where they feel they belong and are truly accepted by locals as their compatriots. In the rest of the world however this goal is generally unattainable, because national identity (as opposed to mere citizenship) is seen as something that you need to be born into. Even in European countries where a foreign immigrant may acquire citizenship and be treated by the authorities in all respects like a local, deep down they will still be viewed by most people as a foreigner. Asian societies tend to be even more closed, and "becoming" Korean, Vietnamese or Mongolian is likely no more possible than becoming Chinese. 

While fighting to be seen as Chinese is probably pointless, I think a more modest goal foreigners in China could aim for is to change the Chinese perception of what it means to be an outsider. It is one thing to be considered a foreigner, with a different culture and sense of identity. It is another thing for people to automatically assume that as a foreigner you 1) know nothing about China, or in any case cannot ever scratch below the surface, 2) are always going to be a transient "guest" with one foot back in your own country who can never really hold a stake in Chinese society, and 3) are always some sort of ambassador for your own country and its interests, rather than just an individual trying to get by in a new society. 

Not all of these assumptions hold for every single Chinese, but I would say that Chinese society as a whole views outsiders pretty much like that. Foreigners in China who develop close personal relationships with Chinese people will find that their local friends come to view them quite differently, but to most strangers they will still be the archetypal foreigner.

Connected with this change in attitudes would be policies that make it easier for foreigners to live and work in China, acquire permanent residency rights and, who knows, one day even citizenship (without this meaning that you have to "become Chinese" in your own mind and other people's, speak flawless Chinese or be an expert on Confucianism or Beijing opera). Bell's article calls for China to start competing for human talent worldwide, and provides a link to an article by Yan Xuetong, Tsinghua's foreign policy theorist, which claims that China should adopt a more open immigration policy that would "expand its economy while improving its moral standing globally". I fear this is one of those good suggestions that will never be acted upon. The Chinese government currently seems to be in no mood to make China a more open society, and as long as it controls public debate the way it does, I think neither attitudes towards foreigners nor immigration policies are going to change very much.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Is it too easy for foreign students to get into Chinese universities?

Peking University's famous Weiming Lake

Recently a spate of articles have appeared in Chinese social media lamenting the fact that it is too easy for international students to gain access to Chinese universities, compared to what it takes for local students. This may have been precipitated by a change to the regulations of some Chinese universities, including Tsinghua, which appear to have made it even easier for foreign students to apply.

It is certainly true that it is far easier for foreign students to gain access to Chinese universities than it is for their local counterparts. China's 高考 exams are notoriously hellish, and competition is cutthroat. By comparison, although things change according to the university and the case, very often a foreign student only needs to apply to get into a Chinese university, sometimes with a Chinese government scholarship to boot. For postgraduate courses, an undergraduate degree in a relevant subject may be required. Then again, sometimes even a degree in an unrelated subject may do.

Most international students who want to study in China do face one serious obstacle: they need to pass an HSK language exam to qualify for degrees taught in the Chinese language. Although some Chinese universities now offer special postgraduate degree programs taught in English, I think the majority of foreign students apply for degrees taught in Chinese, since they see learning Chinese as half the point of studying in China.

The fact that many foreign students need to pass a difficult language exam to study in China is not necessarily mentioned in these online diatribes. When it is, people lament that the policy favours foreign students with a Chinese background, who are already familiar with the Chinese language. Resentment of kids from rich Chinese families who have acquired foreign passports through various means and can thus apply to top Chinese universities as foreign nationals is often what lies behind these grumblings. As someone commented online, "years of strenuous study aren't worth as much as a foreign passport for getting into a Chinese university".

Other articles, like this one written by a university professor, lament the fact that the foreign students who come to China are not as "high-quality" as the ones studying in America, and not even as good as the local students. There is probably a certain closed-mindedness behind these assessments (the foreign students' mathematical skills aren't as good as the Chinese students' ones, while their critical thinking skills are not being considered), and hearing Chinese complain that the foreigners who come to their country are "poor-quality" is sadly a common refrain in all fields.

