China, O My China

When I first arrived in Beijing, summer of 1995, Olympics fever had already hit. Kind of. China had bid (and was apparently still lobbying) to host the 2000 Olympics, and that lobbying permeated society – enough that a Chinese illiterate, freshly arrived from Santa Cruz, could figure it out. Could, in fact, choke on it. The city was, to my eyes, so obviously, painfully, ludicrously unready for, well, any international event, the hosting mania seemed less quixotic than psychotic. Wouldn’t the smog alone induce scores of coronaries during competitions? Where would visitors be housed – in the crumbling Soviet prison-style towers lining the streets, streets where poster-sized photos of the most recent traffic fatalities (blood, guts, severed limbs, brains on the asphalt) decked the intersections? Would the cartridges from the latest public executions be swept away in time to prepare the stadiums for the opening ceremonies? Could visitors tear themselves away from the Animal Killing Pavillions long enough to cheer a pole-vault?

And international friendship … Well, after enjoying the movie “Red Sorghum” (an uplifting tale of various Japanese brutalities, including live human skinning) at … wait for it … the “Sino-Japanese Friendship Center,” I was suspecting that maybe, just maybe, the Chinese had an issue or two in that area.

And now, 2008. I have mixed emotions about these Olympics.

If you have any interest at all in China, you must know Orville Schell. He has a better understanding of the Chinese psyche than just about – well, anyone, and I say this not just because I agree with him completely (though yeah, that’s compelling). He knows and loves China as, I think, I do: for what is there to love, without letting that love cloud sight of all that there is to despise. And there is much to despise. Much.

Here’s a bit of an article by Schell that appears in the current issue of Newsweek – do read it all, here.

As I argue in the current New York Review of Books, the most critical element in the formation of China’s modern identity has been the legacy of the country’s “humiliation” at the hands of foreigners, beginning with its defeat in the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century and the shameful treatment of Chinese immigrants in America. The process was exacerbated by Japan’s successful industrialization. Tokyo’s invasion and occupation of the mainland during World War II was in many ways psychologically more devastating than Western interventions because Japan was an Asian power that had succeeded in modernizing, where China had failed.

This inferiority complex has been institutionalized in the Chinese mind. In the early 20th century China took up its victimization as a theme and made it a fundamental element in its evolving collective identity. A new literature arose around the idea of bainian guochi—”100 years of national humiliation.” After the 1919 Treaty of Versailles cravenly gave Germany’s concessions in China to Japan, the expression wuwang guochi—”Never forget our national humiliation”—became a common slogan. To ignore China’s national failure came to be seen as unpatriotic. Since then, China’s historians and ideological overseers have never hesitated to mine the country’s past sufferings “to serve the political, ideological, rhetorical, and/or emotional needs of the present,” as the historian Paul Cohen has written.

Let me pull out two sentences:

“In the early 20th century China took up its victimization as a theme and made it a fundamental element in its evolving collective identity.”

“To ignore China’s national failure came to be seen as unpatriotic.”

That, I think, is indeed the heart of China’s bizarre and repellent nationalism. And that is also what is most alienating, to me, about China as a nation: its martyrdom, in that Catholic sense, whereby one’s suffering really does impart superiority, martyrdom blended with a terrifying, dehumanizing hatred of those who inflicted the suffering. All of which would make more sense to me, would be more acceptable, if in fact the accused victimizers were anything of the sort. In case after historical case, the suffering heaped upon the Chinese people has actually been inflicted by … the Chinese themselves: by a leadership vastly corrupt, addicted to opium, pleasure, power, made weak and incompetent by those addictions. Oh, the suffering has been real, horribly real, but it’s been borne by the peasants, the poor: the same people whose children were crushed in the Sichuan earthquake. The same people who are sent to prison, or sent to labor camps, for any gesture for justice after their children, their lives, their loves, their futures, are ground to pulp by the current incarnation of that corrupt leadership.

