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Happy Christmas. Liu Xiao Bo got 11 years.

Friday, December 25th, 2009

Happy Christmas everyone. Sad Christmas for China, and for all of us who love that country and who believe in freedom, dignity and truth.

Exactly one year ago, on Christmas Day, I published this post about Liu’s Charter. I was critical with the initiative for many reasons: it contained contradictions, it was reactive rather than active, and it was not a Charter to unite all the Chinese. But most importantly, the way the document was drafted ensured that it had not a chance to fly.

The initiative was practically born dead, Charter was never a big subject in China even in early 09, it was the crisis and the stimulus that we watched at the time. The party had won the game from day one, so what point in bullying Liu now, one year later? Clearly, just to set an example to ensure that the rest of the signers will shut up, and to avoid new initiatives in the coming years. “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey”, the Chinese tradition says. And that is NOT justice, but a disgusting mafia trick.

Even if you don’t believe in democracy for China—even if you think (like I do) that the hypocritical governments of the West have no lessons to give here—even if the Charter was probably not the best way to attain the noble principles it professed. Even so, any decent person can see that a document like this should never be a reason for a man to be deprived of his freedom.

The party knows this, and it is again censoring and lying on the internet to hide its dirty deed from the people of China.

Now the story has been picked up by the CNN and it is making some noise. If we are lucky and it goes far enough, maybe even Obama will give us a memorable line. But it will not change anything, because all this is part of the deal with China. And the sentence is nothing more or less than what could be expected of the Chinese government today.

Liu knew this well, and he decided to go on in spite of it. That is because he is an idealist and a hero. He will be remembered.

More on this case here. Also, from my own blog: here, here and here.

These are the principles that 303 brave men published in China in 2008:

Freedom. Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.

Human rights. Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state power must be authorized by the people. The succession of political disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime’s disregard for human rights.

Equality. The integrity, dignity, and freedom of every person—regardless of social station, occupation, sex, economic condition, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or political belief—are the same as those of any other. Principles of equality before the law and equality of social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights must be upheld.

Republicanism. Republicanism, which holds that power should be balanced among different branches of government and competing interests should be served, resembles the traditional Chinese political ideal of “fairness in all under heaven.” It allows different interest groups and social assemblies, and people with a variety of cultures and beliefs, to exercise democratic self-government and to deliberate in order to reach peaceful resolution of public questions on a basis of equal access to government and free and fair competition.

Democracy. The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are sovereign and the people select their government. Democracy has these characteristics: (1) Political power begins with the people and the legitimacy of a regime derives from the people. (2) Political power is exercised through choices that the people make. (3) The holders of major official posts in government at all levels are determined through periodic competitive elections. (4) While honoring the will of the majority, the fundamental dignity, freedom, and human rights of minorities are protected. In short, democracy is a modern means for achieving government truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Constitutional rule. Constitutional rule is rule through a legal system and legal regulations to implement principles that are spelled out in a constitution. It means protecting the freedom and the rights of citizens, limiting and defining the scope of legitimate government power, and providing the administrative apparatus necessary to serve these ends.

Stab in my back: TV Serials and Communist Ethics

Friday, November 13th, 2009

I have realized lately that, due to a certain unbalance in my training methods, my Chinese reading skills might be running ahead of my speech, and I have been forced to take severe corrective measures. At the risk of turning this into an SM blog, I am going to speak today of the terrible penance I imposed on myself to make up for that error. Brace yourself: I watched a whole 22+ hours communist TV serial on CCTV, all in a single week and pausing to understand every word and chengyu.

IMAG1253696425976492

It is the latest super production of the “Red Army against Capitalists” kind, called 冷箭, or “Stab in the back”. The first chapter was launched the day of the 60th Anniversary, on CCTV 1 prime time, proving that it was born to be big. Even if it didn’t live up to expectations (it was switched later to CCTV 8 nights), I am guessing that more people have watched this than the “Foundation of the Republic” film that so excited Western minds. Admittedly, there is little buzz on the internet about 冷箭, but that is just because the target audience is a different (and much larger) group than the internet community. My own investigations with taxi drivers indicate that it had a very strong following, at least in the first weeks.

For all those who complained about political propaganda in the “Foundation of the Republic” (or in Independence Day, for that matter), those are just amateur efforts next to this “Stab in the Back”. Because the Stab is not concerned with distorting facts, but with edifying and providing a complete moral system for the people. And like most of these widely watched Chinese TV serials, it still follows loyally in the spirit of the first moralizing plays organized by the 1930s partisans in Shaanxi.

A Little Critique

Regarding artistic merit, I will just briefly say that, although this looks like one of the highest budget “Red Army” serials to date, an improvement in quality does not follow. The main problem is the visible incompetence of its producers and actors almost without exception. Knowing that Chinese are very well capable of doing good films when they are given some freedom, I can only suppose this is the result of dead imaginations bureaucratically selected and nurtured by CCTV mummy-cadres.