It is certainly true that Chinese universities are unable to attract the children of the global elite and the world's most brilliant students the way American or British ones can. In most developing countries, studying in China is a second choice for people who do not have the means to get a degree from a Western country. Students from the West who get degrees in China usually do so because they are curious to experience life in China for a few years, because they want to learn Chinese or because their field of study is related to China. But it is understood that the most brilliant students are not all clamouring to come to China, even to the top universities like Tsinghua and Beida.

The fact remains that if the Chinese want to attract the best international students from around the world, then they have to work on improving their universities. My prediction is that as long as China's political system doesn't fundamentally change, China's top universities will not be able to compete with the best global ones in terms of ground-breaking research and creating a lively intellectual atmosphere, no matter how many funds the government pours into them.

This is not to deny that the best universities in Beijing and Shanghai are actually quite good, with competent professors and students who regularly produce research published in top international journals. But the intellectual atmosphere remains stifling. The recently announced new rules for international students won't help matters. It is also noticeable that if you look at China's Oxford and Cambridge, Tsinghua and Beida (Peking University), the foreign students are intentionally being concentrated in Tsinghua, which focuses more on science and engineering, rather than in Beida, which focuses more on the social sciences. I think it isn't hard to see why.

For Chinese universities, accepting lots of foreign students is also a way of ensuring that they can climb up in the international rankings. Most such rankings include "internationalization" as one of the factors universities are assessed upon, something which also harms the notoriously insular Japanese institutions of higher learning. Having a high proportion of foreign students and staff gets you a higher ranking, and given that the Chinese government is obsessed with China's image and with world rankings of any kind, I find it quite probable that they are handing out scholarships to foreign students simply as a way to help Tsinghua and other universities climb up in the ranks.

Much of what lies behind these complaints about how easy it is for foreign students to get into local universities is a misplaced frustration over problems that are entirely internal and homegrown. The article I linked above starts off with the statement that Peking University enrols 200 South Korean undergraduates every year, and only 100 from the whole of Shandong province. In China this is an incendiary matter. Students from Shandong, an overcrowded province, notoriously have to go through hellish competition to get into a good university in Beijing, literally winning out over millions of competitors. Youngsters from Beijing or Shanghai can get in far more easily, something which causes much resentment. Would this state of affairs change if the university took in less South Koreans or other foreign students? Of course not.

If nothing else, such grumblings will pretty certainly have no effect whatsoever on the policies of Chinese universities and the educational authorities, who will continue to enrol international students to the extent that they feel is useful to their needs.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Rights for expats in China

While most Chinese are convinced that foreigners "have it easy" in China, the truth is that operating in China as an outsider can be very difficult.

A group of foreigners in China have now started a Wechat channel called "expat rights", which recently came to my attention. The channel is supposed to agitate for the rights of foreign expatriates in the country. Unsurprisingly, they do not publicize their names (although since Wechat is a Chinese app, this doesn't exactly guarantee their anonymity). They claim to be currently applying for NGO status, although I would be extremely surprised if this was granted to them.

The group's "manifesto" lists the following four demands: "1.We would like China to treat "expats" with legal protections like Chinese get in our home countries. 2. We want a national ID card 3. We want police raids on expat establishments to stop. 4. We're tired of carrying out passport everywhere."

The first two points strike me as well meaning, but naive. The legal protections Chinese people get in 'our home countries" (supposedly referring to Western democracies) are the same protections that everyone gets in those countries, due to the presence of a properly functioning rule of law. Unfortunately no one really enjoys such protections in China, neither foreigners nor locals. National ID cards are indeed available to resident foreign nationals in many European countries, but given the way China works, it is just unthinkable that foreigners will be given their own 身份证 any time soon (although perhaps asking for it might do no harm? Like Che Guevara said, "be realistic, demand the impossible").

