“The West doesn’t understand China” is a frequent phrase in Chinese-Western arguments (and to a lesser extent in other Chinese-foreign arguments, too). The phrase is a wild card in ideological conflicts – it usually comes from Chinese officials, established Chinese scholars, or members of the Chinese public who subscribe to this idea. It may come from non-Chinese sinologists who subscribe to the idea, too – after all, they see it as their job to explain China.
The way foreign academics who – seemingly or really – argue in favor of Beijing’s position on human rights are often referred to as “China experts” by China’s media would suggest that you only understand China once you understand that China did no harm, doesn’t do harm, won’t do harm, and, for the kindness of its nature, can’t do harm. When Chinese dissidents end up in jail, this can’t mean that the state inflicted injustice on them. It only means that now it is time to start seeking the convict’s faults, especially when the judges who handed down the sentence haven’t been specific in their verdict. When the verdict was vague, it must have been because the convict poses a mortal danger to the motherland. The degree of secrecy and intransparency applied in the process is a trustworthy indicator of the threat the convict poses to the motherland. And when the judiciary process is then criticized from abroad, that would seal the proof that there is a Western conspiracy behind the dissident’s ways.
China’s judiciary is in frequent need for wild cards, to close perceived gaps in the country’s laws – whenever such gaps work to the disadvantage of those in power. Not only the courts, but China’s rulers themselves, too, are in frequent need for wild cards. And what is sometimes referred to as China’s “civil society” – as if there could be a true nationwide public under a totalitarian regime – is in frequent need of wild cards, too. Probably one of the wildest cards China has produced this year is the Confucius Peace Prize, an alternative Chinese (Nobel) peace prize. The government itself has kept a genteel formal distance to the Confucius Peace Prize committee’s workings, but the civil society which, apparently in cooperation with the ministry of culture, produced the Prize is still its immediate public diplomacy product.
The Confucius Peace Prize is a PR disaster. And while our media do often make a mountain out of a molehill (after all, neither of the jury members seems to have a particularly high profile), this disaster deserves all the limelight it has gotten. It highlights what is wrong with the official Chinese reaction to Liu Xiaobo‘s Oslo award, and with much of the Chinese public’s reaction.
The Confucius Peace Prize sets out from the position that China can’t be – morally – wrong. And if she could be wrong in some details, she can’t be wrong at all any more once Western conspiracies back an outsider in China. The West, that’s a fairly general Chinese view, wants to exercise its remaining power to sabotage China’s peaceful rise. There can’t be another explanation, because it’s exactly what China would do herself, if she was in the West’s position. And strictly domestically speaking, an outsider in China is wrong by the very fact that he or she is an outsider.
The idea that the Nobel Peace Prize is an anti-Chinese conspiracy leaves the general Western admiration for outsiders out of the account. Can you think of large crowds of Chinese people expressing admiration for a man who provides – Chinese – officials with a platform to leak state secrets?
It’s no coincidence either that the Confucius Peace Prize went to Lien Chan, a man the jury considers a Chinese national, and who may consider himself a Chinese national, too.
The jury wasn’t well-prepared for emerging publicly. They were certainly in a hurry. The Confucius Peace Prize couldn’t wait for another year. There was a sense of ideological competition at play, and a lot of anger.
The death blow the prize suffered didn’t come from the audience of press people who had the time of their life in Tan Changliu‘s comedian press conference. The spectacular and entertaining implosion was the prize’s built-in device. The prize does what nationalist Chinese hate most: it apes the West – it apes the Nobel Peace Prize. It apes the procedure, it apes Western-style public relations, and it apes what the Confucius Peace Prize believes are “the West’s ulterior motives” – trying to steal the limelight from a competitor. The Confucius Peace Prize came – and had to come – just ahead of the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony. It will – most probably – be short-lived, because it failed to serve its purpose this time, and because next-year’s Nobel Peace Prize probably won’t require another flurry of Chinese “civil-society” activism.
I don’t think that Tan Changliu would be plain stupid. Rather, he was ideologically and morally blinded by his view that China can’t be wrong. That was the outset, and from there, it had to go wrong anyway.
But there is something that many people outside China indeed don’t understand about China. JR isn’t claiming that he has the full picture. But in discussions with Chinese fenqings, with not-so-fenqing Chinese people, and with foreign expats in China, it has dawned on him that the biggest problem is that China’s rulers feel that they can’t leave anything to chances. The process of reform and opening is an engineering process. Not only the process itself need to be engineered. The CCP’s totalitarian nature prescribes that every individual’s conscience needs to be engineered, too, to pretty much one universal blueprint.
The CCP has understood that its own ideological treasure chambers are poorer than its Palace Museum, when compared to Taiwan’s National Palace Museum. It has reacted to that, in that they have accroached China’s history in general now, rather than continuing to discard most of what happened prior to 1949.
There may be arguments within the CCP leadership as to how China’s development should continue. But the current party line, as it manifests itself in its daily business of government, isn’t about human rights at all. To the CCP, the issue of individual liberties is a (revocable, if need be) modernization technicality, not a human rights issue. That’s why the law is deemed faulty, whenever it offers no convenient operating handle to silence shitlisted members of the Chinese “public”. It never seems to dawn on those who run the country, or on too many Chinese citizens, that these “gaps” are the law itself. It’s the nature of the law that it limits what the powerful can do to the relatively powerless.
