Miles from Home

China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

Posts Tagged ‘Olympics

Ai Weiwei & China’s Continued Crackdown on Dissent

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Ai Weiwei's self-portrait of himself and the "Grass Mud Horse" doll, another popular symbol of dissent in China.

Ai Weiwei's self-portrait of himself and the "Grass Mud Horse" doll, another popular symbol of dissent in China.

Controverisal Chinese artist and popular blogger Ai Weiwei is recovering from cranial surgery in a Munich hospital bed today.

Ai made modest media rounds in the run-up to the Olympics.  The son of famous poet Ai Qing and an internationally reknowned architect, he had been part of the team to design and build the Bird’s Nest.  He later went on to boycott the opening ceremony, calling for change in China.  In an editorail for The Guardian he wrote,

We must bid farewell to autocracy. Whatever shape it takes, whatever justification it gives, authoritarian government always ends up trampling on equality, denying justice and stealing happiness and laughter from the people.

He became an increasingly prominent critic of the government after the Sichuan earthquake.  He took it upon himself to go to Sichuan and find the names of children who had died because of porrly built school buildings, his number turning out to be far greater than that the government reported.

He posted almost 5,000 names on his personal blog (later deleted by authorities), and was determined to bring justice to the area.  He traveled to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, to testify at the trial of writer and activist Tan Zuoren who was being charged with subversion for speaking critically of the government to foreign journalists.

According to various reports, police came to Ai’s hotel room around 3am.  They detained him for 11 hours in order to ensure he would not make the trial.  It is also believed they beat him, and that beating may have lead to cranial bleeding, the cause of surgery.

Ai’s story is yet another example of the bravery of Chinese dissidents and the struggle they go through for reform.

In my last post, I wrote of progress and the need to look at the positives in China without always referencing the negative.  That does not mean ignore these brutal realities. The struggle for freedom of speech and justice deserves our attention.  To recognize signs of progress does as well.  Encouraging benevolent, peaceful solutions leads to less repressive violence.

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A Look at Asia, Tourism and Tension

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My cousin recently ventured into Burma, after we parted ways in Vietnam.  He later told me the contrast between the two was nearly indescribable.  On the one hand, you have Vietnam, rolling in new money and racing ahead at reckless speeds.  On the other, Burma, idle and eroding, sinking into dictatorship and economic stagnation.

It had me thinking of the Asian countries I have visited in the past two years, in comparison to each other, and in comparison to some of the places I have been in Africa.  It’s a unique system of development in this corner of the world, one very dependent on its geography.  There’s massive China.  South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have all followed similar paths, straight down to Singapore.  Then there’s the peninsula with Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, all lead by Thailand in regional power and leadership.  The island nations, they have their own type of development, the Philippines, Malaysia, etc.

Common to them all is the boon of tourism.  Unlike Africa, people think of Asia as a “safe” place.  It’s long been part of the backpacker circuit, and has been further pushed and developed in the last 20 years than ever before.  The situation is slightly different in China and Japan, who are welcoming more tourists but also sending out an all-time high as well.  Meanwhile, the peninsula and the island nations are facing a huge influx of transient visitors, some relying greatly on their financial input.

Often, upon returning from trips, I have written of the downside of tourism.  Primarily, the 3 P’s: pollution, poverty, and prostitution.  I think I should expand on the notion of prostitution, because it is not just young women being forced into intimate interactions, but entire populations.  There is a cultural prostitution, a sense that everything is for sale in these places, and it is tragic.  The more tourist flood in, the more enormous cameras dangle from necks, the more tour buses, stupid guides with little flags, groups with matching hats, youth just in search of a party, elederly in search of 5-star hotels… its enough to make me sick.  It’s enough to make entire nations sick.

Here are two articles that I think point out the contrast in what has become the search for “authentic” places.  The first discusses how Luang Prabang, a sleepy city in the center of Laos I visited just over a year and a half ago, is dealing with a record number of tourists streaming into its quiet streets.  The second article talks about Myanmar and the situation there, in which a society is being “preserved” to such an throttling extent that it is now starving itself to death.  It’s two ends of the extreme.  And after reading the article on Myanmar, thinking of my cousin, I realize that soon enough that country will open its gates to the floods of foreign visitors and let the rainfall of cash wash away any seeds of culture still in the land.

Lastly, I wanted to follow up on my premise that China has silently regained sole superpower status on our globe.   The article is a wake up call, but I think we, especially the U.S., have hit the snooze button a few too many times to reverse course now.  A U.S. government spokesperson recently spoke of silent diplomacy being used against China.  Ha!  What a crock of shit!  Our soft and hard power are being shown to be exactly what they are, weak.  Our moral legitimacy is in peril, our thirst for war has lost us allies, and with our economy in the toilet, our nation has become a clinger, desperately holding on to resources and the last clutches of geopolitical hegemony as they slip through its grip.

The Dilemma: Tibet Before, China Now

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My own personal dilemma at work has partially handicapped my own thought process.   I realized this recently.  When confronted with something weighing heavily in one direction, the natural reaction is to instinctively pull in the other, seeking balance.  But issues rarely find that equilibrium.

