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western media have not only failed to take into account changes in Chinese society, they persist in putting forth this outdated myth which many unknowing observers in the west continue to believe.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.