Xiu Chen is out for blood. The 19-year-old powers his F-8 into full throttle. After a careful scan of the horizon, Xiu takes a deep breath and lets a missile loose. Two seconds later, a lumbering plane in the distance erupts into a Technicolor fireball. "Mission complete," says Xiu, easing back in his seat. "China, 1; America, 0."
While real-life aerial battles have dominated the headlines, China's university students are playing out their own version of Sino-American relations on the computer screen. Their video-game bloodthirst reflects a surging patriotism among Chinese youth and an increasing frustration with perceived American arrogance. "After the Soviet Union fell, the U.S. thought it could do anything," says Zhang Lian, a freshman at prestigious Peking University. "We Chinese have the responsibility to tell them no."
These are the same Chinese kids who want their MTV, their Big Macs, and most important, their U.S. MBAs. But as China's economy and confidence grow, its young citizens are the ones most eager for Beijing to flex its muscle. Perhaps that's not surprising. This is the first generation in People's Republic history not to have suffered through the trauma of war. "If Mao Zedong were the leader today, he would have shot down the American plane," says Li Hua, a physics student from Shanghai, who counts KFC as her favorite take-out. "But our leaders now don't have the guts to get in a fight."
Ask any Nike-shod Chinese teens, and they'll rattle off a barrage of complaints about the U.S. There was the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which most Chinese believe was a deliberate act. There's the pesky U.S. insistence that Taiwan and Tibet aren't quite part of the motherland. Then there are the kids who return from studying in the States and report that the Hollywood version of America is but a dream. The returnees feel slighted because their American counterparts know little about China and, even worse, don't seem to care. "Our love for the U.S. used to be blind," says Liu Yi, 23. "But now we are much more sophisticated."
The Internet, that supposed harbinger of democracy, has in recent days been used more for airing anti-Washington vitriol than for spreading the Bill of Rights. Variations of "Kill the Imperialist American Pigs" have littered Chinese message boards. Although the American version of the midair collision is available on the Net, most students buy the account that appears in China's state-controlled media. "Of course, I know what happened," says Li Shen, 20, a Russian-studies major whose political-science professor taught him, incorrectly, that the U.S. was nominating the head of the outlawed meditation group, Falun Gong, for a Nobel Peace Prize. "The U.S. plane was in Chinese airspace and deliberately rammed our jet."
Such unquestioning patriotism is just fine with the Chinese government. With socialism defunct as an inspirational ideology, the Communist Party has adopted nationalism as its new raison d'être. Thousands of Beijing students hurled stones at the U.S. embassy after the NATO bombing, and also burned American flags helpfully handed out by local security forces.
But China has to be careful about stoking nationalist impulses. In 1919, Peking University student protests against Western treatment of China spiraled out of control and ended up bringing down the government. When a group of Qinghua University students tried to organize a demonstration in Beijing last week, the government squelched it. For the time being, China's future leaders will have to rely on video games to vent their patriotic fervor.