Chinese officials sometimes sneer at foreign misgivings about a stronger China – even if the criticism is specific. Many decisions taken by Beijing which would be domestically indefensible otherwise, are successfully justified with making Chinese citizens feel afraid of the outside world, especially America, and possibly Europe, too. This creates an impression on many Chinese that there is no other option than – sometimes lawless – repression by those who themselves write the law. And that’s why fear and loathing is the only thing many Chinese can think of as Western motivations when Westerners are acting in an “unfriendly” way. And if non-Western foreigners act in such ways, a Western conspiracy (or some cultural imperialism) can’t be far behind it.
Jeremiah Jenne, in the Granite Studio, suggests that the best way Beijing could have reacted to the Norwegian award to Liu Xiaobo would have been
to say nothing and save a little dignity; simply release a statement that while they disagree with the decision, they respect the right of the Norwegians to award the prize to whomever makes their glands swell and hearts go pitter-patter…then put a bag over Liu Xiaοbο’s head and put him on the first flight to Newark. Problem solved.
But I believe that he’s missing the point. Jenne is indeed guilty of not understanding China, or at least guilty of not understanding the workings of its dictatorship. Liu Xiaobo’s award came as unwelcome news to the CCP indeed, but China’s leaders are actually making the best of it. They stokes nationalist feelings among the population, and get many of the angry citizens to rally around the CCP.
Of course there would be other options, such as the one Jenne suggests. But they wouldn’t be equally useful for Beijing at this point in time – and every organization in China, from the eery “Confucius” prize jury to the propaganda department, tends to seize the opportunities of the moment now, rather than appyling more far-sighted strategies.
The Economist, a magazine which may or may not understand China, focuses on one story and two interpretations this week. The story is about Goujian, the King of Yue (越王勾踐). It’s an old story, and my first impression is that the Economist has recounted in a more colorful way than it is usually narrated, but the two interpretations are relevant, anyway. Goujian, the magazine says,
was taken prisoner after a disastrous campaign against King Fuchaio, his neighbour to the north. Goujian was put to work in the royal stables where he bore his captivity with such dignity that he gradually won Fuchai’s respect. After a few years Fuchai let him return home as his vassal.1)
Goujian, after his return home, slept on brushwood and hung a gall bladder in his room, licking it daily to feed his appetite for revenge – and succeeded in the end.
The unnamed author with the Economist cites two ways to read Goujian’s story. The first one:
The king who slept on brushwood and tasted gall2) is as familiar to Chinese as King Alfred and his cakes are to Britons, or George Washington and the cherry tree are to Americans. In the early 20th century he became a symbol of resistance against the treaty ports, foreign concessions and the years of colonial humiliation.1)
The second reading would be Paul Cohen‘s, who is quoted as saying that
students are told that if they want to succeed they must be like King Goujian, sleeping on brushwood and tasintg gall – that great accomplishments come only with sacrifice and unyielding purpose. This Goujian represents self-improvement and dedication, not revenge.1)
Currently, China’s leaders are operating both these interpretations. The question isn’t which one is in effect – it is which one is used to serve the accomplishment aimed at by the other.
That wouldn’t need to be China’s way. Watchfulness always makes sense. Paranoia doesn’t. When an overseas award to a citizen of an established nuclear power with a lot of economic success is deemed a threat there, something fundamental must be wrong with the nerves of that citizen’s country. Archer Wang, apparently an ethnic Chinese student outside China, wrote some time ago:
I still remember a question on one of the numerous physics tests I took in a middle school in China. “How many people of Chinese descent have been awarded a Nobel Prize?”
I guessed four. The correct answer was six, all science prizes. Not one was still a Chinese citizen when the prize was awarded.
“Our nation’s future depends on you,” the teacher said. “No Chinese person has received the Nobel Prize while they were still Chinese.”
After years of hearing their government demonize the West and human rights, the vast majority of Chinese see these awards as the hostile gestures of foreign forces aimed at interfering in China’s internal affairs. Yet, like me, many Chinese regard the Nobel as the highest honor presented to an individual.
That is why the Chinese authorities have made such astounding efforts to conceal from the public news of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Liu Xiaobo, the first “Chinese” Chinese to receive a Nobel.
Liu Xiaobo was a member of the first group of students after restoration of the college entrance examination after the Cultural Revolution. Maybe he tasted gall, too. But then again, maybe he was a weird pervert who actually enjoyed his studies.
What’s for sure is that Beijing and those who subscribe to its condemnation of Liu Xiaobo deem this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate one of Fuchai’s willing vassals.
1) The Economist, December 4th, 2010, “A Special Report on China’s Place in the World”, page 3
China’s Answer to Nobel Mystifies Its Winner, NY Times, Dec 8, 2010
Liu Xiaobo’s 300 colonies,Third Tone Devil, November 5, 2010
Impious Sons: Eminent and Treasonous, October 13, 2010