Saturday, October 9, 2010

Liu Xiaobo

Ah, it took Liu Xiaobo to pull me out of my blogging hiatus. It was strange to think that, while walking through Shanghai this afternoon, most people on the street -- people who don’t have access to foreign media or unblocked Internet -- had not heard the news, or even heard of Liu Xiaobo. (Even more alarming is the fact that Liu Xiaobo himself, sitting in a jail in Liaoning province, has probably not heard that he has been awarded the prize.) In the rest of the world it’s front page news, but in China the government has scrubbed clean any mention of this humiliating slap in the face -- all the more humiliating because of the immense value Chinese tend to put on the Nobel Prize.

Almost as soon as the announcement was made, analysts began arguing that the choice of Liu as this year’s recipient will likely cause more harm than good, at least in the short term -- the Chinese government, with its fragile temperament, does not react well to being humiliated, and its response so far has borne this out. But it’s worth remembering that this momentous news comes on the heels of several smaller stirrings of change in China. There are signs of a renewed debate within the government about political reform. Judging from much of the reporting about Liu Xiaobo in the western media, one could be forgiven for thinking that Liu is a diehard anti-government activist. In fact, many Chinese elites in the public realm -- in government and in mainstream media -- subscribe to many of the same ideas. Like Liu Xiaobo, they think China’s judiciary should be stronger and more independent; that the government is ruled by special interests; that censorship stifles innovation and creativity. Even Wen Jiabao, who stood beside Zhao Ziyang in 1989 and then quieted down, has recently made some muted calls for political reform. And I continue to be amazed by some of the material in the Chinese media, especially newspaper and magazine editorials. To take but one example, the southern magazine Nan Feng Chuang recently published a cover story dedicated to criticizing the stifling of free speech in China and the lack of rule of law.

These calls for change aren't as strident as Liu Xiaobo’s. They do not directly criticize China's leaders, and they almost never indicate the underlying problem of China’s political system: that the CCP is unwilling to share power with anybody, or even tolerate any hint that it should share power. And yet, I can’t help but have the feeling that this is a new decade. In the coming years I believe the political climate in China will resemble the ferment of the 1980s more than the clampdown of the 1990s.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Who owns Chinese culture? A view from DC

The annual Chinese New Year celebration held in Washington’s Chinatown is meant to showcase Chinese culture, but, as is so often the case with celebrating a national culture, this year’s celebration had political overtones. H street, between 6th and 7th streets, was lined with American and Taiwanese flags (right under the “Friendship Archway,” erected to celebrate DC’s friendship with its sister city of Beijing). Vendors sold the ‘ol “Blue Sky, White Sun, and a Wholly Red Earth” to passing spectators. Who was this parade for? What was its purpose?

Well, it was sponsored by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, an umbrella group serving the interests of Chinese-Americans. The CCBA has strong pro-Taiwanese sympathies; on its website, it states, “Despite enticements and threats from the Chinese Communist Government, the CCBA rejected their entreaties and remained loyal to the Republic of China Government on Taiwan.”

I admit, I had no idea the group’s loyalty to Taiwan was so pronounced. Though it claims it does not discriminate against immigrants from the mainland, its political stance, so blatantly on display at the new year celebration, must alienate some mainland Chinese living in the US. At the celebration I found myself next to a smiling man wearing a large scarf with the Taiwanese flag on it. Another Chinese man came up and, in an accent that was decidedly non-Taiwanese, asked him about the scarf -- where he got it, how much it cost. “But the US and Taiwan have no relations,” he said. The scarf-clad man replied, “It’s not that there are no relations...” and that was the end of it. The man walked away, in a bit of a huff. Later, I overheard three Chinese girls, most likely from the mainland, talking about the Taiwanese flags hung along the street. “What’s up with all these Taiwanese flags?” one asked. “Oh, it’s a type of brainwashing in America,” another replied.

The highlight of the celebration involved dancing dragons, but many of the dancers were not Chinese. The vast majority of spectators were not Chinese. The vendors selling Taiwanese flags and firecrackers were not Chinese. And the streets were lined with Taiwanese flags. The event seemed more like a political rally than a celebration of the year of the tiger. The blog DCist, reporting on the celebration, said the choice of flag makes sense: “It's just as well -- it probably wouldn't do to have Communist flags strung up through the capital of the free world.” This, I think, gets at the root of the issue. Flags represent nations, and nations are supposed to have individual, discrete cultures. But for many Americans, the Chinese flag -- that is, the “Five Star Red Flag” -- does not represent “Chinese culture.” It represents the Chinese Communist Party. The separation of the two intensely frustrates the Chinese government, which seeks to associate itself with the Chinese nation and with Chinese culture.

This dilemma -- who “owns” a nation-state’s culture? -- can never really be resolved, in China or anywhere else. But in China it seems especially pronounced. China has internal conflict on many fronts, a government that is not amenable to hearing alternative points of view, and a population of overseas Chinese that is spread across the world, all with their own loyalties and their own notions about who represents China, its nation, its culture, and its history. It is difficult to imagine this issue reaching any kind of broad consensus while these divisions persist.