Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Letter from China
By Howard W. French
April 3, 2008
SHANGHAI: Mao Zedong announced the tune himself, in 1927, when he wrote: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay or painting a picture or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
For the next half-century, China was one of the most violent places on earth, and not just because of the vicious foreign invasion and civil war that swept the country, or the ceaseless purges of supposed traitors and class enemies. There was also the matter of language, which in China has been both an underrated means of violence and a vehicle for it.
Mao’s state created a propaganda system built on a crude triage: a world of heroes who were unalterably and impossibly good, and an even larger one of villains who were irredeemably, cartoonishly bad. Over-the-top became the routine in official rhetoric. Enemies were called “monsters” and “cow ghosts,” “snake spirits” and “running dogs.” And in one campaign after another the public was called upon to “resolutely crush” or “relentlessly denounce” them.
This was a universe of variable geometry, where people were not to reason things out on their own, but to fall in line. Today’s hero could be tomorrow’s villain, with no clear evidence or explanation. The sole moral compass point was the immoral leader himself, Mao, who to this day remains a sacred cow whose likeness peers out from every bank note.
In recent years, it had seemed as if this movie had been retired, but last month the production was cued up once again. The bad guy this time has been the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, and the fact that outside China this villain is one of the world’s most admired people has only caused the propagandists to ramp up the volume.
For the purpose of the cause he has been turned into a canine and called a “wolf in monk’s robes,” “a wolf with a human face and heart of a beast” and the “scum of Buddhism.” In case anyone missed the message, the government has also called the struggle against the Dalai Lama “a life-and-death battle.”
The Chinese public should by now recognize all the signs of an old-fashioned political campaign and, given the state’s history of manipulation, immediately mark a long, skeptical pause.
It’s not clear, though, if that’s how it worked this time. The propaganda means of the Chinese state remain overwhelming, as is its inclination not just to shape opinion, but to corral it, playing on what the documentary filmmaker Tang Danhong called the “great Han chauvinism,” referring to the dominant ethnic group, a chauvinism that has been evident throughout the Tibetan crisis.
After watching the first week of heavily propagandized television coverage here over dinner recently – reporting that focused almost exclusively on images of lawless Tibetan rioters smashing shops in Lhasa, along with the images of ethnic Han victims of the violence, typically recovering in the hospital – a senior Chinese newspaper editor eagerly questioned me about what was “really happening in Tibet.”
The question was scarcely out of his mouth when he added: “When people see the kind of one-sided propaganda that’s been in the media here, nobody trusts it anymore.”
This might be reassuring, were it true, but the next few days provided many causes for doubt. A young Chinese acquaintance who is a journalist sounded a troubled note in an e-mail message to me: “I read some news reports recently and am confused why the Western media reports on Tibet are inconsistent with the facts? Like they only report on the Chinese police but not the thugs attack the innocent people and the police? And even worse, why are they reporting lot of false and prejudiced news?”
The irony here, of course, is that Western coverage, whatever its faults, generally detailed the street violence in Lhasa, despite being barred access to Tibet by a country that made a big to-do last year over having supposedly lifted restrictions on the movements of international journalists in China.
Unlike the heavily controlled domestic press, the Western media also reported on the largely peaceful sympathy protests that unfolded over a broad stretch of the Tibetan plateau. They generally sought to give at least two sides to the story and questioned Beijing’s assertions about Tibetan protesters and about their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in the textbook way an independent press should.
Beyond the headlines, though, this crisis tells us a lot about China, and although the government may still have the means to control opinion, the more strenuously it has pressed its case, the less the picture of the country concurs with the image that China so eagerly wishes to promote of itself to the world.
China has invested hugely in its hosting of the Olympic Games in August with the idea of introducing itself as an overwhelming success story: increasingly prosperous, harmonious and forward-looking. The first statement is certainly true, but one needn’t be an enemy of China, as the propagandists would have it, to question the other two.
This may yet turn out to be China’s century, but it seems clearer than ever there’s a lot of work to do, reforming an awfully rickety system, rethinking policies built on bald fictions, such as the “autonomous regions” in China’s west, and learning to deal with criticism without turning it into a matter of ethnic pride or betrayal.
The official slogan of the Games may be “one world, one dream,” but that’s not the feeling one gets listening to the state’s organs. It is an ugly, wound-nursing nationalism one hears. “So strong,” said the filmmaker Tang, “that there’s almost no introspection, not even among Han intellectuals.”
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Copyright The International Herald Tribune