Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Who represents China from a diplomatic viewpoint?

An interview with Wang Jisi, the Dean of International Studies at Beijing University, published in Japan Focus (first published in Nanfeng Chuang), is quite interesting from a diplomatic relations standpoint. Look at this point he makes:

Society in the United States is even more powerful than the government. This is its primary unique feature, and it is also an important aspect of why many countries believe that the United States is not easy to deal with. In that sense, the relationship between China and the United States is essentially one between a country and a society. As far as the Chinese government is concerned, simply having dealings with the administrative authorities in the United States is far from sufficient. It is also necessary to emphasize contacts with its Congress, business circles, the media, think tanks, labor unions, and religious circles, etc., to get them to understand China, and this is a very arduous task.

This is an interesting point—I rarely think about the difficulties other countries have in dealing with the messiness that is the United States. What about the opposite direction—whom must American officials talk to when trying to get things done in China? Who represents “China”? And more specifically, what’s the relationship between the State Department and China’s civil society?

That relationship can probably be traced back to 1988, one year before the Tiananmen Square massacre. That June, American Ambassador to China Winston Lord addressed a gathering of students at Beijing University. It was the first time an important American official broke from the precedent Nixon and Kissinger set of dealing only with important Chinese officials. Lord, who was present during the 1972 meeting between Nixon, Kissinger, and Mao, believed that a primary task of the American presence in China should be to form a relationship with the country’s future leading figures, both in the government and out of it. However, that visit to Beijing University brought a warning from Deng Xiaoping that Lord shouldn’t have met with the students. At that time, any action by the US embassy outside of official channels was heavily frowned upon. (1)

Technically, American diplomats still may not meet important Chinese figures without government approval. But things have changed a lot. In Guangzhou, for example, the American consulate holds a weekly forum in which anyone is welcome to come and hear a presentation about an American topic, often given by a diplomat. American diplomats often meet with ordinary Chinese without getting approval from the Chinese government.

In the future, the amount of access foreign embassies and consulates have to important non-governmental figures in China might be a good way to gauge the freedom of China’s civil society (through how much access foreign journalists have to people they want to interview is probably a better indicator). At any rate, I wish the US would or could treat China’s civil society with the same seriousness that Wang Jisi says the Chinese government treats ours.

(1) See About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton, by James Mann.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

21st century

On Monday night, the night before election day, I found a copy of Hendrik Hertzberg’s book Politics, a collection of his past political writing. The last piece in the book was his post-November 2004 election commentary in the New Yorker, a reminder of the hopelessness many Americans felt after the last election. Most disturbing for me was Hertzberg’s prediction that “the anti-Bush sentiments that are manifest throughout much of the world will now transmute into fully fledged anti-Americanism.” No, I wanted to say, this is not the America of the future.

I suspect the heavy, heavy weight of the past eight years has played a big part in the incredible amount of reporting here in the US of international reactions to Obama’s victory. I doubt there has ever been so much interest in how other countries perceive an American election—a product not only of Obama’s win but also of the growing sense in the US that we are interconnected with the world. We certainly deserve a bit of self-congratulation. It’s gratifying to hear statements like, “It’s kind of nice to feel good about the United States again,” from Armando Díaz, 24, a bookkeeper in Venezuela, as quoted in the New York Times. In Dubai, Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned Arabic-language news channel, had predicted that Americans would succumb to their fear of difference. “McCain will win,” a UAE government official had said. “That is the American mentality.”

As I’ve written here before, the most exciting thing for me about an Obama presidency is its potential to reinvigorate the United States as a moral power. People who have been trained to believe that the American population is ignorant, racist, and imperialist have now seen it elect an internationalist black man whose middle name is Hussein. This is not to discount the significance of racism and imperialism in the history of the US. But it does serve to remind the world that America is a young country, and we are not hopelessly mired in any tradition or cultural trait, even one so seemingly intractable as racism.

People’s reactions to Obama’s win have not always been satisfying. Another New York Times article reflects our need for admiration from outsiders, so common in countries that are experiencing an outpouring of nationalism:

There is another paradox about the world’s view of the election of Mr. Obama: many who are quick to condemn the United States for its racist past and now congratulate it for a milestone fail to acknowledge the same problem in their own societies, and so do not see how this election could offer them any lessons about themselves.

In Russia, for example, where Soviet leaders used to respond to any American criticism of human rights violation with “But you hang Negroes,” analysts note that the election of Mr. Obama removes a stain. But they speak of it without reference to their own treatment of ethnic minorities.

In China, it remains to be seen whether the American example will spur critical self-reflection about the political situation there. There are indications that it will and indications that it won’t. “The Opposite End of China” blog posts this e-mail from a Chinese acquaintance:

Congratulations on Obama's successful run for president!! I have been constantly amazed as I follow the elections along the way. What an achievement it truly is... no doubt he'll help restore America's image around the world. At the same time I can't stop comparing. I can't envision a ethnic Tibetan, Uygur, Hui, or Mogol [sic] gets elected President of China, not in 60 years... that's how far apart the two countries are, in terms of maturity in political institutions.

This is the kind of thing we love to hear. Similarly, the BBC ran a quote from an anonymous Chinese:

American elections have shaken me to the core. I have always thought the Chinese
political system is the best in the world, but it is not so. We are deprived of our sacred rights, rule of law and human rights are trampled upon. To have a democratic system like the one in the USA is more difficult than touching the sky... But we long to achieve freedom and democracy, which is a difficult task for us young people in China.

(See the China Beat for more quotes about the election from China. See here for more feel-good quotes from people around the world. See ChinaSmack for interesting comments on the election from Chinese online forums.)

Perhaps most interesting are indications that Chinese who are happy with the status quo are nervous about the American election inspiring people in China. News site Izaobao recalled the late 19th century and early 20th century, when Chinese officials went to the US to observe its political process. According to a translation of the piece by the Wall Street Journal,

The results of those experiments were less than favorable… — the fall of the empire, warlordism, civil war, etc. Factoring in that experience as well as 100 years of growth, [the site] asks, which approach remains wiser? A fuller embrace of what it calls “the false games of the bourgeoisie?” Or the low-level village elections that China has in place?

Izaobao seems to be implying that history has shown it’s dangerous for China use the American political process as a model. This is certainly a common idea in China, and one frequently hears that implementing American-style democracy would result in chaos and instability. I generally agree with this argument—American-style democracy works well in America precisely because it is thoroughly American—but I think it usually goes too far: rejecting American-style democracy doesn’t mean you have to reject free speech and a gradual development towards some sort of representation.

At any rate, Obama’s presidency holds out the possibility that America’s power in the world will indeed be based on moral might, rather than economic or military might, in the 21st century. For many, this country is already becoming, once again, an inspirational force instead of a terrifying one.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


If you happen to be in Chicago these days, you may want to take a look at the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago. It currently has a small but interesting exhibit of four artists that deals with the Four Gorges Dam in Sichuan, and its effect on the surrounding population (which, it must be noted, is just about all Western commentators seem to care about when it comes to that monumental project).

