Let’s See How Many Ways We Can Get This Wrong

Following the Sichuan Wenchuan earthquake, it has been very interesting to watch how the Chinese government and people have reacted, and how many western observers have reacted. For the first time in Chinese history, the Chinese government has ordered that Chinese flags have to be lowered to half-staff, for three days from May 19-21. What is most significant, is that this is the first time that the flag has been lowered for ordinary civilians in Chinese history, ever.

China has always had a larger population than other countries, and the country has had very bloody periods in its history. Some 20M Chinese were killed in the 19th century during a civil war, the Taiping Rebellion, and possibly another 20M were killed in WWII, when Japan invaded China. Millions also died because of bad political policy decisions in the 1950s and 1960s, which reached their culmination in the Cultural Revolution.

Unlike in Washington DC, where you can find war monuments to Americans killed in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, there are no war memorials to Chinese soldiers or civilians killed in these wars, or to any who died as a result of bad government policy decisions. For the most part, they have just become unknown individuals who died and are now forgotten.

This is why the decision to lower the Chinese flag for ordinary civilians is so different and marks a break with the past. For the first time in its history, the Chinese government is saying that it is OK to mourn for ordinary civilians. This did not happen during the Tangshan earthquake, which killed some 450,000 civilians in 1976, or in 1989, or even so much during the SARS crisis of 2003.

For the first time, a Chinese government has embraced the idea that any human life, even that of ordinary human lives, has value. Actually, this is a very western concept, and is a very important step on the road to democracy. Is this not a valuable change in China’s reforms and opening up? This will make it that much more difficult for any Chinese government to dismiss the value of any Chinese lives which are lost in the future, whether they are due to natural disaster, or war, or for political reasons.

The Chinese government and party have activated their media, and issued an edict that entertainment websites should shut down over the next three days, entertainment programming should be curtailed, along with three minutes of mourning each day.

This move immediately attracted strong criticism from many members of the Twitterati in the US who, to put it frankly, have embarrassingly little understanding of China, and continue to see China in over-simplified black and white stereotypes, as you can see in this feed from Robert Scoble’s Friendfeed account.

When I think that the people who have Friendfeed accounts represent smart, well-educated, tech-savvy people, and they say these things, I just get depressed. The stereotypes and distrust of China just run so deep.

I get a very different view simply because I read Chinese, and I know what many Chinese say and think on the Internet, where people have much more latitude to express themselves than on TV and the print media. Sure, the government has an agenda and is spinning and exploiting this to make themselves look good. And in some ways, they are doing it in a clumsy way. But the government is now accountable to protect the lives of ordinary Chinese.

After 9/11, the US government claimed all kinds of special powers, including surveillance wiretaps, the need to kidnap and torture terror suspects, and the need to invade Iraq because the government of Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and the government needed to keep these weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. If there is one thing we can learn from all tragedies, it is that all governments have agendas, and they will exploit every opportunity to push their agendas in the event of a tragedy.

But it does not mean that the original intent should be completely dismissed out of hand as the actions of a dictatorial regime.

Maybe I’m asking too much, but can some people, Americans especially, try to look at China through the eyes of the Chinese, and not always try to scare and frighten other Americans into asking what the “rise” of China means to the US and the west? Is it too much to think or ask that maybe, just maybe, Chinese don’t spend everyday plotting how to steal their jobs and turn America into a third-world economy? And that maybe, they are just ordinary people who are trying to get along in life, and raise their child and get him/her in a good school, and buy a house? And that the government is far from perfect, but it has allowed ordinary Chinese to have a much better standard of living than before, and is now, for the first time, beginning to care for and mourn the loss of ordinary civilian lives?

There’s a very simple rule: If you reach out and treat people like friends, they tend to act like friends, and if you treat them suspiciously, they become enemies.

In the beginning, it’s hard to reach out and trust people you don’t know well as friends because they seem so foreign and different, but it’s always works out better in the end.

