Copyright The International Herald Tribune
LETTER FROM CHINA
China’s multiple victims include its own public
By Howard W. French
April 10, 2008
SHANGHAI: Ihad hardly finished writing a news article on repression in Xinjiang last week when word reached me of the violent suppression of yet another protest by Tibetan monks in western Sichuan Province.
There were conflicting reports. Some said eight Tibetans had been killed, some of them ordinary bystanders. Other reports put the number as high as 15.
The Tibetans were not the only casualties, though, in the unfolding story of disaffection, protest and repression in China’s western region. In a bitterly ironic way, the plight of Xinjiang’s Uighurs had been obscured by the news of yet more brutality against Tibetans.
The news out of China in recent weeks has involved multiple, interlocking tragedies, with a cast of victims much larger and more complex than the easily digestible narrative people in the West are accustomed to thinking about, a tale of put-upon Tibetans and imposing Chinese.
The onrush of Western sympathy for the cause of Tibet is well-intentioned but often naâˆšÃ˜ve. The way the Tibet story has been reduced to a binary matter, almost literally of Tibetan saints and Han Chinese sinners, is problematic on many levels, not least because of hypocrisy implicit in the West’s selective outrage.
Moreover, our many oversimplifications and perceived double standards fuel nationalist outrage in China and provide ready ammunition for ripostes by propagandists, whose task is to drum up popular support for the government as it digs deeper into the very positions that protesters seek to overturn.
Unfortunately for conventional Chinese opinion, the first instance of hypocrisy that needs to be dealt with involves the plight of the Uighurs, whose situation very nearly mirrors that of the Tibetans, the distinction being that Tibetans have become lovable because of popular notions about Buddhism and because of the way Hollywood has romanticized Tibet and its saffron-robed monks and supported the Dalai Lama.
Natives of Xinjiang, by contrast, are Muslim, and geopolitics and popular culture have combined in ways that have been deeply prejudicial to the Uighurs, who have no celebrity sponsors or young Western sympathizers eager to identify with their culture or support their cause.
The biggest and least obvious victims in this crisis, however, are the Chinese themselves. This has nothing to do with the ritualized self-pity combined with zealous nationalism and occasionally vicious hate speech that one encounters from Chinese all over the Internet these days. Here, we speak of people who insist that any criticism of China is really motivated by deep-seated Western contempt for the Chinese people themselves, or of the strident Chinese voices that say that people in the West have no standing to criticize them because Westerners have plenty of awful things to answer for themselves.
Yes, it is true, the Americans massacred the Indians and the Europeans conducted a centuries-long Atlantic slave trade. One could go on and on compiling a list of sins. But surely it does neither China nor its image any good to say don’t criticize us because of your past – or worse, it doesn’t matter if we do bad things because you’ve done bad aplenty, too.
On one issue after another, many Chinese fashion themselves as victims in these terms, or cut themselves unlimited moral slack, doing themselves neither honor nor good. It often goes like: How dare you criticize us as undemocratic, since it took you hundreds of years of development to become democratic; or how dare you say anything about our pollution, because you’ve been the biggest polluters in the past.
Arguments like those are effective in China largely for one reason, because the state, which has so tightly controlled the narrative in China through the strict filtering of information and education, has pulled off a feat of monumental political manipulation, persuading China’s great Han majority that any criticism of its government is a deliberate slight against the Chinese people.
One may spare a thought for China for having arrived rather late to the party of modernization, when things like environmental standards and democratic participation and human rights and openness are standard expectations, but demands for them won’t go away, including increasingly from China’s own people.
The reason the people of China are the biggest victims in the ugly spectacle of the last few weeks is that the Chinese government sold them on the Olympics as a measure of their standing and stature in the world. It did so, moreover, as if hypnotized by its own peculiar and stilted rhetoric, which demands that the world applaud its achievements with no pause for questions or thought.
That, after all, is the meaning of Beijing’s insistence that politics have no place in the Olympics, even as the country uses the Games to bolster its domestic standing and to make an unsubtle statement to the world: We are successful and grand. Behold and admire us. We have arrived.
One hopes that the Chinese public, smart, increasingly sophisticated and more and more exposed to the kind of reality checks that come from contact with others, can figure out the trick that is being played on them. A criticism of an action of their government is in no way a criticism of them.
Go to any auto show and see for yourself. Whenever a shiny new model is rolled out and the manufacturer hands out glossy promotional brochures, the normal reaction of those in attendance is to kick the tires for themselves.
Beijing showed the world last week what happens to its own citizens who dare hold up a mirror to the system and assess things for themselves: The activist, Hu Jia, was imprisoned for daring to write. When you come to the Olympic Games in Beijing, you will see skyscrapers, spacious streets, modern stadiums and enthusiastic people. You will see the truth, but not the whole truth, just as you see only the tip of an iceberg.
The greatest insult an outsider could pay to the Chinese people would be failing to understand what lies beneath.
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Copyright The International Herald Tribune