Mon, Jun 09, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Perspectives on Chinese ‘empathy’

By John Lim 林泉忠

It has become fashionable in China to talk about “thinking about things from other people’s perspective.” This is the age of “the rise of China,” in which Chinese society is full of “patriotism” and other grand narratives that match this key theme, as well as boastful and acquisitive ideas such as “putting money ahead of everything else.”

At such a time, it is refreshing to hear calls for mutual sympathy, objective viewpoints and an empathetic approach that seeks social harmony and urges people to restrain their egotism. Such calls are equally applicable to a wider area that includes Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.

Many Hong Kongers dislike the behavior of Chinese visitors, and Hong Kong actor Chapman To (杜文澤) raised hackles by defending Taiwanese entertainers against their Chinese critics.

Taiwan has seen waves of protest against the cross-strait service trade agreement, and Taiwanese singer Bobby Chen (陳升) caused annoyance in China by supporting the Sunflower movement and saying that Taiwan might be better off without Chinese tourists. Evidently, there is an issue of trust between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, and a bit more empathy would be welcome in cross-strait relations.

The odd thing is that this idea of thinking about things from other perspectives seems to be restricted by borders. Is there any room for empathy when borders and national territory are at stake? The answer might become apparent when one considers the nature of territorial disputes.

Why are territorial issues so contentious for so many people? Why are there scenes of public indignation whenever friction over territorial conflicts crops up? It is because these quarrels go beyond questions of territory alone, and become a matter of nationalism that is focused on territorial demands — in other words, territorial nationalism — and that is the most inflammatory and explosive kind of nationalism.

When territorial nationalism is inflamed, all kinds of rational thought — objectivity, understanding, sympathy and empathy — are forced out of the picture.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials have slammed Japan for “ignoring the facts” and “refusing to recognize that there is a dispute concerning sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands” (釣魚台) — known as the Senkakus in Japan — but then they turn around and tell the Philippines that “there is no dispute concerning sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal” (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島).

On May 26, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) said: “Recent violent activities in Vietnam involving beating, smashing, looting and arson against foreign companies and personnel have caused great casualties and property losses to Chinese companies and individuals. We urge the Vietnamese authorities to immediately carry out a thorough investigation into the case, strictly punish the perpetrators and compensate relevant Chinese companies and personnel for their losses. The Vietnamese authorities should take concrete and effective measures to ensure the safety of Chinese institutions, companies and personnel there. Only by doing so can Vietnam win back the confidence of the international community.”

If Qin’s words sound familiar, it is because they are almost the same as those of Japanese officials in 2012, when anti-Japanese riots broke out in some Chinese cities in reaction to a clash that took place near the Diaoyutais. One need only change the words “in Vietnam” to “in China,” “we urge the Vietnamese authorities” to “we urge the Chinese authorities” and “ensure the safety of Chinese institutions, companies and personnel” to “ensure the safety of Japanese institutions, companies and personnel” to make the statements almost identical.

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