I thought the most interesting artist at the exhibit was someone named Ji Yunfei, a Brooklyn-based artist originally from Beijing. His painting, called “Water Rising,” was a long, thin canvas that crept along the wall, wrapping around the corner of the gallery. It played off one of the most persistent themes in the history of Chinese art: landscapes.

Landscape painting, which became widespread during the Tang dynasty and gained popularity in the Song dynasty, has had different meanings for different painters. It’s sometimes represented a kind of alternative, idealized setting from chaotic dynastic upheavals and other political catastrophes. For Buddhists and Daoists, landscapes have been a place of retreat, an escape from the world. A more modern reading of landscape scenes seeks to tie the essence of being Chinese to China’s geography; in a passage about his painting displayed at the museum, Ji Yunfei invokes this idea.

Detail from "Water Rising"

For Ji, such a drastic man-made alteration in the nation’s geography goes to the heart of what China is. His beautiful landscape, with a quiet lake, a peaceful mountain, and beautiful, jagged trees, is covered with the detriments of a population displaced. Rubble litters the landscape, and the people, whose skin and clothes seem to blend in with the land itself, stand in hesitation, not quite knowing what to do. This village, once a place of peaceful retreat, has been targeted by the outside world.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Another one about US politics

Well, I’m back in the US, and what’s more, everybody’s doing it… so here’s another post about US politics.

Probably the most interesting quote I’ve heard so far during this presidential campaign was on NPR, from a democrat in Virginia as she wrestled with her own feelings about Obama’s ethnicity. The woman had voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary, and she said something along the lines of: I don’t know about racism, but I’m just afraid that he’ll be supporting his own people, and he’ll just be doing things for his own people. “His own people”—of course this is racism, and the opposite of what she fears is precisely what civil rights activists have been fighting since the dawn of the United States: that white presidents—as well as a white Congress, a white Supreme Court, white mayors, white governors, white businesspeople, and every other kind of white person with any kind of power—have tended to support their people, to the detriment of blacks and other ethnic minority groups.

In the past, exploiting this kind of fear would have easily won the Republicans the election. The fact that they haven’t been able to do that represents true progress in this country. Every election is a referendum not on any candidate but on the electorate, and the American electorate, if the polls are to be believed, is finally willing to elect a black president. The fact that Obama—who grew up in countries other than the United States and whose middle name is Hussein—is ahead of a white, experienced, well-liked (at least up until a month or two ago) war hero politician is simply stunning.

Race has been strangely ignored during this campaign, at least on the surface. But it’s always present in American politics, and it will continue to be present for a long time to come. However, even if McCain wins the election, change is coming. White people will be a minority in the US within the next 30 years or so, and the Republican party—whose contemporary incarnation was largely forged out of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement—will change if it wishes to remain a viable political force.

Racism is not a clear-cut issue, and it runs through nearly every facet of American society, in the north as well as the south. Many people forget, or have never learned, that Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Chicago—a thoroughly northern city—and was horrified by the racism he saw there. Neighborhoods in American cities still have clear boundaries, and most white residents would probably admit, if only to themselves, to being more intimidated by a black man on the street late at night than a white man. I sympathize with the woman mentioned above, and I admire her for voicing her fears. Confronting one’s own racism is something most Americans are not yet capable of doing.

10 October: After publishing this post I read a fascinating article by George Packer that deals with the hidden presence of race in the current election. It includes this passage:

[In Ohio, Obama's] name often evoked a sharp racial hostility that was expressed without hesitation or apology.

These were not views that many Americans had been willing to reveal to reporters. For obvious reasons, neither Obama nor McCain wants to address the conjunction of race and class in this election. The national press corps—which more and more confines its political coverage to politicians, campaign officials, strategists, and itself—has often discussed the role of race in the campaign, but the conversation is inevitably softened by euphemism. Americans accustomed to discussing race politely, or not at all, might follow the campaign without a real sense of the potency of skin color.

Turns out the intertwining of race and class in US politics (whose history up until the first Bush is pretty well laid out in "Chain Reaction" by Thomas and Mary Edsall) is not quite as dead as I had hoped. But, as Packer's article shows, people are more aware of it, and there's an active effort to combat it.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Questioning the Olympic project, part 2

In a previous essay, I wrote that the Olympics makes us question the symbols and values of modernity by forcing us to ask whether the host country is “ready” to become modern. I used examples from the 1988 Seoul Olympics to show how commentators in 1988 looked at factors other than economic advancement to determine Korea’s progress.

The phenomenon of using the Olympics to judge a non-western country’s modern progress has been even more striking in China. At a press conference in Beijing with Giselle Davies, the IOC’s director of communications, the question of what exactly constitutes “progress” was on stark display:

Channel 4 reporter Alex Thomson: “I’m asking whether you’re embarrassed [about the Chinese government breaking its promises to expand human rights and press freedom before the games]. I’m not asking about how well the games have been run or how wonderful the venues are. Are you embarrassed?”

Giselle Davies: “We’re very pleased with how the organizers are putting on a good sporting event. That’s what this is [about]… the organizers have put on an operationally sound games for the athletes.”

The back-and-forth proceeded along these lines, with Davies focusing on operational success and Thomson focusing on human rights and press freedom. Similarly, when Wang Wei, a BOCOG official, said, “The whole world can see how China is progressing,” his emphasis was on what can be seen: infrastructure, operational aptitude, venues, the visible signs of economic progress.

China’s two bids to host the games have both generated this kind of tension about the meaning of progress. When China first bid to host the Olympics in 1993, there was an immediate uproar about the country’s human rights abuses. At the same time, some Chinese were concerned that China’s economic advancement wasn’t far enough along to successfully host the games:

"I don't think we're ready for it," said Wu Xiaoyong, a consultant for the World Bank in Beijing. "The infrastructure and general service level is not up to requirements. It would certainly be a great honor to host the Games, but it would be better if we waited until we were really ready." [1]

China’s failure to win the bid in 1993 left much bitterness among many Chinese, who believed they lost because of protests from the US government and unfair preferential treatment of Sydney.

Unsurprisingly, the language surrounding China’s 2001 bid focused on whether China was ready for the Olympics—but what was meant by “ready” varied widely. Tom Lantos, a Democratic politician in the US, said in a statement on July 8, 2001:

China's leaders have argued that politics should not taint the delegates' deliberations and that each finalist should be subject only to technical review to determine which city has the best sports facilities, transportation systems, hotels and other material resources needed to carry out a successful Olympics.

But turning a blind eye to the egregious human rights violations taking place every day in China does not remove politics from the Olympics—it permits an authoritarian regime to exploit the Games to prop up its faltering legitimacy by gaining an important symbol of acceptance from the international community. The I.O.C. should reject China's bid and protect the Olympic ideal.

China should earn the Games not because of its ability to build world-class sports sites and manage a massive event, but by virtue of its commitment to upholding the Olympic ideal.

In fact, Olympic officials sought to assure skeptics like Lantos that the Olympics are a positive force, and can even spur an authoritarian country to adopt democracy and improve its human rights. The memory of the Seoul games was important in this regard, as many observers argued that the 1988 games had pushed Korea’s democracy along. There were other promising factors: in China’s first bid for the games in 1993, it had released Wei Jingsheng, a well-known dissident, from jail six months before the end of his sentence in an act of goodwill.

