LETTER FROM CHINA
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
March 27, 2008
SHANGHAI: Over the past couple of weeks, two of the world’s biggest news stories were the outbreak of protests and riots in Tibetan areas of China and the repression that followed them, and the uproar over comments by the pastor of the American presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Two continents, two very different topics. What, pray tell, could possibly link them?
In the most immediate sense, the answer is that China’s response to the events in Tibet, in particular its ferocious denunciations of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, reminded me of one of the most distinguishing characteristics of my own country.
I don’t just mean the right to free speech. I refer to an American character not enshrined anywhere in law, but a vital trait nonetheless.
Although Americans may often take it for granted, at their best they enjoy a largeness of spirit that permits them to air their dirty laundry in public, not to shy from controversy, and to be able to visit and revisit even the most painful aspects of their past and to explore them in the light of day.
I refer to the intellectually refreshing sensation they can receive in seeing conventional wisdom formed on any given topic and then just as surely challenged. Finally, I refer to the right to be wrong, and the right even to make a fool of oneself in public.
The sermons of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr. and Obama’s response have involved all of these things, while the Chinese conversation about Tibet, carefully policed through censorship and through myriad other methods that China’s authoritarian government employs to enforce consensus has involved none of them.
In the United States, while political correctness may occasionally grate, in China, it is suffocating. Although the Dalai Lama has repeatedly renounced all claims of independence for his homeland, the Chinese press universally dismisses him as a “splittist,” scarcely bothering to report opposing views.
The Chinese press is similarly full of claims of Western media bias and distortion, a charge made straight-faced in a country that routinely blocks foreign media, strictly censors its own news, and has only allowed the media to cover street violence by Tibetans. The Chinese government has effectively banned coverage of the use of force by the authorities in clamping down not just on dissent in Lhasa, but on the largely peaceful protests by Tibetans that swept much of western China.
On the face of it, the Dalai Lama and Wright would seem to have precious little to do with each other. Scratch the surface just a bit, though, and a relationship emerges. Although the nature of their rhetoric is quite different, one serene and the other angry, each man is a member of a historically aggrieved minority group who has condemned the behavior of a powerful ethnic majority in his society.
The Dalai Lama has earned fevered denunciations as a “wolf with a human face and heart of a beast” from China’s state-controlled media for, among other things, warning of what he has called “cultural genocide” in Tibet.
Wright, a former marine, seems to have drawn the most ire for the phrase “Goddamn America,” for what he perceives as his country’s abuses of power around the world. In the clips of his sermons played endlessly on television these last two weeks, he has also spoken of the “U.S. of KKK A.,” an in-your-face and, to many, offensive critique of American racism.
Others were outraged by his characterization of the Sept. 11 attacks as “chickens coming home to roost,” although thoughts like these fit within a broader narrative of dissent, one animated by the likes of the late Susan Sontag, who provocatively asked shortly after the destruction of the World Trade Center: “Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world,’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”
In hearing his words, though, I wondered what would happen to a Wright in China, were there to be someone with the temerity to publicly damn this country for, say, tens of millions of deaths in politically caused disasters, or wave after wave of political witch hunts, which destroyed countless lives in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, or the atrocities committed against Tibetans, or Uighurs or Mongolians in various drives to bring ethnic minorities under control?
The likely answer should give pause to those who are quick to take offense at speech that goes against the grain: He would be sent for re-education, like the monks in Lhasa today, or he would be locked up, never to be heard from again, and certainly not in the Chinese media.
Wright sustained self-inflicted wounds with statements about the U.S. government being the source of the AIDS epidemic and with offensive language about Hillary Clinton’s privileged life as a white person.
For much of the rest of what he has been exhaustively quoted as saying, though, Americans can actually feel proud. Not because they approve of his views on the use of American power or his calls for our damnation, but because the capacity for vigorous, even bruising discussion of our failings is a sign of health in a society and not cause for lamentation.
In some quarters, people obsess about China’s rise, focusing on its GDP figures or military spending, but there is a gap that shows no sign of closing and that is at least as fundamental as these: Call it the candor gap, and until Chinese society can learn to get over its seemingly allergic aversion to conflicting views, to the airing of controversy, and to unsparing exercises in truth-telling, it is hard to imagine this country truly fulfilling its potential.
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LETTER FROM CHINA