Sunday, August 3, 2008

Raining on China's Parade

In the latest issue of The New York Review, Orville Schell offers an interesting historical perspective on why the Olympics are so important to China:

A particularly important 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 China's defeat in the Opium Wars in the mid-nineteenth century and the shameful treatment of Chinese in America. The process reached an understandable high point with Japan's successful industrialization and subsequent invasion and occupation of China during World War II, which was in many ways psychologically more devastating than Western interventions, because Japan was an Asian power that had succeeded in modernizing, while China had failed.

In the early twentieth century, a new literature, with a new historical narrative to match, arose around the idea of bainian guochi, "100 years of national humiliation." By taking up its own victimization as a theme and making it a fundamental element in its evolving collective identity, China ensured that certain traits would express themselves again and again as it responded under stress to the outside world. Highlighting their country's history as a victim of foreign aggression led Chinese leaders to rely on what [Peter Hays] Gries calls "the moral authority of their past suffering." Indeed, China's suffering at the hands of foreigners became a badge of distinction, especially during the period in the 1960s in which non-Western countries vied with one another to appear the most "oppressed" by imperialism, and thus the most incipiently revolutionary.

From this point of view, the Olympics have provided China with a means to establish an identity no longer contaminated by the humiliation of foreigners and thus no longer viewed as an inferior in the global institutions of the world community (such as it is). Ironically, the most recent benefit to Chinese identity may have come with their combination of quick response and openness in the wake of the recent earthquake, particularly as a contrast to the disconcerting repressiveness of the Burmese response to its own catastrophe. This is not to apologize for all those factors (including my own Chutzpah of the Week award) that would tarnish China's reputation as the opening of the Olympics grows closer but simply to observe the role that national identity has played in the recent development of the country.

However, if what is ultimately at stake is a question of identity, then the perceptions of China's own population may count for more than the perception of the rest of the world; and, as Jamil Anderlini reported this morning for the Financial Times, those "internal" perceptions may be in jeopardy where world opinion had been most positive, among those earthquake victims. Here are the opening paragraphs of Anderlini's account:

Six weeks after China’s devastating earthquake in May, a group of volunteer social workers arrived in the rubble of Fuxin Number Two Primary School and started meeting parents of children killed when the school collapsed in the tremor.

At first they seemed like any of the other 1.3m Chinese citizens who rushed to the quake zone in the immediate aftermath in an unprecedented outpouring of civic involvement.

But some parents quickly decided something was wrong with this latest group of “volunteers”.

“We asked to see their identification, but they wouldn’t show it to us and although they were quite nice they kept telling us not to make trouble,” said one parent, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. He said the five volunteers repeatedly urged parents to stop demanding an investigation into why the school was so poorly built and why it collapsed in the May 12 quake when most of the buildings around it remained standing.

Many other parents were also suspicious of the opinionated social workers.

“They were definitely sent by the government to keep an eye on us and identify the troublemakers,” said one parent, who also asked not to be named.

This problem with "troublemakers" (which bears a strong resemblance to American concerns for "homeland security" in its "war against terror") may well have been yet another instance of covering up possible sources of "humiliation:"

The photograph of a government official kneeling before the angry, protesting parents from Fuxin Primary was published in Chinese media and quickly became a potent symbol of growing outrage over the 7,000 classrooms that collapsed.

Soon after the photo was published, security services broke up protests and the government banned reporting on the issue.

The crackdown contrasted sharply with the period following the tremor when citizens from all over the country travelled to the epicentre to offer their services.

They were spurred on by 24-hour television coverage as state-run media reported on a natural disaster for the first time in China’s history.

But while propaganda officials directed the media to hail the selfless spirit of the volunteers – with its echoes of the idealistic early years of Chinese communism – the government quietly closed off the opportunities for volunteer participation.

Partly for logistics reasons and partly out of an ingrained reflex to control all facets of public life the government quickly required all volunteers to register with the authorities and operate through an approved organisation. Soon it became clear that some types of volunteers were unwelcome.

One of these was a human rights campaigner, Huang Qi, who was arrested one month after the quake, for “possession of state secrets” after he made more than 10 trips to the quake zone carrying food, water and medicine to survivors.

During those trips he advised grieving parents, including those from Fuxin Primary, on how to pursue a legal campaign against the government and wrote about their grievances on, his website.

Unfortunately for the Chinese government, this particular cat is now out of the bag. These aggrieved parents understand that questions of accountability should not be trumped by questions of national identity. It is not a question of whether or not one can take pride in a paternalistic approach to government; it is a question of whether or not that system honors the values of its citizens, particularly when those citizens are trying to exercise that "selfless spirit" that is so important to the nation's ideology. Converting the humiliation of a nation to the humiliation of the International Olympic Committee is one thing; trying to pull a fast one on those devastated by a natural catastrophe and then treating it as "business as usual," particularly at a time when the eyes of the entire world are directed at China, can hardly further the effort to recover from "100 years of humiliation."

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