Jacque Rogge, who in 2001 was a Belgium delegate to the IOC and is now the IOC president, has always supported China’s bid. When China won the bid in 2001, he and other IOC members believed the games would bring more human rights to China: ''I think the message was that the IOC wanted to open a country that represents one quarter of mankind and had never organized the games before,” said Rogge. François Carrard, another IOC official, had a similar opinion:

Some people say, because of serious human rights issues, “We close the door and say no.” The other way is to bet on openness. Bet on the fact that in the coming seven years, openness, progress and development in many areas will be such that the situation will be improved. We are taking the bet that seven years from now we will see many changes.

For its part, China quite explicitly promised that its human rights record would improve. Yuan Weimin, China’s minister of sport at the time, said,

Like all countries, China has certain areas where something is left to be desired. [As China further opens to the world in preparation for the Olympics and for its expected entry into the World Trade Organization, economic progress] will bring along advances in culture, health, education, sport and, not least of all, corresponding progress in human rights causes. [2]

It is likely that Yuan was sincere in his hope that China would improve its human rights situation, and Rogge and Carrard probably really believed the Olympics would help in this regard. That they were wrong—due to shifting power structures within the Chinese government, an upsurge of Chinese nationalism, increasing defensiveness to Western criticism, and a variety of other factors—is the root of the frustration that Alex Thomson, the Channel 4 reporter, expressed in his harsh questions, as well as frustration elsewhere.

It remains to be seen what path China’s vision of modernity will take in the future, and whether the Olympics will have any real impact on that vision. The country’s current intense nationalism means things probably won’t change for a while, and the games have seriously undermined the credibility of the IOC and, of course, the Chinese government in the eyes of those of us who care about human rights.

What about Beijing impact on the Olympics itself? When IOC officials talk about “Olympic values,” what exactly do they mean? In 2001, human rights were clearly included in those values, and privately, some IOC officials now express regret that Beijing was awarded the games. Publicly, they have a different message: Giselle Davies’s comments above focus on infrastructure and the successful operation of the games, and link those factors to “Olympic values.” We must hope that the Beijing games haven’t changed those values for good.

[1] Michael Breen. “China’s ‘very confident’ on its bid for 2000 Olympics; but Asian giant’s rights record may harm its chances.” The Washington Times, 17 September 1993.

[2] Quotes from Rogge, Carrard, and Yuan are from: Jere Longman. “Beijing wins bid for 2008 Olympic Games.” The New York Times, 14 July 2001.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Georgians and Russians in Beijing

News about the conflict between Georgia and Russia has understandably been relegated to secondary news in China. Many people haven't even heard of the war. It's perfectly understandable—why take attention away from the Olympics, which China has been looking forward to for seven years, to report on a conflict involving a country many Chinese haven't even heard of? And, of course, the conflict could involve some unpleasant questions for the Chinese government (which would certainly come down on the side of Russia if pushed), as it might attract attention to China's own problems with separatists. (The Chinese news I've found about the war hasn't mentioned any reactions from Chinese officials.)

However, the background of the war has led to one of the only truly feel-good moments of the Olympics: an embrace by the silver and bronze air pistol medalists, one from Russia and one from Georgia. Isn't this kind of thing supposed to be what the Olympics is all about?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Notes: the opening ceremonies and Bush

I think it’s fair to say the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony took live special effects to a whole new level. The giant unfolding scroll, the Olympic rings that lifted off the ground: the government certainly spared no expense. The ceremonies can hardly be said to be purely “Chinese”—the organizers must have culled technical talent from around the world, under the skilled directorship of Zhang Yimou, a very international auteur. But the impressive level of organization and the strong desire to put on an amazing show were the driving forces behind the spectacle.

As for the content, it seemed to be pretty much the same stuff that big shows at important Chinese events always have, except more so. There was the glorification of Chinese culture (paper, writing, kung fu) and painfully blatant attempts to legitimize the Party (the minorities, in their costumes, carrying the CCP flag and handing it to soldiers). There was the huge number of performers doing random things as if they were filled with meaning, like beating on drums while moving their heads in a certain way, as if this stuff was somehow traditional. And there was the cringe-worthy presence of cutesy kids, singing songs and walking with Yao Ming.

At any rate, the best part of Olympic opening ceremonies is always the long march (no pun intended) of the athletes. To me, it’s one of the most moving representations of our nation-state system: each contingent, in equal standing with all the others, marching behind its flag. The looks on the athletes’ faces make it obvious how ecstatic and proud they are. It’s one of the first images that come to my mind when I imagine diversity without hostility.

President Bush was in the bleachers, looking relaxed and maybe slightly bored. He’s received a lot of flak for his decision not to boycott the ceremony, as well as for his sometimes inconsistent attempts to address human rights and other issues (especially his number one standby, freedom of religion, which of course mainly means less control over Christians). From the New York Times:

Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, who is closely monitoring China’s handling of the Games, said that the president’s speech [at the opening of the new US embassy on Friday] underscored “this administration’s peculiar combination of cowardice and ineptitude in raising these issues directly and effectively with the Chinese leadership.”

She noted that Mr. Bush opted to criticize China while in Thailand, not in China, and that while he met five well-known Chinese dissidents in exile at the White House, he had not publicly spoken out about current political prisoners.

“His administration will receive myriad suggestions about how to improve rights in China but not act on any of them,” she said in an e-mail message. “They will, on the rare occasions they feel compelled to, offer some predictable platitudes about religious freedom being good for China, and they will turn around within a day and subordinate those interests to trade or security imperatives.”

Bush is walking a tricky line. In the US, there tend to be two main political camps when it comes to China: one advocating greater engagement, and one advocating a tough stance. The latter is a mixed bunch, who all have their own agendas. Neoconservatives are concerned with power balances and tend to get hung up on China’s status as a “communist” country. Then there are those who, like Sophie Richardson above, are predominantly concerned with human rights.

It should be clear that taking a consistently hostile stance towards China would be disastrous. You don’t have to know a lot about Chinese nationalism to realize that such a stance would whip up fervent anti-Americanism and boost legitimacy for the Party. On the other hand, staying quiet on issues of human rights is also not an option for a country that seeks to change its image to that of a moral power (a difficult feat, but we’re working on it). Given these complications, I generally think Bush’s treatment of the situation was mature and well thought out. Long ago he pointed out that boycotting the ceremony would be seen in China as a direct affront to the Chinese people. At the same time, in his speeches he made some important points that got to the heart of the Chinese government’s recalcitrance: that China’s leaders should not fear free expression, and that it would, in fact, make the country stronger. His visit included criticism of China’s human rights problems at every step: prior to leaving the US he met with several well-known Chinese dissidents, and he made his points at every speech about China (which drew ire from the Chinese government). His presence at the ceremony unavoidably gave legitimacy to the Party, but he tried to mitigate that effect as best he could by making his reservations clear.

Anyway, enough editorializing. The surge of madness that was the opening ceremony has ended, and it’s retreated to sort of simmering exhilaration, one that won’t end until the closing ceremony. Enjoy the games.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Beijing 2008 and Seoul 1988

I have an essay up at the China Beat, called "Questioning the Olympic Project: Lessons from Seoul."