In this case the main story is about — surprise- a Long March towards the West, where the Captain discovers that there is a Capitalist enemy spy infiltrated in the team. In fact not only one, but two, and three, and more are found in every chapter, until by the end of the serial the largest part of the brigade are actually undercover agents. This gives the poor captain played by borderline Huang Zhizhong countless occasions to run his fits of histrionic paranoia, apparently a main selling point. One can’t help wondering why all those spies don’t just get together to kill their clownish captain, rename their brigade with the KMT star, and get on with their counter-revolutionary business.

I don’t know if you have experienced this before when watching a film, but it is one of those instances when deplorable script and performance manage to kill the suspension of disbelief right from the first sequence. Then, suddenly, you find yourself watching a bunch of adult people walking around in funny clothes and uttering pointless nonsense. The result is embarrassing.

I have never been much of a TV watcher, but I do understand that TV films are substandard anywhere in the World, and nonsensical plots or braindead dialogs are by no means exclusive of China. Even the fixation with the deeds of the Red Army marching West is not necessarily more ridiculous than, say, the fixation with illiterate cow herders during the golden age of Westerns. But there is something in these Chinese serials that makes them unique beyond the obvious propaganda and quality issues, and that is the complete set of values that they embody for the edification of the masses.

Edifying the Masses: A Communist Catechism

This is the first time, (and most surely the last) that I watch a complete Chinese propaganda serial, but I believe that the effort is not wasted. Because only getting inside these long works one can appreciate that deeper level that flows underneath, the construction of  a public moral system that is very much akin to Religious Instruction.

Here are a few of the points I noted while watching the Stab, for the benefit of those who want to understand these works without throwing 22+ hours of their life down the drain:

  • Love: The scenes of love are tacky to nauseate an armored brigade, with perhaps the best example in this scene in minute 40 chapter 4, when the captain “falls in love”. In general, love among the communists is virtuous and innocent, and always secondary to the interests of the organization. There is not the slightest romantic indulgence, no concessions to passion other than for the party. When the communist lover is told that her beloved is a Capitalist spy, she abandons him on the spot, and volunteers to kill him if necessary.
  • Sex: Of course, this puritanism does not stop the young lieutenant from having proper sex (under the sheets) starting chapter 25, in a clear effort by the authors to attract more audience. “乱搞男女关系!” (disorderly do man-woman relations!!) chastely exclaims the captain when he gets the news through a disgustingly virtuous informer. But worry not, the ethical purity is safeguarded. These two sinners have betrayed the higher cause, and they receive their deserved punishment without further delay: death at the hands of some brigands.
  • Violence: We have  seen enough of the likes of Eastwood in Alcatraz to have some expectations about the frightful fate of new prison inmates (especially if they are male!). I don’t know to what extent this violence is consistent with reality, but what I am pretty sure is that prison wardens do not tell off the inmates screaming “don’t be naughty”, and major disputes in the common cells are not settled through pillow fights. This is exactly how things are done in 冷箭, making the whole experience for the high level KMT prisoners like a children’s Summer Camp. This is one of the most puzzling parts of the communist ethics, and the most difficult to grasp in a movement that was imposed largely through violent revolution. It seems to come from a belief in molding mentalities through peaceful labour, but, as we will see below, it has little to do with the Christian notion of “turning your other cheek”.
  • Class virtue: Virtue is presented as a characteristic of the proletarian class, and salvation must necessarily follow. Like the ancient Christians looking for consolation in the Bible before they were thrown to the lions, so the Chinese Laobaixing today seem to find solace in these serials, while they wait for the next corrupt CCP cadre to come and tear their homes to serve a rich developer. The notion of a Final Judgment that accompanies this kind of teaching is represented through the iconic verses of the Internationale, sung at several points in the serial, with the main theme conspicuously inspired in the melody of the first verse.
  • Forgiveness and Revenge: There is an appalling scene of revenge (ch 31 38:00) when the main spies are apprehended, that completely shocked me after 20 hours of mellow bloodless harmony. The righteous blows of the officers are completely devoid of mercy, enjoying the raw pleasure of revenge. In my observation of the Chinese, this represents very well the paradox of their ethical system: Chinese are by nature far more tolerant than any Western people, but –perhaps as a necessary consequence – once a certain level of crime is attained, this sets off a mechanism of ruthless punishment where the object ceases to be seen as human. This is perhaps the most important difference with Christian influenced ethics, where our less tolerant natures were softened by the love doctrines of the New Testament. The whole discussion of death penalty in China vs. Europe is an interesting modern development of this difference in outlooks.

Some Conclusions

There are many ideas here worth commenting further, perhaps one of the most interesting would be to see how this communist system of ethics is working (or failing) to keep the always delicate balance between 道德 (virtue) and Deng Xiaoping’s 致富 (getting rich).

