Saturday, July 11, 2009

Evan Osnos, Xinjiang, and Chinese civil society

A quick plug for Evan Osnos's blog, for its well-researched takes on the Xinjiang riots. Though Osnos's history can sometimes be a bit fudgy (I took issue with his brief sum-up of race relations in China contained in this article), when it comes to current affairs, his knowledge and contacts are impressive. In his analysis of the unrest in Xinjiang, it is refreshing that he does not set up an automatic juxtaposition between the undercurrents of discrimination in Xinjiang, and the Chinese insistence that any problems are caused by outside agitators. That's the angle that most western reporting has taken. It's true enough, but it's not the whole story.

If one focuses solely on the government's stance towards minorities in China, or on the nationalist hysteria best represented by the "angry youth," the situation really looks bleak, with little hope of the kind of cross-cultural understanding and empathy that can improve race relations in a country. And if we compare the current situation in China to pre-1960s America (the kind of comparison that, though hopelessly problematic, is made so often that it becomes something one must address), the country does not appear to be on the brink of the kind of radical cultural shift that the United States experienced in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly because China, because of tight control and widespread nationalist thinking, does not have the kind of "marketplace of ideas" that enabled to the US to change so fundamentally.

And yet, when one ignores supercilious government pronouncements and actually reads some of the non-fenqing commentary on Chinese websites, as Osnos does, there does seem to be some hope. First, he notes (as no one else seems to have done) that the problems in Xinjiang aren't only about race; they are also a reflection of the economic and political inequality that has accompanied the rapid development of the Chinese economy. In addressing the problems in Xinjiang, China must also address deep-rooted problems with modern society that exist across the country. And in another post, Osnos summarizes an essay about the riots written by a well-known Chinese journalist and consultant, which takes the government for task for some of its acts of mismanagement of the riots.

Osnos's observations get at a phenomenon that has become increasingly apparent in the past couple years: though more and more moderate voices are having their say in China, both online and in mainstream publications, they are very rarely mentioned in mainstream western reportage about Chinese politics and society. Even venerable publications such as the New York Times tend to focus on the more shrill voices. This kind of reporting isn't inaccurate, but it is incomplete. Chinese civil society is becoming more diverse than many people realize—editorials, blog posts, and reporting, often in mainstream magazines and newspapers, are often surprisingly nuanced. But evidence of this is sorely lacking in English-language news about China.

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