The need for unanimity in China exacts a hidden price

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
LETTER FROM CHINA
By Howard W. French
April 24, 2008
SHANGHAI: A university student in a journalism class taught by an American in southern China wrote his professor with an urgent question the other day.
Given that Westerners have been inundated by biased news reports about China and Tibet in recent weeks, he wrote, “How can Chinese people and Chinese media make the foreign world understand the real China?”
For all the apparent simplicity and innocence of the question, behind it lies a world of complexity, along with the real potential for increasing conflict.
The pre-Olympic crisis in Tibet has revealed China and the West to each other in disturbing new ways. Even before concerns over serious human rights abuses in Tibet could fade, people who followed this story outside of China were given additional reasons to worry, by the vehement Chinese responses to virtually any criticism of their country.
In the United States this was brought home most powerfully by an incident that took place recently on the campus of Duke University, where a freshman from China, Grace Wang, was berated by Chinese students when she tried to mediate between pro-Tibetan demonstrators and a much larger group of pro-Chinese demonstrators during protests on campus. At one point a group of Chinese students surrounded her, taunting: “Remember Chai Ling? All Chinese want to burn her in oil, and you look like her,” according to an account Wang wrote in The Washington Post. The reference was to a female leader in the student democracy protests in Beijing in 1989 that led to the Tiananmen massacre. Details of Wang’s background were quickly revealed on the Duke Chinese Students and Scholars Association Web site, including directions to her parents’ home in Qingdao. Feces quickly turned up on their doorstep, as the threats against them came pouring in, and Wang’s parents eventually went into hiding. Even her high school back home convened a special assembly to condemn her for supposedly breaking with the motherland, and her diploma was revoked
For many Chinese, meanwhile, events of recent weeks have revealed a West that is out to get their country, jealous of its successes and lying in wait for the right opportunity to pounce. The events in Tibet, with their Olympic background, provided the perfect chance, and virtually everything said or done by outsiders in relation to the crisis is seen in this light.
This sentiment was given catchy form in an entry in an Internet chat room under the title, “What do you want from us?”
“When we were labeled the ‘sick man of Asia,’ we were called a peril,” the entry read. “When we are billed to be the next superpower, we’re called the threat. When we closed our doors, you smuggled drugs to open markets. When we embrace free trade, you blame us for taking away your jobs.”
As sentiment like this spread in recent weeks, so did Chinese expressions of outrage over perceived Western bullying and bias. The symbol of this movement became Jin Jing, a wheelchair athlete who carried the Olympic torch in Paris during its global circuit and managed to cling tightly to it as pro-Tibet protesters tried to snatch it away and extinguish the flame.
The Chinese media had a field day with these images, whose potency exceeded the wildest propagandists’ dreams, and for several days the public here was inundated with them, as clear an illustration of Western perfidy as they were of Chinese nobility.
What followed was an angry boycott movement against the French retailer Carrefour, set off by an apparently unfounded rumor of a link between its owner and the country’s recent Enemy No. 1, the Dalai Lama.
What then, does all of this have to do with the student’s question to the journalism professor? The common narrative from 30,000 feet about China’s rise has been all about the triumph of capitalism in a nominally communist country. China has opened up and joined the world, riding the great wave of globalization that is under way with the best of them. Look, they even have McDonald’s! The differences between us are shrinking all the time, and fast.
This great story even holds true for the most part. It’s the sticky bit at the end of the paragraph that demands more careful consideration and arguably, concern.
The great divide in perceptions over the Tibet crisis may indeed have revealed that the Western press is not perfectly accurate or credible, as the Chinese government and its carefully controlled media have wasted no effort in pointing out in recent weeks. To Westerners, this will come as no big surprise.
A good deal more revealing, though, has been a picture that has emerged during the crisis of a Chinese political system that remains devoted to the manufacture and enforcement, when need be, of unanimity on whatever is deemed a vital question.
Tibet and the Olympics both fit that bill, and saying anything but the “right thing” on either subject just won’t do here.
In fact, if the state doesn’t get you first, one risks having emotional, screaming mobs shouting you down, or worse, instead. People speak solemnly all the time about what “the Chinese people think” and about their feelings, as if unquestioned unanimity were the most natural of things, and moreover a conferral of moral legitimacy.
As China’s power rises, the implications for the world are potentially quite profound. An implicit question, in fact, is already being posed: “How dare anyone offend our feelings?”
As a 57-year-old Chinese blogger, He Yanguang, recently pointed out, invoking memories of when a wave from Chairman Mao sufficed “and we all marched forth and really messed the country up,” the price of unanimity can cut in other ways, too. “When the information we get all comes from one source, people’s thinking will certainly not be rational,” He wrote in his lonely warning. “We have had too many lessons and seen too many stupidities. Making a mistake is not a big deal. The big danger is making the same mistake again and again.”
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