Clearly, Chinese are not the only ones to introduce ethics into their TV serials. Popular Western serials have long been educating us with teachings as varied as respect for minorities, tolerance of homosexuality, patriotism or democracy. But crucially, while the Western system of moral instruction has evolved with the times and deals with problems facing today’s society, the Chinese system has remained stuck in the 1930s, with the characteristic rigidity of Religious ethics. As a consequence, there is a growing, insurmountable gap in China between the ideas preached and the real needs of the ordinary citizens. This may be having the catastrophic effect of eliminating all ethics from mainland Chinese life.

When we speak of problems like perceived racism, corruption, lack of respect for the public goods or environment, how much of these are related to a lack of a realistic, up-to-date moral support, or to the hijacking of ethics to serve the single interests of the CCP power elite?

I would like to say more about this, but unfortunately this post has got out of control already, and I know nobody reads past the first 1000 words. Write your ideas below about any particular point and if we get some interesting discussion going on we can try to expand the subject in a new post.

Race and Sensitivity

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

The discussion about racism in China keeps coming back every once in a while, and each time it arouses the strongest passions. This is a post I’ve been wanting to do for some time, following the interesting comments we had in March, and as a conclusion to the Xinjiang series.

The story that sparked the debate this time is that of Lou Jing, a Chinese half black participant in a TV talent show who has been the object of racist remarks on the internet. I don’t think this is in itself significant, netizens of all countries are well known to post outrageous comments that they would never utter in real life. But quite apart from that, it is clear that there is a particular attitude to race in China that shocks many in the West, and this bears some reflection.

Because it is not just immature netizens, but also respected people with names and surnames who support jokes like this, or write comments like this. Of course, in many cases what we see is just a visceral reaction to accusations coming from the West. It is ironic and surely annoying  for many Chinese to think that, even in a field where China has always fared better than them, the arrogant, patronizing Westerners still feel justified to give them public lessons.

But after the first wave of heated comments has passed from both sides, it is worthwhile to look at things calmly, and see what is the reality behind these misunderstandings. And the reality is that it is all too common in China to hear such statements as “Uyghurs are dangerous” or “Africans are less intelligent”, or even, surprisingly enough, “whites are more capable than Asian”. All of them rather startling comments to a Western ear, but which Chinese never ascribe to racism.

In fact, most seem to follow the simple logic: “there is no problem in China because, unlike Westerners, Chinese are not racist”. This idea clearly comes from the fact that the large majority of Chinese have no experience with different races other than the studio material produced by the propaganda department, where nations are smiling children in colourful costumes. And behind it all is the “Union of the Peoples” inherited from the communist doctrine, which still stands on what might be described as the center of the country:

Mao said

Mao: “For the union of the peoples of the World, hurrah”

I am not implying that this communist ideal was not sincere. It was, and it probably still is for many people. The problem is that, while some decades ago this surely was in the vanguard of tolerance and respect, in the globalizing World of today it just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Because sure enough, the Chinese are right to say that it is not for Westerners to dictate acceptable racial attitudes. But neither is this a prerogative of the Han. Ultimately it is the peoples that feel discriminated, be it Africans or Uyghurs, who should  have a major say. For in any dispute, it is not the offending, but the offended party who decides (within some reasonable limits) what words or attitudes are insulting.

Ultimately, the development of new racial attitudes in China will have important consequences for the whole World, and in particular for its own national interests. The process is still in its initial steps, but already some key challenges are apparent: internally, as more minorities are questioning their treatment by the Han; and externally, as China tries to expand its influence in strategic regions like Africa and South America. All the soft power obtained in these areas will be worthless if the Chinese fail to show convincing respect to the peoples living there.

And again, is China racist?

So is there really a problem, and if so, what can be done to solve it? As some Chinese would have it: Is it wrong just because we say that Asians are better at math and black Americans better at basketball? In other words, is China racist?

From my own observation, China is in essence no more racist than most other countries. Which is to say, very much indeed. Because that is how most of the World is today, and how it has always been. If there is a notable difference between China and the West, it is just one of appearance: we are better at hiding our prejudice.

Indeed, in the West we censor ourselves to a point that it is hardly even acceptable to ask questions like the one in italics, which boils down to: “Do different races have on average different sets of skills?” The non-prudish answer to this is obviously yes, as can be learned from simple observation. Different races, just like different genders, tend to have slightly different characteristics, and this diversity has never been a problem for honest, open minded people, but rather the opposite.

The problem comes when obtuse individuals choose to focus partially on these differences, and then theorize them in a way as to satisfiy some low psychological needs. And at times such individuals have even convinced enough people to be able to rule their country, invariably leading it to ruin and to shame. From old Sparta to imperial Japan, history shows that short-sighted ideas of ethnic purity do not yield best results, groups based on those premises consistently falling behind the creative power of diverse societies.

So, knowing that in every country the obtuse are legion, what has the West done to prevent those outbreaks which oppose diversity and “brought untold sorrow to mankind”? Recognizing that human stupidity knows no bounds and cannot be eliminated, Western societies have instead learnt to sweep it under the carpet. And in an amazingly short period of time, in the second half of the XX century, they have developed a series of norms to regulate speech, enforcing them through the power of the socially acceptable. This non-written code, derisively known as PC, ensures that individuals can remain as prejudiced as ever, but will refrain from making it public, or else face social exclusion.

