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In Beijing, plenty of pro-China free speech

"Do you work for that American news company that said all those bad things about the Chinese people?" That question was posed to me yesterday by a taxi driver as I was riding to NBC News' Beijing bureau. Not exactly your typical ice-breaker.

The driver was referring to CNN commentator Jack Cafferty, who made a comment on air about China's leaders being "thugs and goons" – which has been taken as a personal affront by the nation of 1.3 billion people. 

I might have thought it was unusual for someone in China to bring up a politically loaded subject like that except for the fact that a Chinese babysitter my family has worked with for about two years asked me the day before to clarify who my employer was.

And later that same day, as we were shooting news footage inside a Beijing restaurant, a Chinese couple who recently returned from a vacation in the United States started complaining to the crew and me about Western press coverage of China – especially when it comes to the issue of Tibet.

The series of comments are an illustration of how far the current wave of Chinese nationalism has reached. It's fueled by anger over the tarnishing of China's image at a period of great pride for hundreds of millions of Chinese excited to be hosting the Olympic Games.

When you speak with people here, you get a sense that many average Chinese are hoping Olympic publicity will allow the outside world to notice the positive changes China has made in recent years, instead of fixating on what is wrong. That sense of real national pride – not some robotic obedience to the government and its policies – seems to be behind much of the anger.

To their credit, everyone who spoke to me about my employer was polite. But there is plenty of rage still out there, especially on the Internet.

China's blogs are seething these days, with many railing against the Western press and Tibet sympathizers. Chinese bloggers have inspired real protests against French-made goods and businesses in China – many here believe the French did not do enough to protect the Olympic torch when it passed through Paris, with a demonstrator almost wresting it away from a Chinese Paralympics torchbearer.

Chill out

With many Chinese angry over these perceived slights, the government has grown concerned about the intensity of the popular protest and what impact it might have on the games and China's international image. So now, officials are taking steps to calm everyone.

Xinhua, China's official state news agency, released a statement saying it was time to curb national zeal, which the agency implied could scare foreign investors away.

Two editorials in the Chinese press asked people to make a hospitable impression to guests and channel their energy into working for China's future.

And for its part, France is sending a high-level delegation to China on a charm offensive.

On April 30, the 100-day countdown to the games will begin, with the Olympic torch arriving on Chinese soil, and many hope the fanfare and celebration may help to shift focus away from the current controversy.

At the very least, this public outcry has been an example that in the world's largest communist country, there can be free speech: especially when it's a decidedly pro-China.