The last two points seem more realistic. The constant raids that bars frequented by foreigners have been subjected to in Beijing are unjustifiable and serve no good purpose (or perhaps the purpose of scaring foreigners away from Beijing?). The legal requirement that foreigners who live in China carry their passport with them at all times is unreasonable and not in line with the laws of most countries of the world. Few foreigners follow it, at most carrying a photocopy with them. And while the police may normally accept a photocopy, the law states that you should have the original on you, leaving them an avenue to harass random foreigners when they want to (for instance during the above-mentioned raids).

The group's introductory page finishes with a call to "make a better China, together", trying to make use of the harmonious-sounding language employed by Chinese groups fighting for social change. The other articles on the Wechat channel include one entitled "We teach illegally for you, China", denouncing the hypocrisy behind the crackdowns on foreign English teachers without the right visa, an article calling for all hotels in China to accept foreign guests (some don't), and other articles denouncing cases of petty racism against foreigners. There is also practical advice on what foreigners should do if they are caught in a legal dispute with their employer, and on how to claim the money from their Chinese pension fund back before leaving the country.

I don't know who the people behind this initiative are and I don't necessarily agree with all their views, but whoever they are they've definitely got guts.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

In the Name of the People: a Chinese show on corruption

I've recently been watching China's new hit TV show, 人民的名义 (in the name of the people).
For those of you not in the know, the show focuses on corruption in Chinese politics. It is centred around a special squad of policemen trying to bust a ring of corrupt officials and businessmen in the fictional Chinese city of Handong.

As a Chinese TV show that is both popular and focuses on genuine social problems, 人民的名义 is probably a first. While it is no Prison Break the show is actually watchable, which for a Chinese TV show set in contemporary times is quite unusual. But what is more unusual is the sensitive issues that it portrays: it is certainly the first time I see a show in China that openly shows things like bands of thugs employed by developers pretending to be policemen while they go and demolish a factory and clear away the protesting factory workers.

For all that, the show is clearly an attempt by the government to spread its message on corruption and abuse of power in China: while they happen, the system is fundamentally good and working to rectify any problems and punish wrongdoers in the interest of the 老百姓, the common people. The government obviously considers it preferable to commission a TV show that talks about these problems openly in a way that it finds agreeable, rather than just not talk about them at all.

And while I do find the show watchable, mainly because it creates some real suspense, I find the star character, chief-inspect Hou Liangping, quite dislikable. He is supposed to be a role model, but comes across to me as arrogant, obnoxious and not really very credible. In fact, I find most of the policemen in the series to be quite unbelievable, probably because they are supposed to act as role models. On the other hand, I find some of the other characters much more believable and interesting, for instance Handong's Chief Party Secretary Li Dakang. I also can't help but take a liking for Chen Yanshi (who you can see pictured below), the idealistic retired official who really believes in "serving the people". I do believe that some such idealistic old party members actually still exist in China. I do have to doubt that in real life he would be allowed to take the lead in quelling a riot as he does in the show though, or that everyone would be so concerned with his opinion.

Anyway, if you are interested and know Chinese, you can watch the show on Youku with Chinese subtitles here.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The University of Maryland and freedom of speech

An aerial view of the University of Maryland

Recently Chinese nationalism seems to have found a new target for its wrath: a young Chinese girl, originally from Kunming, who studies at the University of Maryland. Her talk on the clean air and free speech of the US during her graduation ceremony didn't go down well with the Chinese public. It is no exaggeration to say that if she had any ideas of going back to China to work she will have to put them aside, at least for the time being. You can find a good description of what happened here, and of the public reactions of some of Maryland's other Chinese students here.

Before I rush to defend her, I will concede that perhaps the phrase about "not being able to go out without a face-mask because she risked getting ill" is a tad over the top. Kunming is indeed one of the Chinese cities with the best air quality. But that is a bit like talking about the safest city in South Africa, or the most lively city in Norway: it is only an accolade in very relative terms. The truth is that, while nowhere near as bad as Beijing or any city up North, Kunming's air quality is by no means good by global standards. While a healthy person won't get ill in the immediate by not wearing a face-mask, I am sure the air in Kunming is noticeably more polluted than it is in Maryland.