UPDATE 5/20/08: I was interviewed by Christine Lu of China Business Network about this article and you can read that interview here. This article is also referenced in a blog article for the Guardian (UK).
EastSouthNorthWest has an article about how the Central Publicity Department, which is a Chinese government and party organ in charge of making sure that the official line is carried in the Chinese media, dealt with the earthquake crisis.

46 Responses to “Let’s See How Many Ways We Can Get This Wrong”

  1. winserzhao says:

    long but really worthy to read.
    especially i agree with the rule: If you reach out and treat people like friends, they tend to act like friends, and if you treat them suspiciously, they become enemies.
    the globe is a big family.east and west,we are the member of it.
    im happy to know many people outside china have the same feeling as a Chinese has.
    still,we are in deep sorrow.
    am a Chinese.

  2. Kaiser says:

    An excellent post, Paul. I hope that it’s widely read by the commentators on Friendfeed cited above, who tend to frame this whole thing in terms of information control. Spontaneous mourning and extraordinary acts of charity — unprecedented, really — aren’t the result of Party machinations. There are all-day lines a blood banks because people are so eager to give. Corporate donations have been amazing. Celebrity charity on the scale we’ve seen this week is completely without precedent, too. It would be naive to think that this outpouring would have been so intense had the quake not taken place during this recent surge of nationalism (more charitably, “patriotism,”) but still I’ve never seen anything like it.

    The three-day moratorium, judging from the reactions of Chinese people I’ve spoken with this morning, are deemed appropriate for the magnitude of this disaster. And it contrasts well with the Bush administration’s calls for Americans to spend themselves into more credit card debt as a means of striking back against Al Qaeda. As one person observed in that Friendfeed link above, there’s nothing wrong with telling Nero to stop fiddling.

  3. dedlam says:

    I fully agree with your summation. In fact these last 4 days have made me very proud to be Chinese, an image that I had odds with growing up in Australia and holding popular western views of China for most of my life. These next 3 days of entertainment black-out I feel is good leadership. The nation needs an outlet to express their grief and the government had provided that outlet. I am sure that in the end, if the population really disagrees with the ban, then they will find a way to entertain themselves beyond TV and online games, but I have a feeling that a large proportion of the population will actually opt to “fast” in the spirit of the ban rather than feeling oppressed.

    In fact I feel that this move is inspired since it would be unreasonable to ask the general population to fast in the traditional sense of not eating for 3 days or to not celebrate for 3 years after the death of a family member.

    dedlams last blog post..PR and the Management of a Real Crisis

  4. Web2asia says:

    well written Paul!

  5. […] will resume its game services at 1:00 A.M. on May 22, 2008.Also, have a read of Paul Denlinger’s hearfelt blog post reacting to the US Twitter discussion and western media reporting on the situation:The Chinese […]

  6. T says:

    I think one of the problems we face (and here I mean expats here in China) is that we’re pretty knowledgable about both sides of the fence – and it is a fence. Back in the West (in my case, the US) there’s such an un-nuanced view of China as mentioned above as job stealing, planet polluting, “goons and thugs” while here in China they think that westerners are jealous of China’s growth and advances and will seek to tear China down.

    I think its difficult to ask either population to try and understand each other better – especially when the main pages of discourse are tinaya bbs’s and or other similar mono-sided discussion forums.

    How to tackle that issue, I have no idea, but I think you make excellent points. I fear they’ll be drowned out in a sea of shouting and ALL CAPS typing though.

  7. […] government. However, looked at in context this is a significant inflection point. Paul Denlinger explains that in terms of China’s track record of not openly recognizing calamities, calling for this […]

  8. SinaSource says:

    Perhaps your comments might also be directed at Chinese–who tend to see foreigners in ways that are stereotypical, uninformed, and pervaded by assumptions brought about by an atrocious and sometimes racist educational system.