Schell concludes that, as far as protesting goes,

“… this is not the time—and not just because any unauthorized protest is quite likely to fail. … Protests would almost certainly spark the kind of nationalist and autocratic backlash that they’re meant to remedy. Remember what followed the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations—a nearly 20-year period of reaction and restoration from which China has still not recovered.”

Then consider what Amnesty International has to say. This is from the brand-spankin’ new report, “The Olympics Countdown – Broken Promises,” July 28.

The IOC’s diplomatic, non-public approach on human rights cases and issues does not appear to have yielded significant results. International pressure from other governments for human rights reform has also been insufficient, sending a message that it is acceptable for a government to host the Olympic Games in an atmosphere characterised by repression and persecution. The danger now becomes that after the Olympic Games these patterns of serious human rights violations may continue or intensify with even less attention paid by the international community than has been the case so far.

Please take a look at the full report here.

The Independent also has a good article.

Mr Hancock {Tim Hancock of Amnesty} added: “World leaders attending the Games – even if it’s only the closing ceremony – should send an unequivocal message that they support human rights for the Chinese people.”

And, I may add, the Tibetan people. And the Taiwanese people. And let’s not get started on the animals. I’m heartbroken enough already.

5 thoughts on “China, O My China

  1. i can’t believe they would throw a teacher into a labour camp for posting pictures of the earthquakes and critiquing infrastructure. Thomm Hartman said one morning that for americans the worst thing they can feel is guilt, for the Chinese it is shame. Why no shame in kidnapping journalists and citizens without due process? Let alone all their other recent human rights violations.

  2. Thom Hartman is one smart guy! I think he’s probably right … (Though doesn’t it sometimes seem like the thing Americans hate most is delayed gratification, or frustration – you know, “I want, I want, I must have!”) Why DON’T they feel ashamed about their human rights violations? – I guess, because they don’t really feel they people they oppress are human, not at the same level as them. Five thousand years of Confucian hierarchy is still the basis of the culture …

  3. thom HArtmann also said that one time he went to speak to a crowd of students in TAiwan, on topic of ‘capitalism is not democracy’. When he was done and went back to his hotel room, it was turned upside down. All his luggage and belongings were scattered across the room.

    i guess chinese feel as much shame for their human right issues as we americans feel guilt for Guantanamo bay, invading Iraq for profit margins, or letting corporations rip working americans off. In the end, it is always the citizens who suffer it out.

  4. China is bigger than the US and just about as complicated. Both countries have their conservatives: they say, “My government, right or wrong,” and instead of feeling either guilt or shame about about what happens in their country, they blindly defend it and cut themselves off from feeling anything about it. They direct those feelings out at the rest of the world (those evil Islamic terrorists! or those evil Tibetan terrorists!) But – both countries also have citizens feeling guilt and shame, wanting to transform their countries. I mean, that’s how I see myself, living here: I AM ashamed, and guilty, and angry, and grief-stricken, and etc. etc. about what this corrupt administration is doing. And I want things to change, and I try to live my life in a way that I can both be happy AND effect change. The Chinese who feel the same way- and there are so many who do! – are like me in the first way, but the big difference is: by taking a stand, even a little one, they risk everything. They CAN’T just “live a happy life” and “try to change things” at the same time – they could be crushed. Alex should tell us about this, he really should.
    (Guestblog, Alex? Consider this your invite!)

    That’s a perfect Thom Hartmann topic, even if it is a little obvious – I mean, the mainland has embraced capitalism, precisely because it can so easily be the ultimate ANTI-democratic tool! We were lucky enough to see Hartmann read at Powell’s a year or two ago. he is really terrific.

  5. Yeah, I feel very sorry for the Chinese people. Imagine if Michael Moore were born a chinese man? Poor guy would have probably disappeared a long time ago.

    Correction on the Thom Hartmann Taiwan tour, it was in Singapore when he gave the lecture and the police wrecked his hotel room. He told the crowd to get politically active after giving a speech about capitalism thwarting democracy. Must have been an unsettling feeling to have that happen! Probably not a first for him though.

    Alex told me he had a ‘mole’ person following him around in Tibet, trying to be his friend and find out things. lol, kind of creepy.

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