In the meantime, China’s insular society has never really felt up to now the need to develop these restraints, and so its racial prejudice is able to run free in conversation, shocking the sensitive ears of the occasional foreigner, and earning little goodwill from the peoples they are supposed to befriend.

Should China follow the West?

There is a natural resistance from the Chinese to adopt any kind of PC solution, mostly because they don’t feel the problems described apply to them: in the history of racist madness, they were mostly on the receiving end. And it is fair to say that, as a people, Chinese have always been one of the most tolerant, accepting different religions and cultures at a time when their counterparts in the West were already going berserk to eliminate the infidel. Why would such a civilized society need to apply the same rigid standards of restraint as the wild West?

It should not, in my opinion, and China is right to ignore upfront many of the Western over-reactions. In a healthy community there is nothing essentially wrong with calling a black “black” or a yellow “yellow”, like Chinese and other peoples do. The complex, guilt-ridden American style PC is best suited for the conditions of that particular country, and should not be forced onto the Chinese.

But this is not to say that the system should not be improved. From my observation of some of the affected communities in China, it looks like the present state of affairs is far from ideal. Chinese should work to modernize their rusty, communist era conceptions and little by little come up with a more realistic, more equal and less condescending racial attitude that will be key for the success of the coming challenges, internal and external. And the State alone cannot undertake this modernization. Like in the West, it is society at large, with its authors, and celebrities,  and other public role models that should join in the effort.

Chinese have a golden opportunity now to build their racial attitudes starting almost from scratch, from intelligence and generosity rather than from guilt, and to regain the image of tolerance and good sense in international relations that their country has deserved.

Xinjiang conflict: Happy ending for the party

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Following last week’s posts about Xinjiang conflict, I see this AFP dispatch: China promotes Xinjiang armed police chief. Mr. Dai,  the man at the top of the armed police has been promoted. Which means that the first of the failures I noted in the last post (i.e. failed to protect the citizens on 5th July) has not been recognized as such. This is hardly surprising. Chinese leaders measure success by the yardstick of stability and harmony, and from this perspective Mr. Dai’s performance was remarkable. Suddenly faced by a conflict of unprecedented violence, with the World’s media right at his doorstep, he managed to stabilize the situation in record time. How much articles like this have contributed to his promotion, probably we’ll never know.

In the meantime, my Xinhua RSS is spitting the following headline: Zero refusal for foreign reporters. The State Council has announced this new policy that will ensure better treatment of foreign journalists requests, which will have from now on the right to be denied (as opposed to being ignored). Now, I don’t dream for a second that this is going to change the situation substantially – this blogger might take me to task if I did – but let’s say it is positive that at least somebody in the State Council understands the key issue: the consistently poor image that the Chinese government’s is giving to foreign media, and by extension to the whole World. In any case, this decision is directly connected with the succesful experience of media opening during the Xinjiang conflict.

TLR conclusion

Just have a quick look at what comes from Xinhua these days, with fairs in Urumqi and diplomats (even Turkish ones!) visiting Xinjiang for an oil rubbing session. Meanwhile, Rebiya finds no more countries to host her speeches and the slightest attempt of a comeback from the Western Media is rapidly thwarted by glorious internet friends.

The unmistakable scent of victory is in the air. The party is satisfied with how it all turned out, and prizes are handed to the heroes. Wang Lequan and Hu will probably benefit from this, and with them all the proponents of stability-uber-alles. Congratulations from my little blog.

However, there is  a downside. Singing victory so quickly  means that the problem is seen as a one-time event, an outside attack masterfully controlled by Wang and his men. But all seems to indicate that there are deep contradictions in Xinjiang and in China’s interethnic policy as a whole, and ignoring this reality can only spell trouble in the near future. To make matters worse, by imprisoning China’s best men, the leaders effectively blind themselves to the only reliable way of understanding the problem: independent field research.

Is this really a victory for the long term sustainable development of China? I am afraid not.

Lessons from Xinjiang: The Deep Roots

Saturday, August 8th, 2009

eeeee One of the essential purposes of a government is to ensure the safety of the citizens and, from this point of view, the Chinese government has failed spectacularly in Urumqi.

To begin with, it did not afford sufficient protection to the Han victims during the night of 5th July. Some wrong decisions were most likely taken during the crisis, and the leaders of the forces of order owe at least some explanation to the Chinese.

But the CPC has failed in a more crucial way, which cannot be ascribed to simple human error in time of emergency. It has failed to create the conditions for the peaceful coexistence of the Chinese; it has failed in the very objective that it states as its own: the creation of a harmonious society. 200 Chinese killed by Chinese are the clear proof of this failure.

