Friday, February 13, 2009

The People Voice from the People's Republic

Yesterday I tried to examine some of the "official" language that had begun to emerge in the wake of the devastating fire in Shanghai, primarily for the sake of comparing it with some of our own "official" language currently being invoked in the search for appropriate prosecution of those responsible for our economic crisis. Today, thanks to a report from Geoff Dyer of the Financial Times, I have discovered another "voice of reaction" from China, which is far more interesting than the "official" one:

Rather than being distressed at the part-destruction of one of Beijing’s landmarks, many young Chinese took pleasure in the humiliation of the national broadcaster. “Self-castration perfectly fits the image of CCTV which is the world’s number one eunuch media,” wrote widely read blogger Han Han.

CCTV is a broadcasting colossus, straddling 16 channels and bringing in over $2bn of revenues a year. Its annual New Year gala programme is watched by nearly 500m people.

Yet among the metropolitan Chinese who contribute to the country’s lively and ribald internet conversations, there is a deep well of disdain for the wooden style and propaganda of CCTV’s news programmes.

“CCTV is very broad-minded. They have focused so much on the fire in Australia that they obviously forget about the fire in their own backyard,” wrote blogger Caii after the incident was barely mentioned on the national broadcaster.

Internet chatrooms have been inundated with cartoons showing alien invaders attacking the CCTV buildings, while T-shirts are now on sale celebrating the blaze.

Wary of the potential backlash against CCTV, many publications were instructed by propaganda officials to use the version of events from the official Xinhua news agency.

Yet even the Xinhua story appeared to relish the travails of its cross-town rival. It quoted a fire official, Luo Yuan, who said that CCTV staff had ignored safety warnings from local police who had inspected the site. “We have video of the scene and remnants of the fireworks, which will serve as strong evidence in the investigation,” he was quoted as saying.

”There is barely anyone in the Chinese media who was not pleased to hear about the CCTV fire,” said one media industry insider who asked not to be named. ”The high-handed way the organisation dominates the media scene has made it universally hated, even by many of its own employees.”

Some of the schadenfreude is also down to the architecture. Made up of two sloping towers bolted together, Mr [Rem] Koolhaas’ design for the main building has won him the tag of genius from some architects but it is not loved by everyone in Beijing, where its many nicknames include “big underpants”.

Even though the larger building was untouched by the fire, some in the profession believe the blaze will become a symbol for the bursting bubble in brand-name architects.

This strikes me as an interesting sample of self-expression from "the people" who are beginning to wonder just what their "people's republic" has become. I have examined this situation in the past. Over a year ago, when the only voices concerned with a possible economic peril were consigned to the loony bin, I wrote a post on the rising trend of consumerism in China, suggesting that the very question of Chinese identity was going through a disruptive change. Let me reproduce a joke I invoked to try to make my point:

There is an old joke about Leonid Brezhnev at the height of his power in the Soviet Union. He invited his mother to visit and show her all the perquisites of his power: the dacha, the fleet of limousines, and all the luxury foods kept in his kitchen. After a few days of this grand tour, he said, "Well, mama, what to you think now of your little boy from Kamenskoe?" She looked back at him and said, "This is all very nice, my son; but what will you do when the Communists take over?"

Those who have "taken over" in China want to maintain all of the Maoist trappings of iron-fisted totalitarian control while enjoying all of the fruits of economic growth promised by the ideology of capitalism. Within this bipolar context, individual Chinese people have tried to celebrate wealth while respecting the "parental authority" of the government hierarchy. Today, however, that capitalist ideology is not cultivating those fruits; and China is feeling the same pinch that is being felt by the leading Western industrialized nations. As a result there is a new effort of people below that government hierarchy trying to make their voices heard; and those voices seem to have bought into my metaphor of the "stately capitalist mansion of Shanghai" in attacking not only CCTV but also the very life style embodied in that "mansion."

When one listens to "the voice of the people," rather than any government-based "official story," one quickly comes to realize than there is a tight coupling between the security of the economic framework and the effectiveness of governmental authority. This is why any strategy for recovery must not be confined to the "engines of the economy." Rather, it needs to address the broader scope of political economy, whether that scope rests on foundations of Adam Smith or Karl Marx. The neglect of that broader scope may have been a key factor in the tension between John Maynard Keynes and Franklin Roosevelt during the worst days of the Great Depression. When Roosevelt accused Keynes of being more of "a mathematician rather than a political economist," this had less to do with Keynes' understanding of conditions and more to do with his willingness to recognize the context in which those conditions were embedded and the need for the President of the United States to take that context into account in any action he took. As the Greek poet Archilochus (best known today through Isaiah Berlin) would have put it, Keynes was a hedgehog who knew economics very well, while Roosevelt was a fox who knew many things about both government and economics, even if he did not know economics as well as Keynes.

This time around we have Barack Obama as a fox; and, like Roosevelt, his dealings with the hedgehogs have not always been a model of achieving understanding through communication. Nevertheless, he leads an Administration that shows far more appreciation of both communication and understanding than that of his predecessor (even when, where the economy is concerned, achieving understanding is a formidable task). The Chinese government, on the other hand, is based on a tradition that honors authority far more than understanding (or, to invoke the language of Anthony Giddens, prioritizes domination over signification). This is not a particularly healthy environment for either hedgehogs or foxes! Nevertheless, in Dyer's report we encounter both hedgehogs and foxes struggling to be heard; and what will the authoritarians do? In 1989, when China was just beginning to see the benefits from its first steps into a market economy, voices were raised over the more general question of political economy in Tiananmen Square; and the world witnessed the brutal response of authoritarianism. This time the benefits will be harder to find, and authoritarianism still rules. It is hard to imagine that Koolhaas’ "stately mansion" will be the only casualty of a "crisis in communication" that may be more serious for China than the current economic troubles.

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