It looks back at the 1988 Seoul Olympics to highlight parallel themes that are once more making an appearance in China.

You can access it here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Olympic fatigue, part 2

A New York Times article published today tells how the IOC had no choice but to give in to a Chinese ultimatum to censor journalists’ Internet access to certain webpages during the Olympics. There’s a mood of depression and cynicism setting in among those of us who are following the prelude to the Games. Visas are heavily restricted but the Beijing events are sold out: the audience will be mostly Chinese. The news about Olympic preparations in China is all positive, the news abroad is mostly negative. I feel like the Olympics are mainly for the Chinese; everyone else is shut out; who on earth is making these xenophobic decisions? There must be some kind of debate going on inside the government: between those who have lived abroad and understand the hole the country is digging itself into, and those conservatives who don’t understand how Westerners think and who don’t want to relinquish their control. It’s a real shame the latter seem to be winning out.

This quote from an anonymous IOC official, published in a previous Times article, says it all:

Had the I.O.C., and those vested with the decision to award the host city contract, known seven years ago that there would be severe restrictions on people being able to enter China simply to watch the Olympics, or that live broadcasting from Tiananmen Square would essentially be banned, or that reporters would be corralled at the whim of local security, then I seriously doubt whether Beijing would have been awarded the Olympics.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Olympic fatigue

The Olympics are still more than two weeks away, and already I'm sensing some Olympic fatigue.

My own annoyances are both petty and easy to document. For one thing, pirated DVDs are now difficult to find! Another is that the police are paying more attention to foreigners. They’re actually stopping us on the street and asking to see our passports—the law stating foreigners must always have their passports with them has long been on the books, but has rarely been enforced. I also got a personal house call from my friendly local policeman. I guess waiting a few months while they checked out my background, getting a health check, being interviewed by my news company's local handler (for the press card), being interviewed by some toughs at the public security bureau (for the press visa), and registering multiple times at my local police station wasn't enough—they had to send someone around to check on me as well (who proceeded to copy down information from my press card, which one would assume he would already have, since the card was issued by them). I asked him if he was paying me a visit because of the Olympics, and he said, “No, it's for your safety! It's to protect you!” Classic.

But Olympic fatigue from Chinese is much more interesting than my own silly squabbles. Today I had a chat with a workmate in Beijing on MSN (we talked in English and it's mostly unedited):

I just feel weird that it seems the whole country's preparing for the games, everybody~~~but r we really connected to the games...... I mean, its just sport....it should be fun, relaxing..... but see BJ right now.....even missiles around the famous 鸟巢 [Bird's Nest]....what the hell~~~ok, we should protect the games from terrorists.........but its not that fun now.

It seems that we should [be connected to the games] ...the government makes me feel that I should get myself prepared for the games as a host who lives in BJ… it just makes me nervous ... not fun and interesting as i expected… these slogans~~~you can see them everywhere in BJ…. like "give the world a smile"...something like that~~~i may be too emotional....but what if I don't wanna give a smile?

I think this attitude is a symptom of the immense controversy that has surrounded the Games, and the realization by many Chinese that the Games are politicized—not just by foreign protesters, but by the Chinese government as well. In my opinion, the Chinese government, with its absurd insecurity, is more to blame for this souring attitude than foreign protesters (though protesters' glee in disparaging China, and their unwillingness to listen to intelligent Chinese opinions, is sometimes sickening to behold). The government is too anxious about how it will look to the outside world, so it puts up signs outlining in amusing detail how one should behave towards foreigners.


It seems that many people didn't realize the Games have always been politicized and always will be politicized. They just viewed the Olympics as China's chance to show its modernity off to the world, and to be a good host to foreign guests and to the foreign gaze. My workmate expressed some profound sadness about the path the Games have taken:

[I feel] like i wanna hold and host a party~~~as the host, I surely want this party to go well....but I also wanna have fun—that's the reason why i wanna hold a party......if it was not that fun to me, it failed me.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Natural disasters and national formation

When Premier Wen Jiabao visited the Beichuan Middle School in Sichuan soon after the May earthquake, he wrote “Numerous hardships make a nation strong” (多难兴邦), a Chinese aphorism, on the school’s blackboard. The phrase was quickly quoted throughout Chinese media, and the blackboard itself was even preserved, along with Wen's calligraphy. But what of the saying itself? The latest issue of Chinese National Geography includes an interesting article that explores the background of the saying, arguing that it is rooted in the idea that the Chinese nation was fundamentally shaped by the experience of natural disasters.

The article (which is an editorial and hence unsigned) harkens back to the first famous natural disaster in China: the floods that Da Yu, the mythical founder of the Xia dynasty in the 21st century BCE, struggled to control. The author argues that the fact that Da Yu, whose great contribution was flood management, is credited with founding China demonstrates the importance of natural disasters in the makeup of the Chinese nation: “The reason we wanted to found a nation-state (民族国家) was to safeguard ourselves—to combat foreign aggression and to resist natural disasters.” Da Yu, the author writes, was the founder (奠基人) of the nation-state because “one of the most important missions [of the nation-state] is to combat natural disasters.”

This idea has several implications. First, it reinforces the notion of historical continuity and progress, vital preconditions in conceptualizations of nation. The author argues that Chinese history is comprised of an unbroken series of natural disasters, which challenged the Chinese nation and made it stronger, forcing it to progress. This process is evident from the beginning of recorded Chinese history—one of the main preoccupations of the Shang oracle bones was predicting when and where natural disasters might strike (a preoccupation that was certainly seen throughout dynastic history, such as Zhang Heng and his famous seismometer)—and has continued until today:

A culture needs to confront challenge after challenge. In the process of standing up to challenges, [a nation] will have true leaders and the whole country will become united. Only then will there be enough impetus for culture to continue to develop and progress…. It is precisely because the Chinese nation (中华民族) was successful in confronting so many natural disasters that it was able to continuously safeguard Chinese culture over 4000 unbroken years.

Second, the idea of natural disasters as a vital part of the Chinese nation offers a partial explanation for the (alleged) powerful unity of the Chinese people by closely linking the national body and its geography. Focusing on the Warring States period to illustrate this point, the author agues that the problem of surviving natural disasters was a significant factor behind the ideal of eventual (re)unification that ran through the period. The author uses famines as an example: if one of the seven states of the period was suffering a famine, it would look towards one of the other states for relief. That such relief was rarely forthcoming strengthened the desire for unity. “Natural disaster after natural disaster forged the most important thing for the Chinese people—a united national consciousness,” the author concludes. “A baptism of blood and fire that lasted for thousands of years resulted in the obtainment of this priceless treasure.” This is why the Chinese people value unity so much: “I believe an important reason why the idea of unity has so deeply entered the marrow of the Chinese people is natural disasters.”

The article also points to the future, offering the certainty of future natural disasters as a reason to continue civilizational progress. In so doing, the author makes a subtle but interesting comparison between Japan’s handling of natural disasters and Da Yu’s. The author points out that in Japan, another very earthquake-prone country, the numbers of deaths and toppled buildings caused by earthquakes have diminished. “The real tragedy is that, even though we [here in China] have seen earthquakes again and again, we still pay the price of massive numbers of dead. [In the latest earthquake] we saw how school buildings collapsed while buildings standing beside them were safe and sound. We must admit that our civilization has a problem.” (Something many readers will know is that many of the buildings that survived the earthquake were government buildings; anti-corruption measures might therefore be part of the author’s vision of national progress.)

