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."