The west never seem to tire of telling the Chinese, especially Chinese government, about how China should become a more open society, and the Chinese never tire of telling the west to shut up and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.
The great irony is that for the most part, both sides agree on one thing: that China should become more open. It’s just that many westerners think that they should set a timetable which the Chinese should march to, and the Chinese believe that they should make the changes according to their own internal considerations. I believe that by publicly criticizing the Chinese government and policy, many well-intentioned western critics (and some not so well-intentioned), actually slow down the pace of China’s opening up because if the Chinese government and society changed more quickly, they would be seen as bowing to western pressure. That is something no Chinese government can afford to seen doing.
This is the core reason why I have so little time for most western critics of Chinese government and Chinese social reforms. At the end of the day, the Chinese government and people will have to proceed at a pace they are most comfortable with.
Some say that this is a naive approach which favors the government since, after all, they are in power. I don’t agree with this view. Thirty years of reforms have unleashed social forces which not even the Chinese government can hope to control and completely contain.
One interesting story is that of Fan Paopao, the teacher who ran away from his classroom, thinking first of his own personal safety, ahead of those of his students. Then, he wrote about it in his blog. This week, he was fired from his school, and has now become the subject of widespread ridicule.
But the true significance of the story is that Fan Meizhong is alive, and can freely speak and defend his actions and views in China. If he had had the temerity to do this 40 years ago during the Cultural Revolution, or even 20 years ago, there is a good chance that he would have been publicly denounced for the very least, and maybe have even been killed.
But he has not, and continues to defend his actions on his blog.
China has changed a lot.
It is becoming a much more open society, where different views can be heard. There are borders where the government will not countenance criticism, but as the society changes, those areas are becoming fewer and smaller. The society is becoming more and more what was called in Taiwan 多元化 or what is known in China as 多角化. This means that there are more different groups and subgroups, some of which will evolve their own subcultures within Chinese society.
Mao was never comfortable with this approach, he wanted society to be the same, right down to the dress code, not thinking and not criticizing, just obedient to him and his apparatus. Those days are gone. Like Fan Paopao, people are much more individualistic, and are not afraid to speak their minds. And they are willing to stand up for their views and take the consequences.
Without a doubt, there are groups and individuals in the Chinese government who are not comfortable with some of the changes this is leading to, but they cannot turn back the clock of reform and opening up. There may be many admirers of Mao Zedong in China, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would want to have another Cultural Revolution. (In the Chinese government’s official version of history, the Cultural Revolution is referred to as a “national disaster”.)
I think of the past eight years in the US as being much like America’s version of the Cultural Revolution. After 9/11, this administration tried to push its own agenda on the American people and on the rest of the world. Their interpretation was that those who attacked New York on that day hated America for its freedoms, and that the world is divided sharply between good and evil, with no room for anything in between. This meant that there must be a confrontational struggle which will end in final victory for good and defeat for evil. Ironically, in order to defend freedom, torture, the suspension of habeas corpus and other means which most Americans abhor had to be used.
Most Americans don’t subscribe to this view any longer. We’ll find out in November.
So maybe looking past all the political and social rhetoric, the west, America and China are not that different from each other after all? The challenge is that these changes are evolving in China, and do not make the western press because they are not “news”. This is why many western critics are hopeless ignorant. They don’t understand the social context of China, choosing instead to focus media attention on single issues.
In China, most of the most important things which happen do not make news, but in the aggregate, they are indeed revolutionary in scope.
If the west and China understood each other better and looked at each other in these terms, maybe there would be a lot less misunderstanding.