How has Japan managed to lower its earthquake casualties? By following Da Yu’s example, the article implies. “[Da Yu] treated flood control as a long process, a process that, though it had many difficulties, was nevertheless on the whole unremarkable…. The essence of Da Yu’s flood control efforts was that natural disasters are part of normal life.” The author writes that natural disasters create many short-term heroes, but Da Yu, though his efforts were not dramatic, was a long-term hero because he labored over many years to create a strong infrastructure against the potential of natural disasters. Again, while not saying so explicitly, this remark perhaps points to media coverage of the Sichuan earthquake, which focused on the individual heroism of rescuers but often failed to address the larger problems of poorly-constructed buildings, the frequent ineffectiveness of government response, and other issues.

Numerous hardships may make a nation strong, but intelligent safeguards represent true progress. The article ends with a final exhortation: to build a statue of Da Yu in front of an earthquake museum in Sichuan. The implication is that Da Yu’s example, if less dramatic, would be far more useful than the image of countless soldiers clawing through rubble with their hands.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Back in the States

Back in the States, little things have popped out at me that, in China, are front-and-center. The customs officer at the airport was ethnically Chinese and said his family was from Shanghai; he earnestly asked me if I thought Chinese people are friendly and seemed relieved when I said yes. The official NBC store in New York had Beijing Olympics souvenirs on a couple of small shelves alongside shirts for Friends and 30 Rock, as if it was just one more event alongside those shows, and not the most important thing ever to happen ever.

New York, as always, is full of big, delightful surprises. While walking down Sixth Avenue yesterday I saw a big parade with various immigrant groups displaying their cultural dances, clothes, and flags. There was a group representing dear Colombia…

And sparkling Thailand…

And there was an especially large contingent of flags from countries that are controversial or formally nonexistent, such as Puerto Rico…

South Vietnam…


And Tibet.

…Including a map that would raise fists as well as eyebrows back in China.

These last groups, especially the latter, were not just interested in showing off their “culture”: they had an agenda. Pro-Tibetan activists weaved through the crowd, handing out pamphlets. Thankfully I didn’t see any Chinese nationalist protesters, as they have a reputation for violence when confronted with those with whom they strongly disagree. I did, however, see evidence of their insecurity earlier in Minneapolis, at the University of Minnesota. Stretching across the Mississippi is a bridge that connects the east and west banks, and the two sides of the campus. Along the bridge is an indoor passageway, presumably used mainly during Minnesota’s biting winter. And along the sides of the passageway student groups had posted information about themselves—a nice visual celebration of campus life, which is, after all, really just one small but very active civil society.

Included in the lineup was a group advocating for a free Tibet. The group had appropriated the Olympics slogan “One world, one dream” (could Beijing have come up with a slogan easier to use for various purposes?) to advocate for a free Tibet, the implication being, I suppose, that every nation in the world had a right to its own state. A passer-by, however, clearly couldn’t handle even this small act of defiance, and vandalized the sign by writing “No free Tibet” and “Tibet will never be independent.”

Pro-Tibet protesters can, of course, be just as irritating and ignorant as Chinese nationalist protesters. But the deeper point is that they may say whatever they like and they may wave whatever piece of cloth they want to. I like the fact that, here, these issues are simply incorporated into the larger milieu of opinions, and no one is privileged within the general discourse (in theory at least, and, to a sometimes surprising extent, in practice as well). The country is made up of thousands of little issues, all the more striking after living in a place where a couple of “big” issues are crammed down your throat day in and day out.

Next week back to China and the media meatgrinder.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Among women in Minnesota

I’m in the States at the moment and, for reasons I won’t go into, I’ve found myself tagging along at the Berkshire conference on the history of women, held at the beautiful University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Most of the conference participants are women, as can be expected, though I don’t see why this should necessarily be the case in the long run—many panels deal with issues that would fascinate historians who don’t primarily focus on women’s history. At any rate, it has been very interesting to learn more about the field.

I’ve gravitated towards panels dealing with Asian women’s histories, but the most exciting talks were in a panel included in the conference at the last minute, entitled “Clinton and Obama: Historians Reflect on Historic Candidacies.” Yes, this blog does deal primarily with China, but I am in the U.S., I am excited about the election, and it is a personal blog after all, on which I can write about whatever I wish! But I promise it will not turn into a blog about American politics.

The auditorium in which the panel was held was overflowing; it was one of the most extraordinary presentations I’ve ever seen. Picture this: a roomful of extremely intelligent, extremely knowledgeable, extremely well regarded feminist American historians. Many have an activist background; their speaking skills are forceful; they have something to fight for. They delve deep into the workings of the primary season that has just come to a close.

Most were furious at Hillary Clinton, though all were excited about how far a woman (and a black man) managed to get in the political process. Here’s a list of some of the points they brought up that I made note of—I just wish I could replicate the energy in the room and the forcefulness of the argumentation.

American media often cast the democratic primary contest as “gender vs. race.” This is a false dichotomy and harmful to the overall progressive cause. In addition, media coverage has revealed much misuse and misunderstanding of terms like “gender”—people say gender when they mean sex. Americans don’t have a sufficient understanding of categories of analysis when it comes to gender conceptualizations.

Jesse Jackson has frequently been invoked in the media and by politicians such as Bill Clinton as a warning—he has been painted as a candidate purely of black grievance. That is false; in reality he had wide support and won several primary contests.

While Hillary Clinton was able to rouse people based on gender (though she didn’t base her campaign on a feminist agenda), Obama has been reluctant to rouse people based on race—he wants to avoid the appearance of an angry black man seeking power, as that would scare people away. He partially succeeded in working through this problem with his remarkable speech on the complexities of race in America. In addition, he largely succeeded in depicting a non-threatening masculinity, though in the process he worked to separate himself from “blackness”—if he were darker or if he were more closely associated with activist black politics he would not be the Democratic candidate for President.

Very few people know of women who have run for President, but there are several—Shirley Chisholm, Margaret Chase Smith, and many, many more. Why have they been so ignored in histories of American politics? Students have said that men have many presidential role models, but women don’t—this should not be the case. There is severe ignorance about the history of female presidential candidates in the latter half of the twentieth century.

While the glass ceiling has been cracked (as Clinton said) or shattered (as Obama said), it will be difficult for future women candidates to gather the same kind of resources that Clinton had at her disposal. However, the barrier has been breached, and a woman President is now more of a normative concept.

Many participants voiced appreciation that John Edwards raised the class question during the primaries. That is often a hidden issue; in this election, there has been a “gender question” or a “race question” but class has often been left out, a common feature of American politics. One participant speculated that Edwards may have asked Obama to work on class before endorsing him.

