Conclusions and First Go at ActivismWritten by Julen Madariaga on April 22nd, 2011
Last week I wrote a post where I expressed some views on Ai WeiWei and other dissidents. This attracted an unexpected number of comments, and it even inspired a podcast in the best blog about China in Spanish, Zaichina. All in all, it has been a long and fruitful exchange, so I want to thank everyone for participating with an open mind. Below I write the conclusions I drew.
It is unfortunate that all this discussion started with a response to Osnos’ blog, because it caused the whole debate to turn around that. I regret that by doing this I have upset some people I respect, who were actively demanding Ai’s release. The fact is I disagree with and even dislike many of Ai and Liu’s statements, but now that they’ve been imprisoned for speaking out their views, there is only one right thing to do. This blog stands for Freedom of Speech.
So I have decided to borrow the banner from the roof of the Tate Museum and hang it on my own roof until my next posting, or until my blog goes down, whichever happens first. It represents not only Ai and Liu, but any person who has been imprisoned merely for having different ideas or for exposing hideous crimes, like the American hero Bradley Manning.
Summary and Main Points Taken
And finally, here are my main conclusions of the debate:
- There is a worrying trend in the pro-democracy movement in the West, including aspects as varied as Liu’s Nobel, the so-called Jasmine “revolutions” of China or the success of Ai’s art. The West creates its own icons without considering whether they have any chance to be accepted by the Chinese people—and of this much I am sure: the most important point for a democratic movement to succeed is to convince its own people. Any other road leads to Irak.
- One worrying aspect of the Liu and Ai work is they represent a radical current of thought that has a long history in China—from the early years of the republic, to the Cultural Revolution and then the “River Elegy” movement. This is a current of self-abasement and contempt of the own culture, which proposes wholesale replacement by “Westernization” , as Liu himself says. This kind of thought mirrors the opposite ultra-nationalist current, and they both feed on each other, at the expense of more moderate, balanced positions. I am afraid by supporting these options we are only pushing China even further from the West.
- Another way of seeing this is the usual blog discussions that many of us have with patriotic Chinese. In the media and schools, the CPP deliberately conflates China with CCP, promoting the idea that criticizing the regime is tantamount to attacking the country. Unfortunately, many of Ai and Liu’s statements only add to the confusion, as they direct their attacks to the culture and history of China rather than the party. This, and Liu’s openly pro-American stance in criminal invasion wars (all the while receiving money from the US) makes it extremely difficult to make a case for his independence, let alone his pacifism.
- I believe the best that can happen to the Chinese today (and to the rest of the World) is a progressive opening of China and a normal exchange with the West — free of weird inferiority/superiority complexes. I think initiatives like the WTO, the Olympics and many other in the last decade are conductive to this, whereas extreme statements like those of Ai and Liu only distance us more and more. There is way too much at stake to let it in the hands of impulsive characters.
- As a commentator said in the last post, the situation is not due to Western media bias, but rather to CCP pressure, which causes the moderate Chinese dissidents to decline interviews. Another journalist in the podcast confirmed also what we all know: that the media is there to sell stories and that a story with a special character sells better than a story without. In other words, the Western media doesn’t work for freedom, it works to sell papers—to Western readers. Which is why the Fourth Estate in international politics is essentially flawed.
- So, partly due to the CCP and partly due to the structure of the World media, we end up with these heroes created to our own image. Fine, that’s how the World works today, it is faulty, but not deliberately evil. Just please, do not kid yourself, don’t dream that you are seeing the heroes of the Chinese, or the leaders that will change China.
Are there other options?
I imagine the best critic that can be done to all this is: “do you have any better option?”
Sincerely, I believe there are other options. They are surely not as accessible as Ai, because they shy away from Western media. They may be difficult to accept in our countries, because their ideas clash with preconceptions of what dissidence should be. Moreover, their art or writing might be very specific to the Chinese public, making them impossible to sell in the West.
These are all major difficulties, sure. But frankly, I just don’t see anyone is trying so hard to surmount them.
We have seen in the past how the media ignores thinkers who don’t conform with strictly Western standards of “dissidence”. One obvious example I think of right now is Han Han, who has immensely more weight in China than Liu or Ai. Another is Xu ZhiYong, who did a comprehensive study of the Tibetan problem, not to mention the cases of the black cells in Beijing, studies that were incomparably more elaborate and politically risky than the lists of Ai.
I am not suggesting we should turn these people into media stars, that wouldn’t help much. But it would be interesting to keep an eye on them, rather than spend all the efforts inflating our own myths. When the day comes, it will be people like that who will make a difference.