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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.

Lessons from Xinjiang: Disaster and Response

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

NYT diagram

I was not there and I do not know more than what is in the press. But in the light of the available information, I think it’s worth it to have another look at the events, and see what we make of it. Refer to the NYT diagram linked on the illustration, this paper is hardly suspect of pro-CPC, and the information included (from witness accounts) is about as detailed as has been published concerning the events of 5th May.

It all started with a protest in People’s Square, followed by a concentration along Liberation Road, which was met around 6.30 by the People’s Armed Police. Up to here everything is “normal” in the logic of street rioting: there were clashes and probably some victims from both sides. But Liberation Rd. is very central, many people live there and surely the NYT would have found at least a witness to mention it if hundreds of people had been killed or made prisoner at this point.

But it is afterwards, especially after 8, along the axes of Tuanjie and Dawan Roads, that the events are not normal by any standard of social disorder. Street riots, like other forms of violence, can have collateral damage, but this is not the case. The police was not there, the Han mobs couldn’t have been organized in such a short time, and the only way to explain those deaths is that it was a deliberate large scale massacre of civilian residents and passers by. This is consistent with what was written in other accounts by various newspapers.

The initial count of 123* Han casualties that has been more or less accepted by all sides as minimum is an astonishing figure for actions that happened mostly in the space of 5 hours and in such a reduced area. Looking at other riots in the region, including Xinjiang, Tibet or other Chinese areas, we see this ratio is completely out of range. This was not the heat of the fight in a political riot. It was cold-blooded persecution, the kind of actions that can only be the work of fanatics.

Who was behind the events

In its August 2 issue, the Hong Kong newsweekly Yazhou Zhoukan interviewed Heyrat Niyaz, a Uyghur journalist, blogger, and AIDS activist, the kind of person who is unlikely to be partial to the CPC. Heyrat speaks about the Islamic Liberation Party, Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami, a pan-islamic international political party which is formally peaceful, but which has been accused in the past of inciting violence in Europe. This organization has spread very quickly in Xinjiang in the last decade.

As a witness in Urumqi, Niyaz notes the strong Kashgar accents of many of the protesters and the religious slogans that were heard in the protests. This brings to mind all the times the CPC has spoken of the menace of an Islamist group called ETIM, which might actually exist or not. In any case, some radical groups do exist, as was clearly seen from attacks like this one last year, where 16 policemen were coldly knifed and bombed after being run over.

I will not accuse any group without proof, as I would be guilty myself of the same “solid block” thinking I criticized yesterday. But what we have seen up to now should make any honest observer curious, and it certainly warrants further investigation in the field of radical islamism in Xinjiang. In a region bordered by countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is not at all unthinkable that frustrated youths take example of their counterparts across the border and find an escape in a perverted version of religion.

Response

The Chinese government has handled the crisis relatively well, given the circumstances. Actually, the main objection one could make is the opposite of what most Western readers like to imagine: on Sunday 5th more force should have been used to avoid the murders.

If you think of it, you might agree that the CPC leaders are not precisely idealistic dreamers. When they let the foreign reporters into a place it is because they know they have nothing to lose, and this time they must have been pretty confident that they were not to blame. Also we have to admit that, even when in front of journalists, it is unusual in most armies in the World to exhibit so much discipline and restraint as the Chinese did in the aftermath of indiscriminate racist attacks against their own people.

A large part of the Western media were confused by this attitude, which perhaps explains why they left so early. Indeed, it is some food for thought and it can make some weaker spirits shrink, to consider that for the second time in a row (after the Sichuan disaster) China proves that, sometimes, an authoritarian regime can do things better than a democracy. It takes some solid convictions and some understanding of ones own ideals to be able to look at the World without the mould of good and evil.

In any case, there is little doubt – the Western media has given me no reason to think otherwise – that the Chinese double approach of media control and moderate police action has produced the best results during the crisis. It goes without saying that this only works as a short term formula to curb down the violence, and that much more will need to be done from now on to really solve the problems in Xinjiang. More about long term solutions in the next posts.

