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A war among the “Haves”
Xiaoxia Gong, Ph.D.
11/24/2003

Those who danced in the streets of the Middle East upon learning of the recent terrorist attacks might be surprised to know that there were millions dancing with them thousands of miles away. A Chinese national who lived in Washington for the past four years was back visiting in Beijing on the evening of September 11. She was shocked by the excitement and hatred on the face of one of her old friends as the news of the terrorist attacks filtered in. "Americans deserve it!", her friend shouted; "death to Americans!" This did not occur in a public gathering, where secret police and party workers were monitoring people's performance; this happened in a private home, where this woman from America was visiting with her newly-wedded Chinese-passport-holding daughter and her American son-in-law. The agitation and contempt for the U.S. which filled the room was genuine. This visitor, who is a friend of mine, later recalled, "My daughter was sobbing constantly. She turned to her husband and said, 'Let's go home. Let's go back to America'."

Such cheering for the terrorist attack was not an isolated incident in China. On the streets of Beijing, in internet Chinese chatrooms, and among students on Beijing college campuses, the overwhelming sentiment against the west in general and the United States in particular, is palpable.

This should not be taken as evidence that the Chinese, like those dancing Palestinians, loath the U.S. policy in the Middle East. Many of those cheering Chinese have little idea about the Israeli-Arab conflict; nor do they have much knowledge or understanding of the Islamic culture. But they have their own grievances against the Americans. One of those cheering Chinese explained to me that "the Americans bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia! Now they get a taste of what bombing is like! On their own soil!". He added: "The Americans have been playing the role of international police in the world. Don't they deserve it?" This person is not a poor and uneducated peasant. No. He holds a Ph.D. from one of the top universities in the West, and has been living in the West since 1985.

This is indeed a chilling fact. It seems that among people in China today, the more educated and economically prosperous that they are, and the greater their exposure to the West, the more prevalent their xenophobic sentiments. It is evident among those living in the cosmopolitan cities, among college students and faculty members, even among western-educated scholars. Poor peasants and unemployed workers who struggle for daily survival, on the other hand, pay little attention to events in the world.

One of the major misconceptions in the West is that the more people are exposed to Western values and lifestyle, the more westernized they become, and the less xenophobic they feel. This has been repeatedly proven untrue by history, most dramatically last month. The terrorists involved in the September 11 attack were very well-educated and even somewhat westernized in terms of daily routines and lifestyle. Those who are puzzled by this fact should recall that in the last century, most of the leaders of extreme nationalistic or communist movements in the developing countries had been exposed to Western culture and values when they started their anti-Western campaigns, and some were educated in the West. It seems, in fact, that exposure to the West has the possibility of increasing, rather than diminishing, the level of xenophobia in an educated person. A similar tendency may be observed in nation states. Take China as an example: in the 1980s, when the communist state first opened its doors to the West, popular sentiment was overwhelmingly pro-Western. Westerners in China then rarely experienced unpleasantness or hostility. But the situation changed in the 90s, when China's economy took off, the urban population grew richer, thousands of western-educated Chinese returned, and the society became, at least on the surface, more westernized.

The question remains, Why? The answer probably lies not in the nationalist sentiment of the developing nations, or the desperation of their poor and starving people, but in the wounded pride of their upper and middle classes. There is a theory in social psychology called "relative deprivation." It argues that regardless of whether they are in fact better off, people use reference groups around them, rather than their own past, to estimate their social and economic status. For example, a rich landlord in a village might have been regarded by himself and his fellow villagers as on top of the world, because he had more material and social status than anyone else in the village. Upon the arrival of a powerful Western business to his village, this landlord might have increased his wealth from profits gained in dealing with the Western business. Yet, he is no longer on top of the world, because he knows, and the villagers know, that there is now another way to measure his status, and by that calculus, he is not at the top of anything. Research by China scholars show that while poor peasants and workers, having little idea about the West, rarely use the West as their reference group, the upper classes feel that they are marginalized and deprived by the very existence of the West, especially by the United States. And this is compounded by those educated Chinese who have returned to China from the West, many of them harboring deep grievances toward the West for their inability to have "made it" there. Their return is often seen by themselves and by their colleagues as their failure in the West. After all, however nationalistic they appear to be, deep inside most of those educated, they hold a strong belief that being able to join the mainstream in the West indicates ultimate success. When they fail to do so, any opportunity to put the West down is psychologically comforting.

What this situation in China can teach us is that the root of terrorism does not lie in the desperation of the poor people in the Islamic nations, as many experts have assumed. Rather, ultra-terrorism, as the world witnessed on September 11, is a defiant effort of some lunatic members of the upper classes in those countries to reclaim their superiority via destruction. When destruction is their ultimate goal, no negotiation will work. Ironically, the poor in those nations who struggle for their daily survival are by comparison rational people. They want their survival and prosperity, not destruction. Terrorist actions do not only bring about destruction to the West, they also bring about destruction to poor people in Islamic countries, proven by what is happening in Afganistan. Therefore, the terrorists violate the poor people in their own countries, too.

*Xiaoxia Gong comes originally from the People's Republic of China. She holds a Ph.D in sociology from Harvard University, and is currently a free-lance columnist.

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