Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pew results on social justice

Considerable attention has been paid to the Pew Research Center's recent findings on a disconnect between how the world views China and how Chinese believe the world views their country, as well as the extraordinary optimism of Chinese concerning the PRC's future (86 percent were satisfied with the direction of their country).

There has been less talk about the report's numbers on Chinese attitudes toward various social problems. For me, the most interesting number in this regard is the percentage of those surveyed who saw China's rich / poor gap as a "very big" problem or "moderately big" problem: 89 percent. This is second only to the percentage concerned about rising prices (96 percent) and far outstrips concerns about, say, crime (61 percent see crime as a problem, but only 17 percent say the problem is "very big").

That convictions about economic justice have survived the tumult of these past two-almost-three decades---and have survived a general optimism about the economy, too (82 percent optimism)--- is immensely encouraging. It means there is a base that can keep a rein on liberal economics under any future Beijing governments (but hopefully allow for more liberal politics).

There are precedents for this. Look what Brazil has done since Lula came to power, according to the NYT:
Long famous for its unequal distribution of wealth, Brazil has shrunk its income gap by six percentage points since 2001, more than any other country in South America this decade, said Francisco Ferreira, a lead economist at the World Bank.
While the top 10 percent of Brazil’s earners saw their cumulative income rise by 7 percent from 2001 to 2006, the bottom 10 percent shot up by 58 percent, according to Marcelo CĂ´rtes Neri, the director of the Center for Social Policies at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro.
Has this leveling been a great blow to Brazil's economy? No, in fact the country is riding "its biggest economic expansion in three decades." Fairness and prosperity are actually related, or can be:
...while exports of commodities like oil and agricultural goods have driven much of its recent growth, Brazil is less and less dependent on them, economists say, having the advantage of a huge domestic market — 185 million people — that has grown wealthier with the success of people like Ms. Sousa [a small businesswoman profiled at the outset of the NYT article].
Now, if China were to really take "scientific development" and "people first" and a "harmonious society" seriously...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In fairness...

I have been fuming more and more over Chinese nationalist screeds at the bottom of news articles and blog posts--you know, the long diatribes about how Tibetans are ungrateful for the civilization brought to them by their masters, about how people should stop criticizing China about Darfur or Zimbabwe because, well, China had it rough once, too, just like Africa, about how because other countries share certain of China's problems those problems aren't actually problems,  etc, etc.  

But then I turned on MSNBC today and watched the talking heads on "Race for the White House" debate whether or not Obama's admitting in Berlin, every so gently and briefly, that the U.S. has faults might hurt him politically.  

Why might saying something so patently obvious hurt him?  Well, as the panelists rightly noted, many Americans don't like politicians or celebrities currying favor abroad--or appearing to curry favor abroad--by saying bad things about the U.S. of A:
David Gregory:  "Eugene Robinson, is this the message that Americans want to hear Obama delivering overseas, not in this country, but going to a foreign capital ...
There's not the same wounded pride here that you sometimes hear in China, but there is the same sense of not talking to stuffy foreigners about something that's our business.  If there's not the same wounded-ness it's because there's a tad more bluster.

It reminds me of a friend who said that in some ways China and America are more alike than America and Europe.  Now, I don't mean to let Europeans off the hook (their attitude to the U.S. tends to be similar to Northeastern Americans' attitude toward Southerners: "Well, since we're clearly not as bad as them, we have no problems--not on race, not on religion, not on nothing").  But it's true, I think, that what frustrates Americans and Chinese about each other is not some vast cultural gulf but that we're so remarkably similar.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Perceptions of the CR

Frog in a Well has a great response to Jed Perl's attempt at Chinese art criticism---and to casual interpreters of Chinese history from the West generally.  

Several sections are worth quoting (excuse me for quoting so much!):
The nostalgia for communist-period idealism you sometimes hear I always find hard to figure out.

For Perl, however, the only possible reason to think about China is to denounce Mao and the Cultural Revolution (which are of course the same thing.) Thus it becomes impossible for Chinese to be anything other than toadies unless they are in jail. 

In particular, Frog in a Well takes exception with Perl's image of the CR:
The theme of “Revolution” comes up a lot in the art Perl is talking about, in part I think because he is talking about western collectors, who probably don’t know much about China but do know there was a revolution and in part because lots of Chinese artists do use Communist iconography and themes from the past. Some of them are probably toeing the official line, some are subverting the official line, some are doing both, some think they are doing both but actually are not. For Perl though it is pretty easy. If you see anything that looks “China-y” it’s crap.
I have studied the catalogue of this collection, The Revolution Continues: New Art from China, and I am pretty confident that it is the most hateful art book published in my lifetime. For the revolution that is continuing is none other than the Cultural Revolution.
Really? The modern smiley-face authoritarianism of China is the same as the Cultural Revolution? One begins to suspect he does not know much about the CR, which is pretty rapidly confirmed as he scoffs as a curator for suggesting that
“reprising the Red Guards’ antiauthoritarian stance to art, sought to bring down the institution of art itself through Dadaist strategies”?

In what sense, pray tell, was the Red Guard anti-authoritarian?
“Pray tell” suggests that he has no clue what the Red Guards were. The first thing a youth was supposed to do after strapping on the red armband was to “bombard the headquarters” and attack the authorities that actually controlled their lives, teachers, party bosses, etc. Everyone in China over a certain age knows this, which is why it is always so hard to figure out what Chinese artists might be doing with Mao images or CR images or whatever. Not everybody in the world needs to know (or can know) all the things Maoist references can mean in China, but if you are going to write about Chinese art it helps to have some idea what you are talking about. One can imagine touring the Louvre with Perl and having him be stumped by why there were all those pictures of a lady holding a baby. 
Perl, to his credit, does have some interesting things to say about the draw of propaganda, such as when he paraphrases Susan Sontag: "...there is a difference between appreciating the peculiar power of a certain kind of totalitarian imagery and going right ahead and succumbing to its power."

But I would go further than Frog in a Well to say that Perl's confusion about the Cultural Revolution is not just a sign of how little he knows about China but the crux of a lot of people's misunderstandings about current Chinese politics.  The CR is at the heart of the fears of today's leadership and people---fears of chaos, fears of public protest, fears of democracy---as well as an important source of moral support for dissent.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Two incidents

What a difference ethnicity makes.  Or the protective wall of the nation. Or whatever you want to call it. 

The images out of Weng'an County, Guizhou Province---a burning Public Security Bureau building, young people brandishing sharp pieces of metal, overturned vehicles---remind me of nothing in the past year more than the uprising in Lhasa.  

Yet while large numbers of Chinese netizens responded to the Weng'an incident (which erupted after it was believed that official connections let a pair of young men off the hook for the rape and murder of a girl) with creative runs around the censors, scorn for local authorities, and (sometimes) outright support for the protesters / rioters, they responded to the Lhasa incident by calling for censorship (of CNN, for example), by backing the government and by showing absolute fury at the protesters / rioters.

Obviously, this is an oversimplification.  There HAS been reflection in China on Tibet and some brave gestures of solidarity by Han Chinese for Tibetans.   

And the overtones of the two incidents are quite different: one brought with it associations of national dignity and the Olympic Games and China's place in the world; the other was fully "internal" and may have stood in for other examples of corruption in the recent past (such as corruption surrounding the quake) that people swallowed in the name of unity but couldn't keep down much longer.

But the distance / closeness felt by netizens for different people, their immediate sympathies, couldn't be sharper.