More importantly, the girl's over the top description of the air pollution in Kunming has served to take the focus away from everything else she said, for instance the stuff about freedom of speech. While Chinese television actually went and interviewed people in the streets of Kunming to ask whether they wear face-masks (of course, none do), it would be unthinkable for them to go to the streets of any Chinese city and ask people whether they perceive a lack of freedom of speech in their country.

I am sure there are many other Chinese students in Maryland and the US who either agree with the girl, or at least are unhappy with the rather hysterical backlash to her speech (and back in China somebody wrote this sarcastic reaction to the whole drama, showing that they still have some critical thinking faculties left. Translation here at the bottom). Given all the criticism and public attacks that their peer has been subjected to back home, however, they are probably steering clear of any public pronouncements that don't toe the accepted line in China. At the same time, it is probable that the reactions against the speech by some of the university's other Chinese students were not in any way organized by the official Chinese student organizations linked to the government, but just a result of their sincere nationalism (and a certain naiveness about their home country). Of course people everywhere do tend to get defensive when their country is criticised abroad, but the strength of feeling directed against the "traitorous" girl coupled with the complete lack of genuine anger about China's dreadful air pollution and lack of freedom of speech is what leaves outsiders astounded.

Another thought strikes me: in the age before the internet, there was almost no way that a graduation talk by an anonymous Chinese student in Maryland could have become well known and attracted so much fury half way around the world. A world where any girl's graduation speech can be filmed with a mobile and then go viral across the globe produces these situations. But rather than allowing China's young people a greater freedom to express themselves, the internet seems to have backfired for them - it has now taken away their right to express themselves freely even when they are studying abroad. Any Chinese anywhere who steps out of line and publicly criticizes their country outside the bounds of acceptable public discourse within China is risking a public backlash, and even more so if they do it in front of a foreign audience.

The idea that a world where information could flow across borders in a micro-second would make people more informed, tolerant and wise is turning out to have been an illusion everywhere, and China is no exception. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Recite Confucius and get in for free!

I have just got back from a short break in Qufu (曲阜). Qufu is a small town in Shandong, famous for being the birthplace of Confucius. It is the reason why all of Shandong's 100 million people always introduce their province to the foreigner who has never heard of it as "the hometown of Confucius". The town has been recognized as the sage's place of origin for over 2000 years, and as you can imagine it is full of historical sites connected with Confucius. It is also now a stop on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway, meaning that it can be reached from Beijing in just two hours and twenty minutes, even though the distance is actually quite huge.

The town has a small historic centre where most of the sites lie, surrounded by an (of course totally reconstructed) Ming-era city wall. The area was surprisingly un-crowded, considering that I went there during a national holiday. Outside of the historic centre Qufu seemed small and non-descript, and after 5 PM when the sites close the whole town becomes quite dead.

While in Qufu I had a funny experience. When I reached my youth hostel, I saw a notice claiming that it is possible to get into the town's main attractions for free if you can memorize five phrases by Confucius. When I asked I was given a sheet with twenty quotations from the Analects, out of which I could choose any five to memorize. The phrases all had an English translation, which was useful because the quotations are in Classical Chinese, and their meaning was not necessarily obvious to me at first glance, although with the help of the translations I could make sense of the characters. Quotations by Confucius are still read and written in Classical Chinese, the so-called 文言文 that remained China's unchanged written standard for over 2000 years, even when it no longer held any relationship with the way people spoke anywhere, until the early twentieth century when it was replaced with the modern standard.

I decided to memorize the following five phrases:

(clever talk and ingratiating manners are seldom found in a virtuous man)

(a gentleman is not a tool)

(the gentleman is at peace with himself, but there is no rest for the wicked)

(virtue is not left to stand alone. If you practice it you will have neighbours)

(While the parents are alive, the child must not travel afar. It they do travel, they must have a place to which they go).

As you can see classical Chinese is always very concise, which is much of the reason that these sentences are impossible to understand in Chinese unless you see the characters written down. Those who wrote in classical Chinese only cared about whether the sentences made sense when read on paper, not when spoken. And due to the nature of the Chinese writing system, the two things don't necessarily go together. This problem is much less pronounced in modern Standard Chinese, but it is far from completely absent.