    I have never claimed that one side has a clean track record, while the other is all wrong. There is plenty of blame to go on all sides. Have you read this article? PMD

  9. […] the China Vortex blog (h/t to Imagethief), Paul Delinger has written an excellent post on the three-day mourning period, in which he notes that for the […]

  10. Davidatsg says:

    Thanks! I tend to agree with you more on your second half of this post. Also, in reply with T, a good way of turning “sitting on the fence” into “demolishing the fence”, in my personal view, is that “you” can be pro-actively be an ambassador of one-side of the fence to the other. Somehow, the Western media has shaped the view of the general public toward China. So has the Chinese government. Governments have more than eough their own interests to deal with, so at the government-level, it is very tough to reach a point of mutual understanding for the general public. there are so many people who fall into such trap. I believe the least we can do is to influence the people around us. “Seeing is believing”: send more Americans to visit China and allow more Chinese to visit the US.

  11. Great post, I didn’t know the special significance of lowering the flag in China.

    Some Twitterati seem to think that because they know a little about technology, they should have (and express) an opinion about matters they have no clue about. I hope those people take the time to read your article.

  12. dani19 says:

    Just a comment about a factual statement:
    “there are no war memorials to Chinese soldiers or civilians killed in these wars, or to any who died as a result of bad government policy decisions”
    This is certainly not entirely true. Indeed there are lots of memorials (all over the country) to commemorate the people who sacrificed their lives in wartimes, and schoolchildren are often organized to visit these places since it’s great for the nationalistic education, and in history lessons students all learn by heart how many lives were lost in each of these wars. Of course, bad government policy decisions like the cultural revolution aren’t treated the same way.

  13. Thanks for this very interesting and well written post, Paul. While we should not refrain from criticizing what can and should be improved (such as the still insufficient freedom of speech in China, or the unfortunate support given by the Chinese government of the Burmese junta, but that is another story), it is also important to report – as you did – on the significant and encouraging progress made in China on many fronts.

    I also liked the comment by “T”, as it is indeed important for those of us with “one foot in China and one foot outside” (physically or mentally) to act as a bridge of understanding: it is not very constructive to remain too “binary” when – as you pointed at – nodoby’s perfect, and … no country has a “perfect” track record (like: guns are still not banned in the US…).

    Pierre-Philippe Martins last blog post..China backs Burma’s generals

  14. edwin heng says:

    Indeed, the 3-day stoppage of public entertainment is a very Chinese cultural thing. Filial piety, respect of the dead, is a very Chinese thing, and people used to mourn for 7 years, 3 years, or other number of years, according to the relationship with the dead. Even till the early years of the Chinese Republic, people still followed that tradition. Today, even in Chinese communities the world over (even in Singapore, where I live), the Chinese mourn for some 49 days, and hold a commemorative rite on the 7th Day. In this sense, the 3-day mourning period commencing on 20th May is appropriately starting on the 7th day too. And in the past, as even now, in Chinese tradition, abstaining from entertainment in the period of mourning is considered only right and proper. To do so otherwise would be deemed as severely disrespectful to the dead. Frankly, the Chinese public sees this ban as part of tradition, and it represents the highest mark of respect that a nation could accord its dead. To have it otherwise would be frankly most wrong in Chinese culture.
    So, indeed, please do understand Chinese traditions and culture before being cynical.

  15. edwin heng says:

    By the way, there ARE memorials/monuments to the dead Chinese people from WW2. In Tiananmen Squre, the Memorial to the People’s Dead are for all the civilians and soldiers who died in all the previous wars – Sino-Jap/WW2 and the Chinese Civil War included. In Nanking, there are memorials to the Nanking Massacre. In Shanghai, along the bund, there is a memorial to those who died too, and in major wartime cities, there are other similar memorials.

  16. Ganzimai says:

    Excellent statement… deserves to be read by a much wider audience.

  17. Jenkin says:

    Firstly, saying that people who use Twitter are smarter than average – well, that’s just plain silly. People who use “the internet” aren’t smarter at all. Hell, the Ph.D’s at my mom’s job send her well-known hoaxes and email worms all the time.

    And there are tons of memorials to war dead and such all over China. It even has a name, “Red Tourism”.

  18. MyLaowai says:

    Of course, if you keep reaching out and treating people like friends, only to be rewarded by having them treat you as an enemy, not just once or twice, but for deacdes, then it should come as no surprise that some suspicion has evolved.

