Protests against French retailer spread in China

Sunday, April 20, 2008

BEIJING -- Demonstrations against French supermarket chain Carrefour erupted in cities across China on Saturday, fueled by anger over the disruption of the Olympic torch relay when it went through Paris nearly two weeks ago.

Other protesters gathered outside the French Embassy and the Beijing French School.

The recent unrest in Tibet and protests during the worldwide Olympic torch relay have created a backlash of anger inside China against those viewed as supporting independence for Tibet.

The nationalist outburst comes as Chinese state media has launched a sustained attack against foreign critics of China's Tibet policy and on the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, who Beijing blames for instigating riots last month in Tibet's capital.

Hundreds of protesters carrying Chinese flags and pictures of the late Communist Party chairman, Mao Zedong, gathered outside a Carrefour store in Wuhan in central Hubei province Saturday.

A woman working at a store in the same building as the Carrefour estimated about 1,000 people took part in the protests, mostly teens and university students. They held banners and sang the national anthem, said the woman, who would only give her surname, Wang.

Hong Kong broadcaster Cable TV reported several thousand protesters gathered outside the Carrefour in Hefei, in eastern China's Anhui province. A staff member confirmed there had been a demonstration and the store had closed, but she would not provide details and hung up without providing her name.

Protests also took place at Carrefour stores in the southwestern city of Kunming, the popular tourist city Xian in northern China and the port city of Qingdao.

A woman who answered the phone at the Carrefour in Kunming said "a lot of people are still outside protesting." She refused to give her name and more details.

On Saturday, small protests broke out in Beijing at a Carrefour and outside the French Embassy, where a placard read "Tibet is part of China." The official Xinhua News Agency also reported a protest in front of the Beijing French School.

"We're supporting the Olympics and boycotting Tibetan independence," said the organizer of the protest at the Beijing Carrefour, who refused to give his name.

Carrefour is the second-largest supermarket chain in the world after Wal-Mart Stores Inc. It has 122 stores in China employing 40,000 people. Carrefour Group said in a statement last week that it supports the Beijing Olympics, and allegations that it has a role in Chinese politics or international relations were "baseless."

Calls to protest and boycott goods from Carrefour -- one of the most popular supermarket chains in China -- spread through Internet chat rooms and via cell phone text messages after the pro-Tibet protests disrupted Olympic torch stops.

The round-the-world torch relay was meant to highlight China's rising economic and political power. But activists have seized on it, disrupting the relay in several cities including Paris, London and San Francisco.

In Paris, the relay on April 7 descended into chaos, with protesters grabbing for the flame and forcing security officials to repeatedly snuff out the torch and transport it by bus past demonstrators yelling "Free Tibet!"

Some Chinese feel the protests were an attack on their country. Those nationalist feelings were amplified by the popularity of Jin Jing, a disabled fencer who became a household name after stubbornly clinging to the torch while a Tibet supporter tried to wrestle it away during the Paris relay.

Anti-French sentiment in China also has grown since French President Nicolas Sarkozy said last month he is considering not attending the Olympic Games opening ceremony because of China's crackdown on Tibet.

In Paris, thousands of pro-China demonstrators staged a protest Saturday in support of Beijing. Many of the protesters, who demonstrated at the Place de la Republique, wore T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase "Let's make the Olympics a bridge, not a wall" in French.

So far, China appears supportive of the views taken against Carrefour, but there are also signs that Beijing is attempting to calm some of the nationalistic spirit.

An editorial in Xinhua, which was featured prominently Saturday on Chinese online news portals, was titled: "The best way to love your country is to do your job well." Chinese should concentrate their energy on helping to build the Chinese economy, the editorial said.

Beijing has blamed recent violence in Tibet, which broke out March 14, on the Dalai Lama and his supporters. China said 22 people died in rioting in the Tibet capital of Lhasa.

The Dalai Lama's government-in-exile denies any involvement in the violence. It says more than 140 people were killed in the government crackdown.

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