I will analyze in this post some of the reasons why the interethnic policies may have failed and what can be done to  improve the situation. There are many good arguments both for and against the independence of Xinjiang, which would make for a fascinating discussion, but I will not touch the subject here. Whatever the theory says, the reality is that Xinjiang is and shall remain Chinese for the foreseeable future. Large numbers of both Han and Uyghur can equally call Xinjiang their homeland, and these peoples have to learn to live together for their own sake. Let’s try to be constructive and see how this can be achieved.

The intentions of the CPC

I began by saying that the government has failed, which is obvious. But to be completely fair, interethnic relations is an extremely difficult area where almost every government in the World has failed to some degree. Looking at the region where Xinjiang sits, and comparing with interethnic and interreligious strife in similar nearby countries we have to acknowledge that the record of Xinjiang in the last 20 years is far from catastrophic.

Some argue that there are no worse problems –fundamentalism, suicide bombings, war- just because the Han are repressing the Uyghur population to inhuman extremes. This is easily proven wrong, and anyone who has been to the area knows this much. Moreover, a simple look at the World can tell us that even the most extreme repression by the army does not guarantee peace, but rather the opposite, as seen in Uzbekistan, Chechnya or Palestine. It is not mainly force, but prosperity and stability that have kept the Uyghurs silent.

The party’s interethnic policies have failed, but the very existence of these policies and their actual enforcement speaks a lot for the nature of the CPC’s intentions. The clear goal of the party is to guarantee China’s unity, stability and harmony, it is not and has never been to impose the supremacy of the Han. Granted, China is an authoritarian regime, and individual rights are not always respected, in Xinjiang or in any other province. China needs democracy and rule of law, but this has nothing to do with the oppression of the Uyghur by the Han.

Interethnic policies

Let’s take a look at the essential of these interethnic policies, which mostly come in the form of positive discrimination: 10 added points in the gaokao exams for access to university, partial exclusion from the single child policy, quotas (but rather low) in the administration and, most surprising of all: an explicit policy of lenient treatment for non-political crimes, which is known to all Chinese in the form of the common assumption: “be careful with Uyghurs, they can carry knives”.

Another group of policies are the ones destined to avert the danger of Islamic fundamentalism. These include prohibition to wear headscarves and other religious attire in schools and government buildings,  prohibition for under 18 year olds to attend prayers at the mosque, and strict control of the clergy. While we can accuse these policies of offending sensibilities, we might as well say that France has a similar headscarf prohibition, and that China is consistent with its clear principle of forbidding religions to engage in politics. An enlightened rule, in my opinion, more so in a place where there is reasonable grounds for fearing religious fundamentalism.

Other more recent policies, decided by the maximum leader of the party in the region, Wang Lequan, are less justifiable. In particular the one related to having all the schools teach solely in Mandarin makes no sense and can only spark resentment among the Uyghurs. The logic of this decision is that all citizens need to be proficient in mandarin, but this point is not technically sound, as it has been proven that a full bilingual education from early age is compatible with proficiency in two languages.

Grievances

One interesting point in the conflict of July and its aftermath is that it was never made clear what exactly the protesters wanted. The WUC had plenty of media time, but it didn’t present a consistent program. Kadeer dedicated her appearances to send out casualty figures and to deny her role in the events, relating them to the Guangdong incident. As a result, it is difficult to know which of the Chinese policies are most resented by Uyghurs, other than being “colonized and repressed”. The absence of a moderate Uyghur voice makes things very difficult to understand, another consequence of the heavy handed government of Wang Lequan.

In any case, it looks like it is not so much a matter of one policy in particular, but a problem of attitudes between the Uyghurs and he Han. A problem of integration and mutual misunderstanding that is so typical of interethnic conflict in any Western country, rather than a conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed. This is consistent with many of the observations of foreigners living in Xinjiang.

Much has been written in the West about positive discrimination, and you might be familiar with the kind of problems it can create. There is a natural reaction of resentment in the poorest elements of the majority group at what they see as unjust favouritism towards minorities. But worst of all, policies such as “2 restraints, 1 leniency” lend themselves to abuse and often benefit the worst individuals in the minority, starting a vicious circle of negative selection.

In China positive discrimination is particularly vicious because the Han, encouraged by the official media, tend to take these few concessions as a definitive proof of their generosity towards the Uyghurs, which then gives them carte blanche to engage in all sorts of discriminating behaviours, in many cases not even realizing that they are being unfair.

The Uyghurs react to this perceived –and often very real- discrimination by adopting the role of eternal victims and recalling the invasion of the bingtuans, or the dilution of their people, which is hardly a strong argument as: 1- A large part of the bingtuan population is not installed in Uyghur areas, 2- The Chinese have been doing bingtuan-like activities in Xinjiang long before the Uyghurs even arrived and 3- Chinese companies  have all the right to establish in any areas of their country as long as they are not forcefully expropriating the original owners.

