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Let’s Get Past the China Monolith Narrative

In the past month, there has been much discussion about how the Chinese government’s policy to Tibet has been intransigent and shows that China has not changed and reformed and become a more open society. Either deliberately or by implication, there is this myth that China is one big country with an authoritarian government which has a great plan to gobble up the world and take away the world’s natural resources, only to turn them into cheap products exported all over the world.

And China will not change, or make any effort to accommodate the rest of the world.

Many in the western media have not only failed to take into account changes in Chinese society, they persist in putting forth this outdated myth which many unknowing observers in the west continue to believe. One favorite is when speaking about China to always put it in the context of events of 1989. News images in the west routinely use an image of a man standing defiantly in front of a tank. The subtext of the message is simple: this is a government which does not care about rights and is not open. The result is that western audiences’ image of China is frozen in the past, and does not update to reflect current realities, and that is the reality of what China is today.

This would be as wrong, unbalanced and irrelevant as showing an image of a shackled African slave to show how racist American society is. Yes, there are injustices in society, but selecting extreme examples and implicitly citing them as fact do not contribute to the conversation. In fact, they make it much more difficult to reach some kind of understanding which can traverse cultural and linguistic boundaries.

In fact, Chinese society in 2008 is vastly different from 1989. For the most part, people have more freedoms than they did in 1989: they are free to choose their jobs, buy their own homes, where they live, who they marry and even to travel (with some restrictions) outside of China. Politics has taken a back seat, and most care more about their grocery bills (which have been rising precipitously) than what is going on in Tibet and adjacent regions.

Are there injustices? Yes, just as there are in any society which is undergoing rapid change. Just as there is no child who can learn to walk without taking some falls, there are sometimes setbacks. But let’s put things in context. The general trend is forward and to more openness, to a society which more closely resembles any modern society, warts and all.

Now there is another side to the recent Tibet events. If the Chinese government is indeed so powerful and all-knowing, why were they so taken off-guard by the events of March 14, and the other events which took place inside and outside China in the days and weeks after?

Does this sound like a government which knows everything about its citizens? I don’t think so.

My experience is that governments are incapable of performing very smart, or even halfway intelligent, acts. On an operational level, nineteen hijackers successfully pulled off the 9/11 terrorist attacks which killed 3,000 people, caused lasting damage to the American economy measuring more than 100 billion dollars, not to mention the American psyche. This was all done by nineteen highly-motivated individuals who were willing to die in the process of causing lasting damage to America. There was no government involvement of any kind.

Then contrast this with the current US administration’s decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power. So far, this war has cost more than 4,000 American lives, thousands of Iraqi lives, and according to Joseph Stiglitz, has cost more than three trillion US dollars (most of it borrowed money; this is probably the first war in world history where the expense was put on the tab to be paid off by future generations) without any end in sight.

Who was smarter? Who is dumber?

This is the trouble with government conspiracy theories. They imply a level of secrecy, coordination, cooperation and intelligence which are almost impossible to find in any government.

The Chinese government is no exception to this rule.




5 Responses to “Let’s Get Past the China Monolith Narrative”

  1. Dave Nielsen says:

    Most of us westerners don’t think the Chinese government is all powerful and all-knowing. Quite the opposite. Just as the top-down, communist style of the Soviet Union couldn’t control its economic resources efficiently, the Chinese government isn’t able to control its inhabitants various world views.

    We Americans have made many mistakes, such as slavery as you have mentioned. You could also have mentioned our treatment of Native Americans. Both are examples of undeserved evil perpetrated on people who could not defend themselves. But that was 120 years ago and we know better now.

    So what is China’s excuse? Certainly as an enlightened society, it should know that it cannot tell its inhabitants how to think. Should it tell the Tibetan people how to practice religion? Any country that cannot give its inhabitants basic freedoms such as these shows its weakness and is bound to falter. And the sooner China demands its rightful place as an actor on the world stage, the more these warts will show. The protests over the 2008 Olympics are only one example.

    For the sake of all Chinese people, I hope the Tibetans are given the freedom to practice their religion and keep their cultural heritage intact. For as the Tibetans go, so do all minority groups in China.

    Note: I have and will continue to enjoy your column. It is the best at representing both opportunities and challenges facing China that I have found.

  2. [...] admin wrote an interesting post today on Let’s Get Past the China Monolith NarrativeHere’s a quick excerpt… and even to travel (with some restrictions) outside of China. Politics has taken a back seat, and most care more about their grocery bills (which have been rising precipitously) than what is going on in Tibet and adjacent regions. … [...]

  3. Carl says:

    @ Dave Nielsen

    What’s China’s excuse?

    Perhaps they are just learning from how America deals with Iraq?

  4. Will Lewis says:

    This is the trouble with government conspiracy theories. They imply a level of secrecy, coordination, cooperation and intelligence which are almost impossible to find in any government.

    Agreed. I remember the good ‘ole days, or at least what my grandpa tells me of them, when people made fun of the government for its perplexing ineptness rather than its extreme planning and intelligence. The inefficiencies are often so startling that they seem they could not but be the result of conspiracy, but hey, it’s government work.

  5. [...] have nothing to do with each other, organize in large numbers so quickly in a society which many westerners see as authoritarian? Are they government-led or influenced, or do they do it themselves? How do they come to believe [...]