A columnist’s parting thoughts on China

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
July 31, 2008
SHANGHAI: This is it for me, folks. I’m finished. Done, meaning this is the last of the regularly scheduled columns readers will see from me in this spot.
I’ve had the distinct privilege of writing for this space for the past three years, most of that time holding forth on a weekly basis. As much as a privilege, it has been a deeply pleasurable challenge trying to say something interesting and, hopefully, new each time about China and its place in the world.
As a rhythm sets in, so does a humbling sense of hits and misses, guided in great measure by the invaluable feedback of one’s readers, and whether one reaps criticism or praise, nitpicking or expansive analysis, it is readers that the column writer comes to cherish most.
As a final installment, this is an occasion meant for parting thoughts, and I offer them herewith. First, as a writer with an innately and sometimes intensely critical bent, one wishes to offer some general observations about China.
What this country has accomplished in the last generation deserves all of our respect. If any doubters remain, the China phenomenon is real. I have eschewed the use of the word miracle, which is often attached to China’s development these days, not simply because it has become a cliché, but because it subtly detracts credit where credit is due.
China has achieved the tremendous momentum of growth and change that we journalists are always writing about not by miracle at all, but rather through the hard work and ingenuity of its people. These same factors, along with this society’s extraordinary resilience, after experiences in the 20th century that were among the cruelest anywhere, should serve as an inspiration to downtrodden people on other continents.
China’s example shows what kinds of remarkable results can follow when governments stop committing colossal blunders and grossly shackling or preying upon their own people. Add universal education to the mix, economic openness and basic law and order almost anywhere, and the results will soon attract that clichéd descriptive: a miracle.
China has had the great fortune of good timing, too, with its reforms coming at the start of a great wave of globalization. And there have been countless other factors behind its success that space won’t allow exploring here, but any number of plodding states around the world would do well to learn from its example, from lagging regional giants like Nigeria and Pakistan to borderline failed states like Haiti and Myanmar.
A more interesting question may be, How appropriate is China’s model for China itself? Rather than highlighting the country’s many successes, the run-up to the Beijing Olympics has ironically spotlighted this country’s more retrograde qualities, from environmental devastation and vast class disparities, to a repressive instinct that seems to lurk everywhere here.
This is supposed to be a grand, global celebration, but the people who run the country are so uptight they’ve frightened their own people, and risk turning off many of their overseas guests – that is, the guests who will make it here despite restrictive visa policies and an atmosphere that leaves no room for spontaneity.
Events of recent months have revealed this to be a deeply reactionary government, a state with manifold reasons for self-confidence, and yet one that seems spooked by its own shadow.
How else to explain the embarrassing need to carefully censor the Internet during the Games, as detailed in this newspaper on Thursday, or the need to jail lawyers, or buy off parents whose children were killed in flimsy schoolhouses during the recent Sichuan earthquake, or to tightly censor journalists, or to ban protests of all sorts?
What this all points to is the emergence of China as a new kind of Potemkin state: a place that invests heavily in the very old-fashioned idea that if you manipulate appearances and control the field of view, reality will gradually bend in the desired direction.
Most have learned from cartoons that the ostrich, by burying its head in the sand, does nothing to make predators disappear. And sure enough, the harder China has tried to exert control, to enforce illusions, the more noticeable the cracks in the façade become.
Draconian censorship of domestic journalists, for example led to the mysterious appearance of forbidden photographs from the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 in one of Beijing’s most popular newspapers last week. The creation of authorized “protest zones” during the Games reveals itself upon closer inspection to be little more than a public relations ploy, inaccessible to all but the most intrepid protesters.
Similarly, the desperation to achieve the appearance of clean air for the Games has brought all manner of artifice, from exempting ozone and very small particles from air quality benchmarks, to widely rumored plans to seed clouds for rain. And yet the image that is likely to prove most lasting will be of endurance athletes protecting their lungs with masks.
Then there was the strange spectacle of a Chinese television reporter recently announcing proudly, but not altogether truthfully, that foreign journalists would enjoy total freedom during the Games. What of Chinese reporters? Question not allowed.
Sun Weide, the chief spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organizing committee, waxed Orwellian when he parried complaints about censorship of the Internet, saying that foreign media would enjoy “sufficient access” to information. He then added: “I believe our policy will not affect reporters’ coverage of the Olympic Games.” He was wrong.
China’s model has a lot to offer the world, but one senses that it has taken China itself about as far as it can. This government has stopped making the massive, brutal blunders it committed in the 20th century, which killed or stunted the lives of huge numbers of its citizens. What it needs most now is to get out of the way of ideas and enterprise, and to learn, bit by bit, the virtues of trust.
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