What they say about opinions—everybody’s got one—is why I’ve been reluctant to voice my own. But in the midst of cynical, derisive, Other-ing coverage of the Olympics, the know-it-all attitudes about democracy and environmental consciousness constantly declared by my fellow Americans, and the shrill, divisive allegations of “shill” at the slightest hint of nationalism, I’m starting to reach the end of my rope.
China’s wrongs make a long list… Sudan, Tibet, the Three Gorges Dam, human rights, the environment, air quality, state-controlled media, restrictions on free speech and freedom of the press, the Cultural Revolution…. You’d have to live under a rock to avoid these valid complaints registered as China seeks respect in the global community.
But I’m skeptical that, unless you’re a politician or a writer for the New York Times, your carping bothers China more now than before. This is a country with 5,000 years of history and culture, and a very recent revolutionary past. How pompous it is to think that the PRC would just adopt Western ideologies if the blogosphere disses it enough. China has undergone massive changes in the past few decades, and I hope that its forthcoming changes will do more good than harm. Still, my fellow Americans seem to lack the most basic knowledge about Chinese history, people, and culture, and in place of the willingness to participate in a true discourse with Chinese people, I’ve witnessed major cynicism.
What bothers me most about this suddenly pervasive criticality of China’s policies is the colonial subtext that Westerners are more advanced; we know better.
But are we more advanced?
Americans committed frightening acts of environmental devastation during our Industrial Revolution. In the process of becoming a world superpower, we’ve deforested our own “land ‘wooded to the brink of the sea'” (as described by Pilgrims quoted in Barbara Freese’s Coal: A Human History, 103), fraught our American cities with the “‘frightful infliction'” of coal smoke (Freese 149), and created horrifying Burtynsky-esque quarries.
But that’s all in the past, you might argue, Now, we recycle, eat organic goat cheese and drive hybrid cars! But the fact is, while air quality may have improved, we’re continuing to do exceptional damage to the atmosphere: North America is responsible for 46.4% of carbon emissions in the world, and has been consistently responsible for far more carbon emissions per capita than any other region.
So we want China to do as we say, not as we do. We want China to stop burning coal to manufacture cheap goods, but we can’t stop buying stuff. We want China to improve the quality of life for its migrant workers, but we can barely mobilize our own representatives and workforce to hold American corporations with cut-throat practices like Walmart responsible for treating workers decently, much less negotiating higher standards among overseas manufacturers. We want China to improve its human rights record, yet our own government refuses to adhere to the Geneva conventions at Abu Gharib, Guantanamo Bay, or in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program (see A.C. Thompson’s and Trevor Paglen’s Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights).
Seems hypocritical to me.
The Olympics coverage also brought to light how some Westerners have a habit of saying “The Chinese” to connote a monolithic race, a country of bicycle-riding, uniform-clad, ageless Orientals, where everyone is blessed with “ancient wisdom” but ignorant of, say, the effects of pollution.
It sounds positively Borg-like. In Star Trek,
The Borg were a pseudo-race of cybernetic beings, or cyborgs, from the Delta Quadrant. No truly single individual existed within the Borg Collective (with the possible sole exception of the Borg Queen), as they were linked into a hive mind. Their ultimate goal was perfection through the forcible assimilation of diverse sentient species and knowledge. As a result, they were among the most dangerous and feared races in the galaxy.
If this doesn’t sound like the fictionalization of a stereotype of inscrutable Asian Communists, I don’t know what does. If I sound bitter, it’s because I’ve witnessed firsthand how a casual conversation among Americans can move from steel manufacturing to Chinese coal to dog-eating in 30 seconds flat.
However, I’ve been to China, and I can testify that China is more diverse than most Americans expect. There are, in fact, ethnic groups. There are regional dialects, cultures, even cuisines! Also unlike the Borg, people think for themselves.
I could do without the perception of homogeneity, as well as the condescension of Chinese culture and people—such as my neighbor’s singalong to the Chinese national anthem, with only the words “ching” and “chong.”
I could also do without MSNBC’s broadcasters trying “weird” food, since with all of the criticisms lodged against China, you’d think there would be more critical thinking on Americans’ own tourist gazes.
The tourist gaze seeks out visual representations that reinforce difference, based on one’s values, culture and identity. In other words, you only see what you want to see. I saw this borne out in my visit to China: Maoist propaganda was widely available, but only in tourist areas. Clearly, a state and a populous are two different entities. I, for one, would not wish to be lumped into the same group as our current presidential administration, yet many Americans find no problem lumping together the Chinese state with Chinese people.
The extent of the wolfish savoring of Chinese difference seems especially clear in the coverage of the lip sync flap. I believe this news item was lambasted beyond reasonable proportions because it suits very old American perceptions of Chinese people — corrupt, manipulative and untrustworthy. As Bret Harte wrote in his 1870 poem, “The Heathen Chinee”, Chinese people are peculiar for their “ways that are dark / And for tricks that are vain.”
Of course, it is completely hypocritical for Americans to cast judgment. Americans have been known to be superficial and manipulate because of it, too: Remember Zelma Davis lip-syncing Mary Wash’s part in C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat”? And we don’t spare children from our media culture either: it’s not a stretch to imagine that the freakish longevity of the obsession with JonBenét Ramsey is abetted by her doll-like image in pageant photographs. How easy it is to be critical of China, rather than actually do something to reform our own standards of beauty, and the way women and girls are valued.
The Rugged Individualist
With erudite disdain characteristic to the New Yorker, George Packer (“The Only Game in Town,” New Yorker Magazine, August 25, 2008) wrote about the opening ceremonies
Was this a front, or had the government realized that the patois of mushy togetherness is now a lingua franca, not least in commercials, and thus well worth acquiring? On every seat was a sack of goodies, and we were duly taught to rattle our drums, wave our Chinese flags, shake our funky light sticks….
I understand Packer’s skepticism of the Chinese government, but really, sometimes a glow stick is just a glow stick. Relax! Is putting aside one’s individuality and cynicism to show unity with people from around the world at the Olympics breaking your moral compass? That’s like attending a youth conference and trying to look cool by not participating. What’s the point?
Americans, it seems, can’t seem to come to terms with the fact that Chinese culture has always emphasized group identity (family, village, and, yes, the state) before individual identity. To a jaded journalist, waving a glow stick feels uncomfortably like being a mindless shill in the grand machinations of the PRC. But I imagine if a Chinese person believes that the Olympics is biggest thing to come to China in his or her lifetime, waving a glow stick is a way to be part of a group bigger than one’s self, village, and even, one’s state—an exhilarating opportunity for people in a society that’s been closed for so long.
There was a time not too long ago when China-bashing was reserved for job protectionists, Ford/Chevy owners, and pro-Tibet movements; that seems like the good old days. I’m afraid, though, that now that the tongues have been unleashed, the economy worsens, and the American Century twilights, much more mindless China-bashing is in store. I know my fellow Americans don’t take their freedom of speech for granted, but I wish they’d be a little more thoughtful and curious about the world with it.