Every time protesters interrupt the Olympic torch relay, an irrepressible smirk slides its way across face.   It’s not about spiting China, and maybe not even about Tibet.  It’s about the action, about people taking action.  It’s inspiring.  And I cannot help being amazed and intrigued by the reactions of my Chinese colleagues as they find out how the world is welcoming their torch (as a news organization, we are allowed to pipe in BBC news for footage purposes).

At the same time, this seemingly rewarding feeling shames me.  Many of my friends here in Shanghai are very proud of their country hosting the Olympics.  They should be.  This country has come a long way in a short time, not citing tactics, to arrive as a major world power… arguably THE world power.  Patriotism, often manipulated into nationalism, is an inevitable result of a nation which believes in a 5,000 year history of glorious facts and fables.  The Olympics symbolize China’s return to its rightful reign, in their minds.

It can be said that this idea is narrow and naive.  Yet, I have often pointed out the similarities in the way in which we Americans are taught to perceive our national identity.  We constantly hearken back to our own glorious periods of history, primarily the Revolutionary War and World War II– the Founding Fathers and the Greatest Generation.  We rarely discuss, let alone teach, let alone review, our past actions in those times or between.  We ignore realist justifications for our involvements, rather choosing to recognize the idealism and rhetoric of our actions.  Are we so different?  Is China a bastard nation for holding its own notions of Manifest Destiny?

And it must be realized that Tibet is given the benefit of the doubt with the foreign press.  Rarely do you hear the other side’s description of life in Tibet before China took control of the region in the 1950s.  Tibet’s feudal empire was ruled by religion, something I find repulsive in all forms.  I believe people should be free to choose and follow their own religions, sure.  But to rule by them is wrong.  Too often the world excuses backward ways of life as a certain people’s culture.  I just don’t buy that.  Freedom is choice.  Culture is too often a tool of repression, granting a mandate to megalomaniacs who defend their actions as a culture others fail to understand.

There is plenty I do not understand about Chinese culture.  Yet, as an American, their stubborn pride is not that surprising.  I chuckled when one colleague commented (in Chinese thinking I didn’t understand), “These are foreigners protesting in London?  Not even Chinese?  What the hell do they know about our affairs?”  This coming from a citizen in a nation that systematically denies access to balanced, timely information!  Ha!   Then I saw BBC footage of a cute young Chinese lady in London saying she was proud of her country and didn’t understand why people couldn’t celebrate China’s progress.  Achk!  It’s all a paradox of pride and shame, fact and fiction, progress and policy, reform and repression… can there be balance?  How?

The Danger of Nationalism and False Identity

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There was a well-written IHT.com article posted yesterday on the issue that I think reiterates some of the points I made in my last post. Here are some highlights:

“Analysts have long debated how often the Communist Party steers and inflames nationalism versus how often nationalist public attitudes are beyond the party’s control. In the run-up to the Summer Games, the steady attacks against China on issues like Darfur, global warming, air pollution and human rights abuses have increasingly been interpreted by many Chinese, including those overseas, as an unfair attempt to undermine China’s Olympic moment.

But the Tibet crisis has touched directly on the raw nerve of separatism at the core of Chinese nationalism. Tibet is usually a low-profile issue within China, especially compared with Taiwan. But most Chinese, influenced by the government, are interpreting the Tibetan crisis as an attempt to split China.”

“Influenced by the government” is an understatement. The press has been bashing the Dalai Lama like he is Osama bin Laden, another man intent on destroying the world to promote his own agenda. Instead of engaging underlying Tibetan grievances, the CCP has aggravated ethnic tensions with one-sided reports on damages and the pain of Han Chinese. This goes against the image jogging its way around the world with Olympic torch in hand.

“Communist Party leaders have hoped the Olympics would showcase China as a modern, confident and nonthreatening emerging world power, while also validating the party’s hold on power. President Hu Jintao has advocated a “harmonious society” to signal a new government effort at addressing inequality in society. At the same time, China’s soft power abroad is rising with its bulging foreign-exchange reserves and its increasingly active diplomatic role on issues like the North Korea nuclear problem.”

But China’s geopolitical emergence hinges on support at home. As grand projects pave the way for a developed nation, the toll on society has been steep and often ignored. It is essential that the CCP maintain a positive image, providing its mandate for change.

“Scholars often describe nationalism as China’s state religion now that the Communist Party has shrugged off socialist ideology and made economic development the country’s priority. Dibyesh Anand, a Tibet specialist, said modern Chinese nationalism could be traced to Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary who described the country’s main ethnic groups – the Han, Manchu, Hui, Mongolian and Tibetan peoples – as the “five fingers” of China… Today, Han Chinese constitute more than 92 percent of the population, but without one of those five fingers, China’s leaders do not consider the country whole.”

So, it is with the intention of preserving the mechanics of change that the CCP reacts reflexively with excessive strength and secrecy. It maintains order and promotes a mythically unrelenting reach of power. It reminds citizens that their government is capable of anything—developing China at a rate never seen on this planet and willing to conquer any obstacles in its way.

Does this ring any bells with government information campaign and agenda-setting in the US as it seeks to maintain its own mandate for waging an unpopular, inhumane war in Mesopotamia?

Written by Miles

March 31, 2008 at 4:01 pm