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."

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Ministry of Industry and Informatization

A recent pair of jeans came with a label with a girl in pigtails wearing jeans, a bra, and big, square-shaped glasses. She gives the camera a disdainful glance: she’s a rebel. The label says, “L.d.s. denims. Retro funk. How is the female body shown to SEXY and GLAMOUROUS, or is it felt? WE propose the foundation of GLAMOUROUS LIFE.”

I love these kinds of ads. You can find them everywhere in China: on shirts, on billboards, on bags. Chinese advertisers use their limited English to translate from Chinese, and expats spend a good chunk of their time making fun of them. Usually it’s possible to figure out what the advertisers wanted to say, but sometimes it’s not. (Another favorite says: “BLOOK. God continent row blook. God continent numerous blook. All kinds of blook IP. Move zone.” That’s an advertisement for phone cards, isn’t it obvious?)

Stores will spend vast amounts of money making huge, elaborate signs with atrocious English. In a central part of Shanghai, where thousands of foreigners walk every day, there’s an ad for tourism to Heilongjiang with absolutely terrible English grammar. The prominent location must have cost a bundle: couldn’t the advertiser have taken five minutes of his life to go on the street and ask one of Shanghai’s thousands and thousands of foreigners whether the English was correct? Even top government institutions make these kinds of mistakes. When talking about the telecom industry, the government uses the word “informatization” all the time, which makes perfect sense in Chinese (信息化 xinxihua), but not in English.

At bottom, Chinese ads, in Chinese, are just as stupid as American ones. They use the same tricks: pretty girls, flashy graphics, the assertion that everyone’s doing it! But when they’re translated to English, they become silly, and their purpose is starkly clear, enough to make you cringe. “WE propose the foundation of GLAMOROUS LIFE”: for an English speaker, it’s obvious what they’re trying to do—make you think these pants will make you glamorous—but it’s so silly that it fails miserably.

Because of their (unintended) ability to reveal the tricks and the absurdity that lie behind the logic of advertising, Chinese ads in English are extremely useful. Capitalism in China is more immature than in the U.S. and other advanced capitalist countries, so it is easier to spot marketing strategies. Advertising here, after all, uses the same underlying strategies that accompany consumer capitalism in advanced capitalist societies (just go to the business section of a Chinese bookstore to see where businesspeople are getting their ideas), but when it is done so badly, the silliness is exhibited in full. I’m reminded of an interesting argument in feminist theory, which says that pornography can serve a useful purpose because it puts underlying societal gender relationships on stark, cringe-worthy display; these ads do the same for the logic of consumer capitalism: advertisers must appeal to us in the most simplistic, egocentric ways, invoking our need to feel good about ourselves. Chinese advertisers use the same logic as American advertisers, but do it badly, thus rendering it obvious, funny, and, in a way, harmless.