Hillary performed well as a woman pretending to be a man. The “masculine mystique” has become a very important discourse in American politics, especially since 1964: Reagan and Bush succeeded in deploying it, while Dukakis (riding in the tank) and Kerry (windsurfing) were depicted by their opponents as non-masculine. In the 19th century presidential candidates did often include “domesticity” in their images, such as being good fathers. This is still present to an extent, but has been overridden by “toughness.” Hillary made passing the “masculine test” her top priority with her focus on the military, the red phone ad, etc. But she got left behind when Obama did well in deploying an anti-war message. The next female candidate for President should challenge the masculine mystique itself, and focus instead on a humanist message. (As one participant put it, “George Bush-like men are not helpful for the environment and other living things”—why should we subscribe to that kind of tough masculinity?)

Finally, a participant said that America is a “sick country” and we still have an enormous amount of work to do. I would note, however, that discussions about race, gender, and other social issues in America—discussions such as this panel itself—are remarkable in their depth and their vitality. Coming as I do from working in journalism in China, where the media and intellectuals are, publicly at least, deathly silent on issues such as minority rights, race, and gender—“everyone is happy and everything is fine, just fine”—the vigor of the debate in the U.S. is stunning. We have come so far, and though we have a long way to go, intellectuals like the ones I heard at this panel don’t make the future depressing, they make it exciting.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Moving forward

During an internship I once did at an American consulate in China, a disheartening experience was walking through the doors each day and seeing three faces smiling down at me: Bush, Cheney, and Rice (though Cheney’s wasn’t a smile so much as an attempt at a smile). The harm that the Bush presidency has done to America’s image around the world was often most acute in its embassies and consulates. Occasionally it was almost a palpable feeling; at some functions it hung in the air like a noxious fume.

Now that a change in those three portraits can finally be glimpsed over the horizon, and now that the primaries have finally wrapped up and we’re getting down to the general election, I’ve been thinking more about why exactly I support Obama. This blog is as good a place as any to unpack my reasoning—which, as should be evident, is not unconnected to my experiences in China.

An ideal scenario is already impossible. I wish McCain had won the election in 2000, served for eight years, and a Bush-like character—perhaps the Decider himself—would now lose in 2008. I like John McCain—I think he’s honest and a healthy product of American politics. This election is a contest between two qualified individuals who are both closer to the mainstream than they are to their parties’ extremes. That is, after all, what American presidential elections should be like—it would be fine if either candidate won, unlike in 2000, in which the election results led to a disastrous presidency and immense harm to America.

But McCain is less fine than Obama. He represents insider politics, he supported key aspects of Bush’s policies that he simply shouldn’t have, and he’s an old white man. In theory that last point shouldn’t matter—if we’re truly supposed to be colorblind, shouldn’t race not be a factor? Shouldn’t we concentrate on the issues and not on race or age, which are merely symbols and are meaningless to good governance? Probably. But the fact is that race and age do matter. What is politics if not symbolism? The good that actually gets done usually happens away from the spotlight; now more than ever the vital role of the President is not as bureaucrat but as inspiration.

I don’t care much about “the issues.” McCain and Obama are candidates of major political parties in the United States. We basically know how they will behave when it comes to specific policies, and we can become familiar with excellent debates about the important issues in American politics (especially domestic ones) by reading editorial pages and by watching West Wing. Obama is remarkable not because he really has anything new to say but because he is so interesting and so exciting, an opinion shared not only at home but abroad as well. Jeremiah over at the Granite Studio recently wrote about those who are skeptical that Obama can win because they don’t think Americans are capable of getting past the racial factor. Another, perhaps subconscious, reservation is the miserable weight of the Bush presidency. How can a population that elected someone like Bush—and it did legitimately elect him in 2004, even if many votes were cast out of fear—turn around and choose someone as vastly different as Obama?

If it does, and if the doubts that Americans can get past race are overcome, it will be a terrific blow in favor of the United States’ work around the world. This is the root of my support for Obama—America’s reputation internationally. Domestic politics will change slowly and with legitimate input from many groups. That’s how American politics is designed to operate, and that kind of gradual change has worked well for us. But internationally, the President and his foreign policy will really matter. If Obama is elected we’ll show the world that we aren’t willing to put up with torture, arrogance, and hubris. We’ll show the world that we are one of the few countries that are mature enough to elect someone of not just a minority but an ethnic minority, the clearest of them all. We’ll show that our political stability enables us to peacefully enact a sea change in worldview and personality in the most powerful institution in the country, the office of the President. And by getting serious about issues like human rights and the environment we’ll show the world that we can be—we want to be—a responsible member of the international community.

In short, we’ll take a giant step forward in restoring America’s moral authority, which will be all-important as the global power structure shifts in the coming years. The United States’ best hope is not to be a preeminent economic or military power but a moral one. Its power will decline but it can find a new role for itself in its moral weight. In argument after argument with Chinese nationalists, they bring up the legitimate point that for an American to criticize human rights abuses or mistreatment of minorities is deeply hypocritical. The best counter to this is that we’ve succeeded in working through many of our problems through open and uncensored discussions in our civil society, but an Obama victory would show that we’re truly serious about moving forward. Remarkable leaders have been vital in the United States' historic rise; they will be equally vital in its decline.

Like much of the world I look forward to the coming campaign, and like many Americans I look forward to casting my vote for Obama in November. Most of all, I look forward to seeing his face on the wall the next time I walk into an American consulate. That'll be a smile I can believe in.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Thoughts about the earthquake

Yesterday we had a three minute silence for the earthquake victims, as ordered by the State Council. Everyone stopped working, and on the street people stood in silence and cars stopped on the road. Cars blew their horns and the city set off its air raid sirens. It was really a remarkable display of united grief.

Many people logged off MSN for the three minutes as well, and put a little rainbow in front of their MSN names. (In parenthesis: Why has MSN become such a medium of showing your loyalties and your fervor for China? It’s sometimes overdone: If you don’t have a heart, you don’t love China! MSN is a new way of enforcing the mass line—and one that only targets those who have access to computers.)

This disaster is especially heartbreaking because of the sickeningly high number of schools that collapsed. There have been some tough questions about why those buildings so easily fell down. Government officials are making a public display of indignation. Hopefully something will actually be done. Fate is so cruel—if the earthquake had happened one day earlier, those kids would not have been at school.

All over Shanghai, donation drives are being held in parks and on the street. The names of people who donated to earthquake victims are posted in each neighborhood in Shanghai, with the least amount donated at the bottom of the list and the most donated at the top, and people really stop to inspect them. This may be an effort to ward off corruption, but it also seems kind of rotten to make how much you give public information.

Enforced mourning—you see it in many forms. Last night on TV, every station—every station—showed earthquake news (as ordered by the government). No soap operas, no movies, no other news that I saw. It was really striking. In a country with over 1.1 billion TV viewers, in a culture where most families turn on the TV in the evening as a matter of course, and leave it on, it was impossible to escape this news.

There was also news about Western coverage of the earthquake. (Only in insecure China is there news exclusively about news!) I found myself watching clips from CNN and Fox last night, with the Chinese anchors remarking how all the world is sorry about the earthquake. (Watching Fox again, even for just a moment, made me remember what a disgusting station it is—the Fox anchor was oohing and aahing and sighing. It’s CCTV’s rival—who can most handily disseminate propaganda?)

