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.

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