Rebiya Kadeer

I will not waste time here to discredit Rebiya Kadeer, because from the beginning she discredits herself. She has provided no basis at all for most of the information she gave to the media, and some of her claims are so absurdly wrong that it actually makes me think she has to be innocent: someone who’s made it in business can’t possibly be such a bad liar. The only explanation is that she is totally clueless.

Click on the picture for one example of her latest claims.

broom

More than anything, Kadeer gives the impression that she is desperate for TV time. She knows her time of fame is running to an end, and she is forced to place ever stronger claims, raising the stakes at each go to attract the tired audiences. As blogger twofish reflected, if she really cared about the future of Xinjiang, she might have grabbed this chance to send a message of peace and try to connect with the rest of the Chinese at a time when they were brutally attacked, earning perhaps the respect of the moderates.

But how has someone like Kadeer, a successful businesswoman in her time, imprisoned and then released by the CPC, ended up as de facto representative of the Uyghur people? Kadeer was called to play a role, and she plays it just fine. It is a role that has been written by the CPC, and by the Western media, and by the audiences and by the American NED, who is funding her. The story was written long before she arrived, a well proven plot that works with the public and will make everyone happy. It is all over again the Dalai Lama saga, and thanks to the copy-paste now the scriptwriters can relax and enjoy their Summer holidays.

Except, of course, that Rebiya Kadeer is no Dalai Lama, and neither her deeds nor her standing among the Uyghur justifiy any such comparison.

The Important Question

And now down to what many consider the crucial question: is Kadeer in contact or even financing the extremist groups who arranged the killings, or is she, as I suspect, totally ignorant of the reality on the ground? I don’t think we will ever find out. It is difficult to believe that the NED, funded by the American Congress, would sponsor anyone connected with terrorism; but if by mistake they did, I am sure they will take good care to hide all the proofs.

Note that, either way, the NED doesn’t come out very well from this story. Sponsoring an opportunist who jumps at the chance to get a name for herself while she coldly observes the killings of dozens is hardly in line with the objectives of a National Endowment for Democracy.

But really, is all this so important? I don’t think so. Kadeer will not last, and whether she is guilty or not, the peanuts that the NED pays her do not really change anything. Kadeer with her accommodated expatriate Uyghurs of the WUC cannot possibly control the operations of a terrorist group on the ground. And, as an inspirational role, I doubt it very much that she – a woman, twice married, business and PC background – could ever work for young islamist radicals. She will most certainly not turn into the new bin Laden.

No, the real questions for China and for the World are others:

Who was really behind the killings of 5th July? How will the prisoners be judged? How are the interethnic policies of the CPC failing? How is this failure feeding the bases of some violent groups? What is the connection of these groups with islamist terrorism and what is the probability of Al-Qaeda joining the party? And why is China the only Security Council country that hasn’t received a large-scale attack from islamists, in spite of the years-long Uyghur conflict?

And finally, where are the people that are supposed to be answering all these questions?

*See my comment below for the basis of this number.

Is China racist? or new PC colonialism

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

This discussion on China Geeks caught my eye, mostly because it is one of the few that has managed to engage the real Chinese blogosphere to interact with us foreign China blogs. And no less than hecaitou, a respected blogger in both the Chinese and Western communities. Unfortunately, the results are rather discouraging.

It all started when some Chinese blogs, including hecaitou, posted this image, which was picked by Chinageeks in a post titled “racism in China”. Hecaitou responded rather energetically to the pingback, writing a new post, and then commentators from all sides joined the party.

The discussion about whether Chinese are racist or not is a never ending one, and it has been commented to exhaustion already, for example in the FM blog.  It usually degenerates into a series of “you worse than me” counterexamples, as American/Chinese national pride quickly takes over any serious attempt of debate.  Rather  than racism, the misunderstanding comes from a different perception on the limits of the socially acceptable (ie PC). Some notes I would like to add to the debate: Click to continue »