Thursday, April 24, 2008

The protests

For someone who cares an awful lot about China, the country's recent anti-Carrefour, anti-Tibetan-freedom-activists, pro-nationalism, ultimately-pro-government protests have been hard to watch.  But I do think this moment in history will, in the end, have been for the best.

For one thing, the experience will be good for international human rights campaigners.  It will no longer be possible to deal with China in the abstract, as some symbol of Communist authoritarianism or of tradition versus modernity or of capitalism minus democracy.  China will no longer be a stage for noble dissidents and beleaguered masses and heartless authorities, but a more confusing place altogether.

Activists will, I think, come to realize that they have to get into the mess of a complex society if they want to accomplish anything.  They will have to choose fights and make compromises---and prudently refuse to make compromises, too, and know the consequences and take them anyway. It will no longer seem natural to address all petitions to Party Secretaries and heads of foreign corporations.   But it will be tough as hell to find out who to address a petition to at all---like it is in any other country.

This experience will matter the most, probably, for the Chinese people---though it will take a while for it to really matter.   At present--to generalize grossly--young people, particularly those of the middle class, who have largely put aside their politics (or hidden their politics in private conversations) for "concrete" things like jobs and a new-found pride in a rising nation, are feeling hurt.   Fine.  Maybe they've been criticized unfairly too often over the years.  But sometime, when things have settled down, they will have to mull over what exactly it is that the world is so upset over.

Most pressing in the list of things to be mulled: 

I.  While it may be fine to criticize the Western media for its biases,  why are Chinese people still served by a media that took ages to even acknowledge protests abroad, which acted as if the protests / riots of March 14 were the beginning and end of the Tibetan uprising (and that Han and Hui were the only victims), and which has shown about as much reflection---with some important exceptions (such as Chang Ping's and He Yanguang's posts, though neither of these are directly connected to the journalists' respective papers)---as the announcements on the web page of the Chinese Embassy in Washington?

II.  And what does it mean to occupy a people?  Historical arguments and developmentalist rhetoric aside, do Tibetans seem thrilled to be ruled by the People's Armed Police and tour buses and railroads and policies for settling nomads?  And if not, what does that mean for a young person with morals living in Beijing?  

III.  Finally, who really represents China?  For a couple decades, the country's focus has been on its cities, which have rushed ahead at an earth-shaking pace.   But far off, portions of Tibet and Xinjiang are run like military garrisons.  And people there don't want to be a part of China, at least many of them don't.  And closer in, farmers are fighting pitched battles with land grabbing officials, while the prices of feed and oil are undercutting the benefits (for farmers) of rising food prices. Where are these people in the country's national self-image?

Sometimes, China, the massive country, seems a lot like Washington, DC, the powerful mini-city: sharp class divides, a polished exterior, and a defensiveness about taking the "insider" path. But in both places there are unpredictable currents that can change what is "normal" and upset the "status quo" while no one is looking.  For good and for bad.

Right now, China might be most similar to America right after 9/11---proud and hurt and ordering "freedom fries" (the French, interestingly, being the targets in both cases).  But I think---or hope---that things will change.  

And I hope that the world will be engaged with China in a way that will allow it to be a part of those changes, not just cheering or booing from the sidelines.


husunzi said...

It's amazing how many of your observations about this correspond to my own thinking. Right after the protests started I looked around for such a "nuanced" perspective but didn't find it - it was all either anti-China or anti-Tibetan. I'm happy to have finally started to run across people with some sense. Your blog in general looks good - keep up the good work.

Old Tales Retold said...

These are difficult topics to discuss both objectively and with heart. Thank you for the appreciation.