All the unfettered coverage is of course a remarkable event for China, and, as many have pointed out, it really shows how far China has come since the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. What is truly encouraging is that a couple hours after the quake, the government ordered Chinese journalists not to travel to Sichuan to report on it—instead, the news would go through state media—but many journalists just ignored the order. Later, the government changed its mind. Perhaps the message is finally getting through that free media makes a country stronger, not weaker. Even the Myanmar government seems to be paying attention: the leader of the junta recently pulled off a Wen Jiabao and went to the hardest-hit areas to commiserate with the victims, and the country is now letting in more aid. Thank goodness China didn’t follow the route of Burma. Seeing the two disasters side by side—one with real relief efforts and mostly unfettered media access, the other driven by pride, selfishness, and stupidity—emphasizes how far China has come since 1976.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The state and the war hero

Recently I saw two war movies, one from my country of origin and one from my country of residence: Flags of our Fathers, Clint Eastwood’s remarkable interrogation of wartime narratives of patriotism; and Assembly, Feng Xiaogang’s sympathetic look at the horrors of China’s civil war. Flags is about that famous photograph that is engraved in the memory of just about every American: a group of soldiers hastily raising the American flag above the battleground of Iwo Jima. Clint Eastwood’s objective is fairly clear. He explores the background of the battle itself, displaying its messiness and showing how a narrative of heroism was built around it. By doing so he undermines the kind of simplistic patriotism that is often constructed during wartime; his movie is starkly different from the films about the “good war” that we are used to, and it is a testament to how far war movies have come in America.

Assembly came out a year later and deals with roughly the same time period. The setting is China in 1948, during the war between the communist party and the nationalist party. In its own way, Assembly is also a testament to how far war films have come in China: the Chinese civil war, when it is dealt with in popular entertainment at all, has in the past depicted the Guomindang as villainous. In Assembly, the Guomindang is hardly dealt with at all. Instead, the film focuses on a captain on the communist side, Gu Zidi, who leads his unit in a desperate struggle against advancing GMD forces. In the ensuing battle everyone is wiped out except him. The second half of the film is set after the war; it is taken up by Gu trying to gain recognition for his unit’s sacrifice and bravery.

It is striking to view Flags alongside Assembly, because the films are starkly different in how they depict the relationship between the state and the war hero. In Flags, the state is an intrusive, disruptive force. The soldiers have their own private experiences that a simple narrative of bravery couldn’t possibly encompass. The government seeks to use their painful experiences for its own ends; the film explores how subjective and messy experiences can be appropriated for the needs of the nation-state.

In Assembly, however, the war hero’s subjectivity is intimately bound to recognition by the state. In the second half of the movie, Gu goes to great lengths to achieve that recognition. Because he is the only survivor of the battle it is difficult to corroborate the story of his unit’s fight. He tries to find evidence of his soldiers’ heroism, including traveling to the battleground, which has since become a coal mine, and digging until he finds the remains of his comrades. Perhaps the film’s most powerful scene is when the state finally gives him the recognition he needs by putting on an official ceremony and pinning a medal on his chest. In Flags such ceremonies are depicted as hollow and meaningless; in Assembly, it is the pinnacle of Gu’s quest, and lets him live out the rest of his life in peace.

It would be possible to argue that this kind of depiction of the state in Assembly comes from the stiff control the communist government has over public discussions of its wars, and that if given absolutely free rein, Feng Xiaogang would have done it differently. This is no doubt true, to an extent. But as several sources have pointed out, including this blog, state-society relations are extremely different in China than they are in Western countries, and these two films’ depictions of the influence of the state reflect their different historical sensibilities. Both films are products of their locales. To put it much too simply, in America state/society relations are often characterized by tension, and in China they are often characterized by linkage.

The different frameworks of state/society relations that these movies depict lie behind the impression many Chinese have these days that Western critics are out to get China. They also lie behind the shock many Westerners feel when they realize that even Chinese who have access to various points of view are stridently nationalistic. I’m not sure how these misunderstandings can be cleared up—often the two sides seem to be talking past each other rather than with each other—but perhaps watching more movies is a good place to start.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Made-up words

This little passage has been making the rounds among the Chinese nationalists who, instead of simply boiling over with anger, are also seeking to find a reasonable response to Western criticism (this translation copied from here):

We tried Communism to equalize; you hated us for being Communists.
Now we embrace free trade and privatize; you berated us for being mercantilist
(And since you made up that word, you must know what it means, as we don’t).
Halt! You demanded: a billion-[point]-three who eat well will destroy the planet!
So we tried birth control, then you blasted us for human rights abuse.

The passage succinctly demonstrates the intense frustration many Chinese have with foreign criticism of and interference in their country, a frustration that goes back more than a century. The type of nationalist anger we are seeing now first clearly manifested itself in the May Fourth Movement that started in 1919, when, to the fury of Chinese nationalists, the Treaty of Versailles failed to give China territory and benefits Chinese thought they deserved—and, to make matters worse, privileged Japan. Many of the same themes exist in the current nationalist uproar as in the May Fourth Movement: a focus on youth as the driving force of resistance, a feeling that foreigners are ganging up against China, an intense anxiety that China will be carved up and her sovereignty violated, solidarity with Chinese diaspora scattered around the world, and, finally, frustration at the inability of the Chinese state to successfully resist foreign criticism.

After all these years, and after all of the misery China has gone through, one can sense a certain weariness among Chinese nationalists. China has simply tried its best, the argument goes. Give it a break!

The root issue is that no one—not foreigners, not Chinese—is really sure what China should become. Gorbachev once made the trenchant observation that the root of the Cold War was America’s desire for Russia to become a “normal country.” But who defines what a “normal country” is? Chinese frustrations stem from the fact that it has, since 1978, attempted to become “normal,” but that goal is highly ambiguous. It has developed its economy according to the guidelines of modernization theory and liberal economics. It has opened the country to foreigners, and it allows its citizens to travel abroad. It has raised an estimated 300 million people—the size of the United States—out of poverty. It has, for the most part, stopped interfering in people’s private lives. Still the criticism continues. The conclusion that many Chinese draw is that the West is merely afraid of China, and its criticism is driven by jealously and anxiety.

It is difficult for Chinese to work through the ambiguities of modernity because of the intense control of public and intellectual dialogue that exists in the country. Western intellectuals have of course become severely disillusioned with modernization theory and the modern project; in the 1990s, Chinese intellectuals began to critically examine China’s newfound embrace of liberal economics as well. Yet these ideas have little opportunity to seep into mainstream discourse. When the New York Times publishes its critical articles about China, which often focus on poverty, environmental degradation, corruption, connections between government and capital, widening gaps between rich and poor—in short, the pitfalls of capitalism—it is drawing, if unconsciously, on a massive intellectual base that is severely disillusioned with the promises of “modernity.” In China, that intellectual base has little opportunity to make itself known in public discourse.

The lack of public discourse has also created misunderstanding about how Western media works. Yes, much Western media is heavily biased against China. Yes, Cafferty’s remarks on CNN were hostile and ignorant—as American commentators’ remarks so often are. But to extend that hostility and ignorance to all Western media demonstrates profound unawareness of the complexity of free media. Stupid people may voice their opinions just as freely as anyone else; it’s the process that's important.