    MyLaowais last blog post..Quakes and Fakes

  19. Andrew says:

    This sad event has brought empathy for many people across the world, and I really feel for the people of Sichuan who have lived in a China that has not enjoyed the same freedom and standards of living as many other parts in the world. I was starting to see this tragic event as something that might draw China and the rest of the world closer together, which would be great for the Oympics. It is tragic that it takes such awful loss of human life and destruction of whole towns for this to be realised.

    However, now I’m becoming torn once again as unfortunately, the Central Govt has stepped in again and abused its rights to control people. As a Westerner living in China I am frustrated again that I have most of my western TV channels blocked for the next 3 days, and am unable to see the biggest event in the football calendar – the Champions League final on Wed night. These are channels (in English, Japanese, French, German, and those from Hong Kong/Taiwan) that are already blocked to Chinese citizens – so I take this as a completely unnecessary removal of freedom.

    Do I really need to mourn at 3am in the morning? Do I really need the Govt to tell me how to mourn? Do I really need the Govt to control my access to freedoms/information? Once again, the dictatorial nature of this Govt disappoints me, just when I was warming to their quick response and the humanity shown by its leaders.

    In the big scheme, this is a minor thing for us to go without, however, it is important to me, and as a Westerner I mourn for the people of this event, but my way of doing this is different from the Chinese culture, and I don’t need to be told how to mourn.

  20. winserzhao says:

    3 minutes mourning,hearing the alert and siren,thinking the dead in quake,
    if you can feel the sorrow too,you will know Chinese better.

    winserzhaos last blog post..May 23 Beijing Charity Cocktail sponsored by The China Business Network-By elliottng

  21. Patty Hartwell says:

    What a fantastic and heartfelt post this is. I’ve read it a few times because there is quite a lot to learn about how this tragedy is affecting and changing China. Mr. Denlinger is illuminating this watershed moment in China’s history for us in ways I have not read of in other coverage and I am most grateful to him for doing so.

  22. scott says:

    Thanks for this, really excellent post. I’ve not been in China long but I feel very proud to be here and to have made so many great friends here. Your simple rule:

    “There’s a very simple rule: If you reach out and treat people like friends, they tend to act like friends, and if you treat them suspiciously, they become enemies.”

    sums it up perfectly.

  23. Lonnie says:

    It is a great time to head for Hong Kong and renew that VISITORS visa Andy!

  24. Rick says:

    Be thankful that football is all you have to whine about right now.

  25. flotsam says:

    “As a Westerner living in China I am frustrated again that I have most of my western TV channels blocked for the next 3 days, and am unable to see the biggest event in the football calendar – the Champions League final on Wed night.” – such hardship Andrew, I feel your pain.
    Mourning, if it is to have any meaning, is not just tokenism – e.g. a few minutes of quiet fidgeting and then back to business as normal – it is something a little deeper than that and requires actions of the mourner which actually inconvenience him/her [it’s the same in every world culture]. Right now you are in the midst of events which are outside your control. If the earthquake had struck your city you would probably be missing more than a few football matches – think on.

    At the end of the day, this is not your country, your culture or your nation. I get the impression you ought to be elsewhere.

  26. Wayne says:

    In fact there are plenty of memorials to ordinary people in China – even more so after China became socialist.

    Memorial to Tangshan earthquake victims.

    By the way did America have three days mourning for Katrina victims?

    Otherwise your article makes some good points.

  27. Li Ruike says:

    While we’re counting victims in China, does anyone have a good figure for those children killed by infanticide, child labor incidents, and abortion (forced and otherwise)? I’m guessing it’s in the millions. Some people think these people are too young to count. After all, they don’t even have a voice. But how is that different from the rest of the people in China?
    I’m sure someone will soon scream at me that China has too many people. Hmm.

  28. Albert says:

    Very interesting perspective. I was a little surprised myself last night to turn on the TV here in Guangzhou and see that every single channel was either doing something about the earthquake or was not broadcasting.