In any case, armed with my five phrases I went to the town's ticket office, where you can buy a single ticket for 150 Yuan that covers Qufu's three main attractions (the Confucius Temple, the Confucius Mansion and the Confucius forest). Given that this is about 20 euros, you can see that getting in for free is an attractive proposition. Once I got to the counter, I asked about getting in for free by memorizing Confucius, and without batting an eyelid the attendants said "next door".

This is where things got a bit weird. I went next door, and found a special office entirely dedicated to letting travellers prove that they have memorized five phrases by Confucius. At the reception desk I was met by two unfriendly clerks who told me that there were already a lot of people waiting to recite their five phrases, and I would have to wait in a line. Outside, in the boiling heat, behind what seemed like an organized tour group of Chinese tourists all armed with sheets like the one I had been given, memorizing their phrases so they could get in for free. What was really strange is that the whole place had the musty and slightly ramshackle feel of a Chinese government office, and people were being conducted one by one into a room in the back so they could recite their Confucius and get their free tickets.

When I asked how long I would have to wait, I was told an hour. I decided to give up and come back next morning, in case there were less people. I did indeed come back the following day, although it was actually more like noon by the time I arrived. This time there were no people. Another extremely cold and unfriendly clerk gave me a form to fill in, with my name, nationality and passport number. After a minute or two I was called into the ominous room in the back, and sat in front of a desk, where the same clerk prompted me to recite the five phrases with the tone of an oculist asking me to read the letters on the wall. The whole thing was beginning to feel like a driving licence examination. I akwardly recited the first phrase, at which she told me that I had to add 子曰 ("Confucius says" in Classical Chinese) in the beginning. I then proceeded to recite the other phrases, always prefaced with "Confucius says".

I was then given a certificate with my photo (which had just been taken), name and passport number, which would allow me free entry into the town's three main tourist sites. It looked just like a certificate of the kind they give you for passing exams in China. My long Italian surname had also been totally misspelt by the clerk. Be it as it may, I used it to get in for free and save 150 Yuan.

All in all, I think the idea of allowing people to get in for free by memorizing Confucius is actually a really good one. It certainly ensured that I memorized five quotations that I shall never forget again. Having said that, the whole thing had been quite different from what I originally expected, which was that I would reach the gates of the tourist site, recite the phrases in front of smiling ticket vendors who would tell me that "wow, your Chinese is amazing", and then I would be allowed through without paying with a pat on the back. I even imagined a few local tourists filming me on their phones during the process. Instead, I had basically had to go through a rather strange examination in the backroom of a government office. Another one of those weird and slightly wacky experiences that can make travel in China such a great source of anecdotes.

A statue of Confucius in Qufu

Friday, April 28, 2017

The "little pink" and online nationalism

Last month's protests over the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile defence system in South Korea turned into the latest bout of nationalistic hysteria to hit China in recent years, with Lotte supermarkets boycotted and closed down by the authorities, travel agents being pressured to stop sending tour groups to South Korea, and videos appearing of Chinese primary school children encouraged to chant slogans against Korea and Lotte at rallies in their playground.

I would say that the level of hysteria was about equal or superior to what was seen last summer after the UN ruling over the South China Sea dispute, but still nowhere near as bad as what went down in 2012 over the Diaoyu islands dispute with Japan. Living in China I have come to see such bouts of collective insanity as akin to episodes of extreme weather: they happen regularly, they are unpredictable, they are annoying but fortunately they don't normally cause anyone much genuine harm, and they pass relatively quickly.

Much has been said and written about China's popular nationalism, its legions of "angry youth" spewing their bile online, the way that the educational system inculcates resentment of Japan and other foreign powers into the minds of young students. The latest development is the appearance of the term xiao fenhong, or "little pink", as a new label for the legions of young Chinese who take part in online campaigns aimed at vilifying the targets of nationalistic rage, and whipping up support for patriotism.