Indeed, after seeing nationalist fury unfold around me it’s become clearer than ever that the key to a healthy civil society (not that that term is free of Eurocentrism either!) is unhindered public conversation. In the 1950s during the anti-Communist hysteria surrounding the McCarthy hearings, the United States was united in its nationalist zeal. Over time, however, as people calmed down, the media and intellectuals began to question what had happened, and where they had erred. Americans worked it out for themselves, and American civil society became stronger as a result. Much of the hysteria in contemporary China comes from the inability of people to work out their issues of nationalism, modernity, progress, and all the complexities of contemporary life on their own, in a free and public discussion. No one can say what the definitive meanings of those terms are. What matters is the process of trying to find out.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Love China love China love China

On Wednesday morning on the bus, I caught sight of the headline of a newspaper over someone’s shoulder: “CNN must apologize!” Oh no, I thought. What’s happened now? At work I turned on my computer and thought I had stumbled onto some kind of strange cult. Nearly every Chinese person on my MSN list had a “(heart) China” in front of his or her name. One workmate logged on and thought her computer had a virus.

Every major Chinese newspaper in the country had the same headline story: Cafferty, a CNN commentator, has insulted the Chinese people. He called the Chinese people “goons” and “thugs.” He must apologize to the Chinese people.

Naturally, there was no mention of the CNN statement emphasizing that Cafferty was, in fact, talking about the Chinese government, not the people (which is abundantly obvious to anyone who is familiar with these American right-wing anti-China folk). There were no interviews with any Americans, who might have mentioned that CNN, and other mass media news stations, are full of such angry, hostile commentators, and they frequently make angry, hostile statements—and that, in fact, there is other Western media besides CNN. No editorial brought up the fact that Cafferty made his statement last week, and was only now being reported—could this not indicate a sudden purposeful campaign to drum up anti-Western sentiment?

Such propaganda is nothing new in China. What was really disturbing, though, was the extent to which people bought it. Educated people who had traveled abroad were saying things to me like, “If he comes here, he’d better watch out!” Some people expressed a mere love for country, but no one considered the timing. Loving your country is no evil thing, but the circumstances of this outpouring of patriotism belie its good intent. Blind, manipulated patriotism that is fueled by hatred and misunderstanding is something every country can do without. I, as an American, know that all too well.

Though there’s no reason to have expected it would be any different, I can’t help but be shocked at the government’s treatment of the whole situation. Is it really a good idea to be stoking anti-Western sentiment on the eve of the Olympics? Doesn’t anyone realize that this violent show of nationalism is scaring people away? Is that what Chinese people really want?

On my MSN list, one brave Chinese friend had something different: “(heart) United Nations.” I’ll end with a cynical comment from him (he wrote in English, and I straightened it up a bit):

Me: Did anyone get mad at you for not putting "(heart) China" [in your MSN]?

Him: Of course not, nobody cares. Chinese are sometimes united, but a plate of sand most times. I’m Chinese, I’m not betraying my motherland, nobody intends to. You know, if China becomes enlightened, it will be the same, no matter how modern it appears.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Graying hair

An editorial in the New York Times on Sunday by Matthew Forney asks why educated young Chinese have an “unquestioning support of their government.” Forney writes, “The most obvious explanation for this is the education system, which can accurately be described as indoctrination.” Yet if this is the case, why are the most fervent young nationalists educated youth, most of whom can speak English, and many of whom have traveled abroad? Whenever youth rise up in any country, it’s common to claim they are “brainwashed” by some higher power—just think of reactions to the 1960s protests around the world—but such a simplistic explanation is way off the mark. It implies that China’s nationalists can’t think for themselves, and it implies that they are being effortlessly manipulated by China’s leaders.

In thinking about why Chinese nationalists wholeheartedly support their government when it comes to Tibet, it would be more helpful to think about the framework in which that support is expressed than to focus on some kind of indoctrination. Arguments I've had with Chinese nationalists display a deep-seated sensitivity towards criticism by outsiders. To expats it is clear the government is a liar and a cheat. But what is really infuriating is not the government itself, which merely provides a handy focus of irritation, but people’s reactions to it. After all, everyone in China knows the media is controlled, but few people care when it comes to Tibet.

Of course the government dissembles, hides truths, stokes nationalism, and all the rest (thinks the American visitor)—that’s what governments do. The idea of the Bush administration governing during the last seven-plus years without strong, reasonable voices in the media countering government mistruths is so horrifying that it’s impossible for many Americans to contemplate. Yet in China, visitors from the United States encounter just that kind of one-sided correlation between government and civil society. Jeremiah Jenne, among others, has pointed out that the contemporary Chinese relationship between the state and civil society is very different than it is in Euro-America—in China, the “state” and the “people” (both very slippery concepts) are often conflated. In the U.S., however, they are constantly in tension. (That’s why Americans often find the idea of communism—in which the government always and automatically acts in the best interests of the people—so wacky). When an American in China makes a complaint about the Chinese government, she expects a local to either agree or disagree—that is, to engage in a debate within the framework of civil society/government tension. She assumes that the “state” and the “people” are separate, and a member of the latter can choose to agree with the policies of the former, or not. When, instead, the Chinese person becomes offended that a foreigner is criticizing “China,” the debate often descends into simplistic arguments about which country is “better,” and the poor American finds herself trying to defend her country’s politics, which is certainly no easy feat.

Thus during the snowstorms at the beginning of the year many Chinese were quick to point out the atrocious American response to Hurricane Katrina. During the Tibetan protests, many Chinese brought up historical American treatment of Native Americans or African Americans (but, I should add, never American treatment of Japanese during World War II—that’s one I’m still waiting to hear). Indeed, China’s relationship to Tibetans has a lot of similarities to the United States’ treatment of Native Americans. Both minorities have been thought of as uncivilized and of needing strong support to progress. In fact, China’s treatment of Tibetans is undoubtedly better—Tibetans, after all, were not forced to leave their land, and they are afforded many social privileges that Han Chinese do not have. Of course, if China’s argument rests on the idea that it treats Tibetans better than the United States treated Native Americans, well, it’s difficult to think of fainter praise.

One of the biggest political differences between the U.S. and China, then, is not the relative benevolence of the two countries’ governments—both have dark pasts and presents—but the ability and willingness of people in those countries to question their governments in the face of obstinacy. In fact, there is no reason to think that, if there were a free press in China, the country would continue to see such one-sided discourse. Historically, this has certainly not been the case, and it is often not the case now. Chinese intellectuals are extremely vibrant; many have spoken out against Chinese policy in Tibet; and, more generally, a large part of the most exciting critical research on contemporary China has been produced by Chinese. Yet these intellectuals have no voice in popular media. Instead, they are replaced by shrill nationalists and pseudo-political scientists who take umbrage whenever a foreigner remarks that, just maybe, the government might be wrong.

My biggest desire is that people on both sides of the issue settle down. Sometimes I have to remind myself to do so as well. I remember something a Middle East politics professor once said in relation to his own topic of anguish: "I worried about Lebanon for years and years," he told us. "But all it got me was a head of gray hairs."