  29. […] you haven’t already, please read Paul Denlinger’s recent post, “Let’s See How Many Ways We Can Get This Wrong,” at his China Vortex blog. It’s a reaction to the way many Western digerati have […]

  30. […] historic public acknowledgment of a domestic tragedy (an opinion also argued by Paul Denlinger at The China Vortex). One only gets so many chances to witness history, especially when it’s unfolding just up the […]

  31. Dana says:

    While good article overall…this statement reeks of ethnocentrism: “For the first time, a Chinese government has embraced the idea that any human life, even that of ordinary human lives, has value. Actually, this is a very western concept.”

    Are you kidding me?


    Oh I’m sorry. You’re right the government should think about the expatriates that make up 0.00000000000000001% of the population in China during a time of national mourning. How wrong of them.

  32. […] has it right when he states that the foreign media and twitterati has shed this event in the wrong light – for the vast majority of Chinese people, this is a tragedy that has helped pull a nation […]

  33. Andrew says:

    Hi all, a few days ago I left a message and at the time I was quite annoyed, I now realise that what I said was very wrong, selfish and kind of small picture-ish…. Sorry for those who I offended. It was inappropriate, and I realise it totally pales to the suffering continuing by so many in Western China.

  34. […] The China Vortex – Let’s See How Many Ways We Can Get This Wrong […]

  35. kommune says:

    ditto your thoughts. comparing the still rising death toll to a football game is an exercise only possible in the monocapitalistic world view. the problem i have with “freedom” (particularly those of speech) is that most of the time, it’s wasted on idiots. there is no real moral argument to football at any cost.

    you must be watching the china-tibet incident, noting the victories being scored and coming to the conclusion that continuing criticism of china will always bring about positive (and this is arguable) change. at a purely governmental level, how different are the american and chinese governments? freedom of speech, the right to vote and voter choice and (of course) economic freedoms are the oft repeated wish list for “democracy” to thrive. yet, there are precious few differences between the world’s most populous nation and the world’s biggest windbag. democracy as we know it has proven to be diametrically opposed to idea of freedom just as communism has.

    except perhaps in france, where consecutive governments have truly been afraid of its people, instead of the other way around. and yet…

  36. @kommune We are in agreement that there is no ideal political system on this planet. What is important is to relentlessly keep highlighting good and bad events or systems whenever (and wherever) you see / feel it, so as to “nudge” things forward. Obviously, the limitation to the “Vox Populi Vox Dei” principle is that, while it’s sometimes good to be able to change a government via general elections, “mobs” are generally not conducive of good outcomes. It’s a little bit like accounting, where specialists talk about “Generally Accepted (Accounting) Principles”, but with such principles evolving with time and place: the same can probably be said about politics and society.

    Pierre-Philippe Martins last blog post..Sadest picture

  37. Nopropoganda says:

    That last post is the perfect example of freedom of speech being wasted on idiots. I’d rather be part of the “windbag” (which is OK as a long as it says the truth) than an authoritarian government that tells its people how to mourn….three minutes or so a day is one thing but it shouldn’t cut anything off to its population. The overall reaction to that dumb order is actually much less than it should have been. If there’s one thing the media in this country gets right, it’s that the Chinese government is not a friend of the West and it probably won’t ever be.

  38. @noprogoganda I trust you were referring to the “last but one” post ;)

    Pierre-Philippe Martins last blog post..Time Lapse video of Los Angeles

  39. […] from the Rodney King Riots in the 1990’s seems to apply today so well. I wanted to highlight a piece by Paul Denlinger at China Vortex this weekend, partially because I enjoyed it, and partially because it ignited a […]

  40. […] the Chinese internet moved out of its three-day mourning period earlier this week following the 5.12 earthquake, many questions remain to be […]

  41. kommune says:

    the problem, of course, is that there is no such thing as “no propaganda” or political “truth”. following pierre’s point, a few people put forward some “generally accepted principles”, while (and this i’ve added) the rest of us work ceaselessly to circumvent, nullify or otherwise render irrelevent these principles.

