So, one year on. I’m back in the UK (briefly). It’s been an interesting year. I thought I’d close this blog down - and start up a new one elsewhere because, although the BBC was recently opened up in advance of the Olympics, many blog domains are still shut off behind the Great Firewall of China.
I’m not sure whether I’ll be going back to Urumqi in the future. This is partly due to personal reasons, but also because of my disquiet at the Chinese reaction to criticism over Tibet and the Olympics. The events of the last few months have highlighted the yawning cultural chasm between me and my Han girlfriend on issues like personal freedom. I have very mixed feelings about the whole thing.
Let’s get one thing straight: Western media coverage of China and the Tibetan situation has not been objective. China is portrayed as a nation where people cower in fear of a centralized dictatorship, crushed beneath the jackboot of the CCP. I’ve lived in Xinjiang on and off for three years now, a province which has similar issues to Tibet (although, of course, Muslims aren’t as sexy as Buddhists, so they get less media coverage). There are many problems in China, some of which I’ve mentioned in this blog, but I’m not sure I recognize the picture painted by Western media. That isn’t the country I’ve been living in.
Too much commentary on China is being framed through a lens looking 20+ years into the past, and the past is a different country. My overwhelming impression of the Chinese has been quite positive. On a personal level, one to one, I’ve encountered great friendliness and humanity. In many ways China could teach the UK a few things. Little fear of getting glassed on a Saturday night, or being mugged when walking around city streets in the dark. Families leave their toddlers alone to play on the grass in communal areas, unthinkable in the UK. People generally rub along with good humour, despite conditions being more cramped and basic than the UK. This wasn’t some Potemkin Village constructed for my benefit, it’s just how day-to-day life is there.
However, the whole Olympic/Tibet controversy revealed a collective mindset, as a culture/nation, that worries me. Check out the comments left on Chinadaily to see what I mean plus, increasingly, the postings on western newspapers (often purporting to be the views of foreigners rather than Chinese - people are actually employed to disseminate the CCP viewpoint this way).
What concerns me is that there’s no debate. It’s ALL coming from exactly the same viewpoint – five thousand years of culture, you don’t know Chinese history, western media is anti-China, what about X/Y/Z that the West did in the past, you’re just jealous now China is getting strong, soon we’ll repay you yang gui zi for the Eight Nations’ humiliation, yadda yadda yadda. It’s infantile, playground politics, like official attempts to control access to Western media. They have real points to score (genuine development in Tibet and Xinjiang, Western bias), but it’s drowned out by a tide of uninformed, triumphalist jingoism. Unfortunately, it’s not just a bunch of redtop reading, BNP-style knuckleheads making these statements. By definition of the fact they speak English, they’re the educated elite, the people who will be shaping and influencing public opinion in years to come.
It’s also worrying that a national media resource’s moderation policy permits blatantly racist and xenophobic commentary by Chinese citizens, but deletes temperate & reasonable posts expressing a different view. I know, because I’ve tried it (from cybercafés). Latterly, things have loosened up a bit on that score, presumably part of the same Olympics strategy that finally allowed access to the BBC. However, it remains to be seen whether such concessions will remain in place once the Games are finished. Google ‘One Hundred Flowers Campaign’ and see what you get…
There’s a fundamental lack of understanding about the way debate and the political system works in the West. The best example I can think of is Iraq. When I talked about, for instance, Chinese policy in Tibet (good and bad), I just got Iraq thrown in my face – and what could I say? All I could fire back is that over a million people demonstrated in London against the UK Government on the issue (without being shot in the streets), and it sparked discontent among the public that resulted in Blair losing his job and, possibly, will ultimately contribute to Labour being kicked out. The Chinese aren’t told about the huge popular opposition to the war (or other Government initiatives), for fairly obvious reasons. They only get the anti-China stuff. Is ignorance a defence?
This kind of freedom to express your views simply isn’t understood by many Chinese and, as a result, they’ve reacted badly to foreign criticism of China (see the BBC audio clip posted below). Although they may not be the brainwashed threat that many (especially Americans) seem to think they are, there is now an ongoing shift in economic and financial power, west to east. In the longer term this will be far more significant than blips like the Credit Crunch. How will Western governments, economies and social systems react to that transfer of power – and how will the Chinese wield it? You may think that’s not your problem….but you’d be wrong.