Last summer Australian swimmer Mack Horton became the target of concerted attacks by legions of such young Chinese patriots, after he called his Chinese rival at the Rio olympics a "drug cheat". His social media accounts were bombarded with derogatory and aggressive messages in both Chinese and English. What is striking is the readiness of these young people to take their nationalistic campaigns onto foreign websites like Facebook that are blocked in China, implying that they are either living abroad, or more likely are using a VPN to get round the Chinese government's firewall.

The term "little pink" apparently started off as a disparaging term, because the "movement" began on a well-known Chinese chat group called the Jinjiang forum, whose site has a pink background. A lot of the xiao fenhong are women, making the term even more apt. Later the People's Daily ran an article praising the xiao fenhong as a community of millions of internet users, mostly female, who are patriotic and defend the state online. Since then some have started using the term as a badge of honour.

Essentially we are looking at young, well-educated, middle or upper-middle class young people who know how to access censored foreign websites and in many cases are quite able to argue in English, and use these skills to show support for their country and state and hurl invective at those who they perceive as unfriendly to China. Many of them are indeed women, something that will hopefully put to rest the misguided Western commentary claiming that all these young Chinese nationalists are frustrated "excess men" who can't find a woman due to the gender imbalance created by the one-child policy.

It may seem strange that some of China's most privileged young people, the ones who come from the sort of social classes who tend to send their children to study in the West, take part in such nationalistic online ranting. But as a person with a long connection with Chinese society, it doesn't surprise me. Some of the most unreasonable, extreme, wilfully closed-minded nationalists I have had the misfortune to meet here in China have been young people from the country's privileged classes who had studied or lived abroad, and spoke pretty fluent English.

This is of course by no means a rule. I have also met plenty of young Chinese from such backgrounds for whom studying abroad was a genuinely eye-opening and enriching experience, and who refuse to be roped in by simple-minded chauvinistic discourse. It does appear to be the case, however, that in modern China nationalism does not decrease as one moves up the social scale. It may actually be strongest among the wealthier classes, although they express it in a more sophisticated fashion.

I could give the example of a colleague of mine. She is a 23 year old girl, a native of Beijing, who has just come back after getting a master's degree in a European university. She likes travelling and once took the Trans-Siberian Express all the way to Moscow, in spite of knowing no Russian. She is energetic, opinionated and independent. Recently a conversation I was having with her and another colleague turned to the topic of politics. She started saying that she knows that she was "sort of brainwashed" in school, but she just can't help herself. When she hears people criticise the Communist Party she just has to defend them as the people who liberated the country, even though she knows it isn't really that simple.

The topic then turned to Taiwan. She said that she will resolutely oppose any Taiwanese who claims that Taiwan isn't part of China, because this is a 民族的问题 (ethnic/national question). She said she doesn't understand why the Taiwanese always have to 抱美国大腿,抱日本大腿 (Cling to America and Japan for protection, said using a derisive expression). She then said she wished her government wasn't so kind and understanding towards Taiwan, and showed some muscle by boycotting them and destroying their economy if they continued talking about independence.

Young people of this kind may have grown up in a nationalistic bubble, but they are by no means unable to find out about the world from independent sources. Even when they are not abroad they are quite able to use VPNs and connect to any website worldwide, and can read material in English as well as Chinese. It would not be difficult for them to find out how things look from the perspective of, say a Taiwanese student who took part in the Sunflower movement. The point is that they display little interest in doing so.

Many dismiss such people as brainwashed, but the word doesn't quite do the situation justice. I often notice a disconcerting willingness, almost a conscious decision, to wallow in a bubble of unjustified nationalistic attitudes, instead of questioning comforting but wrong-headed and dangerous beliefs. Of course it could be argued that most people anywhere are not keen on questioning their long-cherished beliefs. That's probably how religions manage to keep going down the generations, even when their core axioms have become quite untenable. On the other hand the way that in China people's core beliefs currently revolve around nationalism, and tend to be similar for large swathes of the population, make them potentially explosive.