    it’s a carefully cultivated illusion. all governments (hell, all human beings) have an agenda which they advance, usually to the detriment of another. the Chinese living under authoritarian rule have no illusions about their ability to peacefully influence policy. the average flag waving democracy advocate is full of these illusions. five years of protest later, at home and abroad, there’s still a war in iraq (this, despite one of the vaunted “free elections” having taken place). from the outside looking in, we can only concede that either the war in iraq has the support of a (slim) majority of americans (and the revulsion of the rest of the world), or that democracy is broken.

    the Truth is that even if there is “truth” in politics, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year – by politicians and corporations who have vested interest in policy – to subvert the process of democracy and limit the freedom of information. they can do this, because… hey, that’s the failsafe that’s been built into modern democracy. nothing has changed. information is the fuel that powers governments.

    and where the internet has created a market for the free exchange of ideas, the dumbing power of poor education, news-entertainment and infomercials ensures the democratic people of the world continue to ignore geopolitical issues, and focus instead on consumption, britney’s on-again-off-again hair (on both ends) and how evil jeremiah wright is. brave new world indeed.

    four legs good, two legs bad. four legs good, two legs bhaaaaaad.

  42. John Carter says:

    Great article, with just a few minor factual mistakes.

    My spin? I live in China and have taught at a small college in Guangdong for the past three years.

    First, let’s talk about this “autocratic” government. It’s anything but. This is no miliary junta. It is a representative government, elected, I grant, by people who are qualified, both by talent and desire, by members of the Communist Party. It represents every facet of sciety and all ethnic groups. Best I can tell, leaders respond to the needs of all these elements and, again, best I can tell, they respond in an appropriate manner. Things come up from the bottom and they are dealt with at the top.

    And they do respond. The Sichuan Disaster, which is ongoing as I write, is an example. Volumes will be written about this disaster and how the Chinese government, military, police, volunteers and ordinary people have marshalled resources and imposed their will on this most horrible of earthquakes. Did I mind three minutes of silence. I took my kids out to the flagpole in front of my teaching building and wept with them.

    A short lesson in political science: China is a sovereign country, with borders and laws by which it is governed. As an expat, I have no problem with any of these laws as they seem reasonable, given the circumstances. If you don’t like the laws, you are free to leave. If you stay, muffle the criticism. It serves no purpose. If you want AM Talk Radio, go somewhere you can have it 24-hours a day.

    I like this country and have been here long enough to be close to Chinese citizens. I have taught 600 of their college kids. On the subject of “mutual suspicion,” I have never heard, seen or read one word of criticism of the USA. Why do I read every day criticism, actual and veiled, of China? Let me suggest three reasons: The first is our general cynicism about anyone anywhere else and the need of the media for “software” to fill all that time and print; The second is fear, which I think is unfounded. The third is envy, because it seems to be working.

    Why don’t the Chinese criticise us? They’re too busy moving forward.

  43. winserzhao says:

    @John LOL,your conclusion: we are busy moving forward. indeed,we need develop our country in many fields. education,economic, military and politic system. yeah, we really have something to do. we are still a developing country. there are many problems still not solved yet. if you admit this backgrounds,you will be calm down. we need criticizes. but we dont need malice attack. it is no use for mutual development. thanks Paul,give us a dialague on the China-west.

  44. kommune says:

    given the miserable state of my mandarin, i my knowledge of what goes on in the chinese media is the china daily, and the “second hand” conversations with colleagues, journalists and editors.

    and while there have been no overt “attacks” on specific western governments coming from chinese, they’ve (and rather cleverly i think), syndicated negative commentary for reprint and discussion.

    “too busy moving forward” is a generous statement i should think, but it’ll serve.

  45. […] China’s Search Log Displays Moment of Mourning Let’s See How Many Ways We Can Get This Wrong Tianya BBS Provides Platform Connecting Sichuan Earthquake Victims, Volunteer […]

  46. […] historic public acknowledgment of a domestic tragedy (an opinion also argued by Paul Denlinger at The China Vortex). One only gets so many chances to witness history, especially when it’s unfolding just up […]