Economic reality will put paid to boycott

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 April, 2008, 12:00am

After simmering in internet chat rooms for more than a week, the popular backlash against western support for Tibet, 'biased' overseas media reports, and the protests during the Olympic torch relay finally erupted over the weekend with protests in Beijing and several other major mainland cities.

Bigger demonstrations are expected during the Labour Day holidays amid angry calls for boycotts of French products in particular.

Understandably, the nationalistic fervour has unnerved foreign investors, journalists and diplomats.

Over the past week, the state media have helped fan public indignation by targeting the French. Although the torch relay was also disrupted in London and San Francisco, the mainland media are particularly angry at the French because of the public threat by President Nicolas Sarkozy to skip the Olympics' opening ceremony and French officials' perceived public support for pro-Tibetan activists.

Over the weekend, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of stores belonging to the French supermarket giant Carrefour and the French embassy, waving national flags and red banners, burning the French flag and calling for boycotts.

The public outrage is even stronger on the internet, with tens of millions of people signing online petitions vowing they will stop shopping at Carrefour outlets and other stores selling French products.

It is not entirely clear why Carrefour was particularly targeted. It may well be the most recognisable symbol of France because of its mushrooming outlets in major mainland cities.

There have also been suggestions in the official media that a major shareholder in Carrefour donated funds to the Dalai Lama, but the French chain subsequently denied this, saying it never meddled in mainland politics.

France's ambassador to China, Herve Ladsous, has been busy talking to the media and pledging respect for China's sovereignty, while Carrefour officials pleaded with mainland officials for help and voiced support for the Beijing Olympics.

As the overseas media headlined the flag-waving mainland protesters in front of the Carrefour stores, this has clearly worried not only French businesspeople but other foreign investors, who are nervous about the calls for boycotts spreading.

If the recent past is any guide, they should not worry too much.

While the overseas media tend to play up the impact of the calls for boycotts, the truth is that such campaigns usually lose steam. In the past, boycott campaigns have never got off the ground and there is no reason to believe the current one will go anywhere, either.

Previously, there were much bigger and emotionally charged demonstrations against the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and Japan's efforts to whitewash its wartime atrocities against the Chinese in 2005. On both occasions, the calls for boycotts of US and Japanese products were even stronger than today, but they came to almost nothing.

It happens not only in China but elsewhere.

In 2003, US politicians raised the spectre of a boycott against French and German products and services over the French and German governments' stance on Iraq. But sales of French wine and German cars were little affected despite the media frenzy.

There is one more reason the current boycott campaign will fizzle out soon - the mainland leadership.

Clearly worried that the protests might get out of control, the state media have begun to carry articles to cool the nationalistic passion since Friday. Articles by Xinhua and the People's Daily urged mainlanders to channel their nationalistic sentiment into doing their own jobs well, and said they should express their views in a rational and calm manner.

They also reminded protesters that foreign investment helped create jobs and propelled the mainland's economic growth.