Some possible solutions

In conclusion, I think this is not so much a matter of bingtuan, oppression or ethnical dilution, but rather a matter of complete insensibility from both sides Han and Uygur, and most of all from the Chinese government in Xinjiang, whose head only cares about pleasing Beijing.

I know the really important problem – lack of democracy and rule of law - will not change in Urumqi until it does in Beijing. But without looking so far, I have some modest suggestions to the CPC of Xinjiang that should be easy to try and improve the situation.  All relatively simple points, more gestures and attitudes than large power concessions:

  • Don’t forcefully modernize Kashgar declaring it backward.
  • Don’t force monolingual schools on people for their own benefit.
  • Impose 100% bilingual schools for all in majority Uyghur areas.
  • Stop, progressively and with tact, the leniency policies.
  • Enforce the laws against discrimination in job postings.

But most important of all, I have one advice for the government of China that is not restricted only to Xinjiang: Actively promote mutual respect and understanding among different cultures and races.

This ability is seriously lacking in most Chinese of all ethnicities, as this essential part of their education has for years been substituted by clichéd touristic dances and children in costumes. This spells trouble for China not only with the minorities, but also in other regions where it wants to earn respect and expand its influence, like Africa or South America.

Lessons from Xinjiang: the Media

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

XJTV Have you been watching Xinjiang TV these days? I am a fan. It’s the new Love TV, a 24-7 concentrate of all the corniest efforts by the Chinese official media to promote harmony after the events of 5th July. Smiling kids, flowery dances, long meetings of interethnic neighbour associations discussing love and togetherness. Best served with tequila, lemon, and a grain of salt.

But seriously. It’s been a month since the events of Urumqi, and it feels like there hasn’t been much done in the way of analysis. All the channels of the media were red hot for a week, but they cooled down as soon as the blood dried on the streets, and no new insights are forthcoming. Too soon the debate has been hijacked by unproven claims of opportunists like Kadeer, and the predictable responses from China. The peace loving Uyghurs and Han who lost their lives in Urumqi deserve better.

So yes, I am consciously watching XJTV, and I suggest you do the same. For lack of anything better and in protest against the rest of the media establishment, both Chinese and foreign. Because no matter how awkward XJTV’s efforts might seem, at least this TV station is doing its job.

The events of Xinjiang are more important than the bland Summer coverage would lead us to imagine. It is probably the most deadly single political riot that has happened in China since Tiananmen 1989. It is also the only major case of social unrest where the international press has been granted permission to report from the ground. And there are important lessons to draw from the experience, particularly in the fields of 1- Media and 2- China’s policy.

The Chinese Media

I am and I will always be against State-controlled media, and every person I respect here, some CPC members included, agrees with my point of view: without the freedom to blame, all comment is meaningless.

But precisely because we don’t believe in that media, we don’t expect too much from them. After all, it is not the fault of the writers or editors if they live in such a system, not everyone can be a hero. From this relative point of view, we can say that the Chinese media – or the CPC, which is the same in this case - has done a good job.

Indeed, one interesting phenomenon in the aftermath of the July 5th events is the media’s role in calming things down on the Han side. We made fun of all those silly heart warming articles, but probably the love talk was crucial at a moment where ethnic feelings were getting out of control. How many times in the World have you seen interethnic clashes* killing more than a hundred to simply peter out in 2 days with no more than moderate force applied by the State?

By choosing to focus on the positive, turning the blame on external elements and being loyal to the principle of harmony, the Chinese media did a valuable service to their country and probably avoided many more deaths. This might seem obvious now with hindsight, but it might have been just as easy for them to try to appeal to the pride of the Han and disaster would have ensued.

The Free World Media

But what about the media from the free World?

The Xinjiang events were of particular interest for many of us following the debate of anti-China bias in the Western media. In the highest point of the discussion, after the Tibet 2008 events,  the Western media always had the point that, since they had been banned from the area, they couldn’t be held accountable for inaccuracies in their reporting. Now we have the first major riot where this argument is not valid. The time is to evaluate the results. How well have they fared?

In my opinion, it has been disappointing, at least for two reasons.

1- In a large part of the media there was a clear prejudice against the Han and against the authorities. Not all were as extreme or ignorant as this example, but the principle was clear: their mission was to witness how inhuman the Chinese system is. Even if some of them later moderated their reports, the harm was already done, and when travelling in Europe mid-July I found it a common opinion that “China is slaughtering its minorities again”.

2- Fortunately, free media IS to some extent free and diverse, and we have seen some examples of fair reporting from the ground. In particular I was following the Telegraph journalist Peter Foster, who did a great job of reporting honestly what he saw. And then, I got to this article, only 4 days after the events, and to my despair he announces that he leaves on holidays. Like blogger B&W Cat noted, almost all the others soon followed suit and, to this day, nobody has told us what really happened in Xinjiang.

In the meantime, Xinhua and the others stayed at their posts, showing the Chinese and the World who really cares about Xinjiang, and who really cares about China.

