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In 1661, Adam Schall, a Jesuit missionary from Germany and astronomer at the Chinese imperial court, fell victim to jealous mandarins, and was sentenced to death for teaching false astronomy and a superstitious faith. He was only just saved from being strangled, when a sudden thunderstorm convinced his judges that nature had spoken against their verdict. Father Schall died soon after. But the defensiveness of the mandarins, who saw his foreign ideas as a threat to their status, would be a recurring theme in Chinese relations with the outside world.
So, is it true after all, what they say about clashing civilizations? It is tempting to see the official Chinese response to Hillary Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom in that light. Spurred by Google’s announcement that it might pull out of the Chinese market in protest over censorship, Mrs. Clinton talked about Internet freedom in terms of universal human rights. Her speech was promptly denounced in a Communist Party newspaper as “information imperialism.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu claimed that China’s regulation of the Internet (banning references to Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwanese independence and so on) was in keeping with “national conditions and cultural traditions.”
The claim of universality is indeed an important facet of American culture, rooted in the American Revolution and Protestant ethics. It is considered proper for a U.S. secretary of state to give voice to the ideal of universal human rights. Just so, a Chinese official sees it as his duty to assert the uniqueness, or even superiority, of Chinese culture. This was true of Confucian scholar-officials in the imperial past. It is still true today.
Thought control, in terms of imposing an official orthodoxy, is a very old tradition. The official glue that has long been applied to hold Chinese society together is a kind of state dogma, loosely known as Confucianism, which is moral as well as political, stressing obedience to authority. This is what officials like to call Chinese culture.
One can take a more cynical view, of course, and see culture as a mere fig leaf meant to hide the machinations of political power. The latest Chinese salvo against the U.S., blaming the Americans for instigating rebellion in Iran through the Internet, reveals that the current spat has a hard (and opportunistic) political core. And the assumption that Google, as a Chinese editorial put it, is a “political pawn” of the U.S. government, is a clear case of projection.
In any case, instilling the belief that obedience to authority is not just a way to keep order, but an essential part of being Chinese, is highly convenient for those who wield authority, whether they be fathers of a family or rulers of the state. That is why in their efforts to promote democracy after World War I, Chinese intellectuals denounced Confucianism, with its rigid social hierarchy, as an outmoded orthodoxy which had to be eradicated.
It was, as we know, not so much eradicated as replaced by a Communist orthodoxy after 1949. And when this orthodoxy began to lose its grip on the Chinese public after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, Chinese officials struggled to find a new set of beliefs to justify their monopoly on power. The ideological hybrid that followed Maoism was “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” a mixture of state capitalism with political authoritarianism. Later, Confucianism actually made a comeback of sorts. But the most common ideology since the early 1990s is a defensive nationalism, disseminated through museums, entertainment and school textbooks. All Chinese schoolchildren are indoctrinated with the idea that China was humiliated for centuries by foreign powers, and that support of the Communist state is the only way for China to regain its greatness and never be humiliated again.
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Ian Buruma – The Wall Street Journal
Copyright The Wall Street Journal