Some Conclusions

There is something very wrong with the World media, and it is something much deeper than a anti- or pro- China stance. It has to do more in my opinion with how it is organized. Remember the line:

By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

It is a pleasure to read Adam Smith and imagine that, indeed, the invisible hand is working every day to make our lives better. And yet, this example has made clear that if there is one industry were the hand cannot work it is the media. That is, of course, unless we accept that its role is to produce “the truths we like to hear” in the same way as the role of Apple is to produce computers we like to use.

Because that is exactly the problem. The minute the media sees that there are no obvious CPC crimes, that the police is handling the situation well, and that actually a communist authoritarian regime sometimes does things better than a democracy, this is not interesting. It is not even about political lobbies or advertising companies’ pressure, it is simply that most readers don’t like it. It is more comfortable to live with their solid categories, Islamism bad, communism bad, democracy good. And the invisible hand says: journalist shut up.

There is a lot of talk on the internet about the future of traditional newspapers, and many are analyzing the reasons for their demise. Well, how about this one:

There has been a major political riot, the most deadly in 20 years in the most important rising country in the international scene, and the media has still not even attempted to explain the reasons behind the events, instead working full-time as a mouthpiece for a self-appointed leader in Washington with very dubious legitimacy, and who might possibly be connected with the terrorist group who has organized the killings of more than 100 people.**

I am not so idealistic to think that internet and blogs are going to change the situation. The information lobby will always be powerful, whatever the shape it takes, and in the end the mainstream reader will always read what he wants to read.

For the people who care, the only hope, now as always, is in diversity. And fortunately the internet works in the right direction for this. Visit this link for just one example of how a blog can provide you –if you take the time to read carefully- with better commentary than your Sunday paper.

* Interethnic clashes:  whether or not the initial violence was organized by terrorist elements, by the time the Han mobs went out with bats it clearly became an interethnic clash.

** More about this upcoming.

Chаrter 08 and political change in China

Thursday, December 25th, 2008

Barely two weeks after the publication of the Chrter 08, it has already become old news, lost in the indifference of Western media (with notable exceptions), and erased in China by the cold intervention of the censors. I want to examine here the importance of this document and give some more thought to it and its possible impact.

There is one line in Chrter 08 which concentrates in my understanding the essence of the document:

“Human Rights are not bestowed by a State. Every person is born with inherent rights to Dignity and Freedom. The government exists for the protection of the Human Rights of its citizens.”

This principle, inspired in the long tradition of the Enlightment and the famous 18th century Declarations, is at the heart of the matter. Should these rights apply to China, or are they just an interference of foreign ideas in Chinese affairs? This mostly unspoken debate that rages today in China is putting in doubt the universality of Human Rights, and questioning it in view of the singularities of the Chinese culture.

Of course, this line of argument does not resist the minimum intellectual scrutiny, but it’s marketable to avid patriots. One doesn’t need to put many brain cells in contact to see that the entire ideology of Maoism -or today’s wild capitalism for that matter- are also based on foreign ideas. And that great Ideas, like print and paper, cure to cancer or Human Rights, belong to Humanity.

One of the most influential political thinkers of the Enlightment, who inspired the precursors of this Charter, wrote 3 centuries ago:

“I am a man before being French. For I am necessarily a man, but French only by accident.”

This Charter is up to now the boldest effort in mainland China to speak out for the Universality of Human Rights. Its influence, directly or indirectly, will no doubt be decisive at the time when these questions will have to be seriously debated by the Chinese government. Whether this happens in turbulent 2009 or many years later, China will be in debt with those 303 brave men who dared to stand up for their ideas.

Reflections on the Chrter 08

Before I write these reflections, I want to state my respect for all the authors and supporters of the Charter in China. My points below are not rejecting their fundamental principles, and they should be understood as constructive critic.

1. The fact of publishing the Charter and obtaining a few thousand signatures in the Mainland is in itself the most important action for Human Rights ever done in China, and it represents a qualitative leap from previous actions which were: 1- Purely reactive, 2- Mostly isolated, 3- Strongly supported by Western actors. This is a serious challenge to the Chinese government, and a very dangerous one for the signers, as it is well known how China reacts to coordinated efforts of this kind.

2. One important difference from past actions is the positive nature of the movement. The Charter is not merely a reaction or complaint; it is a statement that stands in its own right. Note, however, one important difference between the line quoted above and those in the classic American and French Declarations: this one is formulated in the negative, “Human Rights are not bestowed by a State”. There is still an important element of reaction which will have consequences on the future of the Charter.

3. A document of this kind should try to seek the maximum consensus in mainland China. This is, in my understanding, the main weakness of the Chrter 08. Going into particular details, such as proposing federalism for Taiwan, or putting in question sacred figures like Deng Xiaoping (by mentioning Tiananmen*) is not working to achieve maximum consensus. Neither is aggressively criticizing Mao’s legacy while failing to recognize the important successes of the present regime. These points can be easily utilized by detractors to turn public opinion against the Charter.

4. Most importantly, from a theoretical point of view, figures like Mao or KMT should have no place in a Charter that wants to unite the Chinese. The recent History of China is an amazing tale of cruel failures and unequaled successes. Events that need to be openly discussed at some point, certainly, and compensation given to the victims. But direct accusations are altogether at a different level and unworthy of sharing the same document with the generous ideals stated in the Charter. These things do not only weaken the Chrter 08 from a practical point of view, but also reduce its soundness as a Universal Statement.

Will Chrter 08 fly into 09

I have written it before in this blog, and I am convinced of this: China has an intelligent government. For each propaganda muncher crying traitor at Liu Xiaobo, there is one thoughtful official that reads the Charter and understands the challenges that his country is facing. The government of China is as skillful to control internal issues as it is unable to control the external image of the country, and it has done an impressive job this time at downplaying and silencing the Charter. The lesson of 1989 is well learnt.

The sad consequence of this is that today the vast majority of the Chinese population has no idea of the existence of the Chrter 08. And I am not only speaking of the masses of peasants. A quick survey among my personal Shanghai friends, all of them with university education and speakers of at least one foreign language, gave discouraging results: Not a single one of them had even heard the term “lingbaxianzhang” (Chrter 08) one week after its publication.

It is unlikely that this Charter -or any other Charter for that matter- will in itself spark political change. Its direct impact is limited, and it has probably already run all it had to run. It is not Charters, but Leaders that start revolutions. And when they do, they look back to the works of the intellectuals to give a meaning to their actions. Inevitably, the time will come for political change in China, and Chrter 08 can be the precursor and the basis for future debate.

However, for these changes to happen peacefully they should first reach the largest possible consensus, not only among the intellectuals, but among the people of China. This includes millions of honest middle aged Chinese who still regard Mao as a respectable leader, and who understand that it is him and his followers, with all their faults, that led China from misery and humiliation to the present prosperity.

These people are not criminals or radicals, nor did they consciously cause any suffering to others during Mao’s terrible years. They are simple, honest Chinese who lived the time they had to live working quietly for their country. Brainwashed or not, these are today the good people of China. And when the intellectuals draft and sign a charter they should always bear in mind that it is for them that they are fighting.

History shows that there are two ways to change the system in China: the violent revolution way (Mao) and the peaceful consensus way (Deng). I believe that this second way is the one that most Chinese desire for their country, and China has proven in the past that it is capable of taking it successfully.

However, to move the massive inertia of the CPC requires some level of distress, like the one existing prior to 1978. Whether the impact of the crisis in 2009 will be enough to lead to this situation and whether the leaders in China will be willing or brave enough to push the changes, remains to be seen. But 2009 might very well bring the first real opportunity in many years, and this well timed Chrter 08 might still have its word to say in the coming months.

Conclusion and note to censors

I am living in China, where I have always been treated with patience and generosity by the Chinese people. For this I have learnt to love and admire this country. I know my obligations as a guest, and with my work, my life and my writing I try my best to return all that China has given to me.

Therefore, I state here my respect to Chinese of all ideologies. Dear censor, I would much appreciate it if you can continue to afford me the privilege of living in your country, not only physically, but also through my little voice on the internet. Please, do not block my blog.

Finally, my best wishes to Liu Xiaobo and his family in these difficult moments. Lu Xiaobo is the main drafter of the Chrter 08 and at this moment he is still detained by the police. He should be released immediately.

I want to show him all my support here, and give my tiny contribution by spreading his work below.

Happy Christmas.

.

The Principles

These are the noble principles that 303 brave men published in China in 2008:

Freedom. Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.

Human rights. Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state power must be authorized by the people. The succession of political disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime’s disregard for human rights.

Equality. The integrity, dignity, and freedom of every person—regardless of social station, occupation, sex, economic condition, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or political belief—are the same as those of any other. Principles of equality before the law and equality of social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights must be upheld.

Republicanism. Republicanism, which holds that power should be balanced among different branches of government and competing interests should be served, resembles the traditional Chinese political ideal of “fairness in all under heaven.” It allows different interest groups and social assemblies, and people with a variety of cultures and beliefs, to exercise democratic self-government and to deliberate in order to reach peaceful resolution of public questions on a basis of equal access to government and free and fair competition.

Democracy. The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are sovereign and the people select their government. Democracy has these characteristics: (1) Political power begins with the people and the legitimacy of a regime derives from the people. (2) Political power is exercised through choices that the people make. (3) The holders of major official posts in government at all levels are determined through periodic competitive elections. (4) While honoring the will of the majority, the fundamental dignity, freedom, and human rights of minorities are protected. In short, democracy is a modern means for achieving government truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Constitutional rule. Constitutional rule is rule through a legal system and legal regulations to implement principles that are spelled out in a constitution. It means protecting the freedom and the rights of citizens, limiting and defining the scope of legitimate government power, and providing the administrative apparatus necessary to serve these ends.

*For the mention of Tiananmen incidents and discussion on discrepancies in the Charter, see my previous post here.