Mind Games Under Heaven

Beijing Olympic rings

All the world art mad but thou and I. So it seems. The col­lec­tive mind of peo­ples as nations expressed either through the bal­lot box or by the voice of the emper­or ( L’Etat c’est moi) seems errat­ic at best in most locales. Right now Amer­i­cans are mak­ing up their col­lec­tive mind whether to con­tin­ue on a down­ward spi­ral dri­ven by greed, self-infat­u­a­tion and igno­rance, or try for a bit of self-renew­al. The bad old ways have every chance of win­ning out.

Nowa­days my tent is pitched in Chi­na. A storm from nowhere could blow it away any­time, but that is prob­a­bly true wher­ev­er I hap­pen to kip. Any peek under the men­tal cov­ers here is pret­ty acci­den­tal. Social net­work­ing is not my strong suite. The lan­guage wall is high­er than Mount Tai. But most of all, noth­ing is what it seems to be. In Chi­na I sus­pect that the man­age­ment of under­stand­ing has always been a game of smoke and mir­rors to cloud the past, hide the present and deceive the future. Being human though, I’m bound to play guess­ing games like every­one else.

On the open chess­board, 2008 has been an inter­val of almost unre­lent­ing mis­for­tunes for Chi­nese per­cep­tions. It was to have been a time to cel­e­brate the tri­umph of Chi­nese social and tech­ni­cal moder­ni­ty over a blood-soaked and humil­i­at­ing past cen­tu­ry. Instead, nat­ur­al dis­as­ters under­writ­ten by engi­neer­ing fail­ures have tak­en the edge off any tri­umphal­ism. The Tibet upheaval has trans­formed from a police action into a ren­o­va­tion of police-state men­tal­i­ty, and now that repres­sive mode has been trans­ferred whole­sale, and mag­ni­fied into the Olympic forum. The promis­es of open access to infor­ma­tion for the world’s media are evap­o­rat­ing by the minute. In direct pro­por­tion to ham fist­ed attempts by the Chi­nese state’s infor­ma­tion man­agers to micro-man­age for­eign media, jour­nal­ists’ pens are cur­dling. Instead of gee-whiz reports on the Chi­nese mir­a­cle, and chuck­ling insights into quaint Chi­nese habits, irony, sar­casm and open crit­i­cism have become the rul­ing colours. I don’t think I have seen a sin­gle pos­i­tive report about Chi­na in the last week.

China’s lead­ers have already played the nation­al­ist card with their domes­tic audi­ence this year, and been forced to back off when the rau­cous chau­vin­ism of cow­boy blog­gers threat­ened the sooth­ing tones of the Olympic theme song. Ordi­nary Chi­nese peo­ple, espe­cial­ly in Bei­jing, are being seri­ous­ly incon­ve­nienced by the whole Olympic cha­rade. Their voic­es too are mov­ing to sar­casm. That will be mol­li­fied per­haps by big sport­ing wins, and every­thing has been done to arrange those. How­ev­er any sport­ing humil­i­a­tion, or oth­er major pub­lic fail­ure, will throw the switch to chaos. Pub­lic dis­may could be expressed again as extreme nation­al­ism if the wider world is felt to be crit­i­cal. It is hard to see how else it could be expressed, giv­en the lim­its on open dis­sent. The Bei­jing secu­ri­ty machine has pret­ty well guar­an­teed that the for­eign world will be crit­i­cal by caging jour­nal­ists and mak­ing it as dif­fi­cult as pos­si­ble for for­eign vis­i­tors to attend the games. Thus, far from bring­ing the people’s of the world togeth­er, these Olympics seem more and more des­tined to sep­a­rate the Chi­nese uni­verse from the fam­i­ly of mankind. I hope I am wrong.

So, look­ing in the mir­rors and peer­ing through the smoke, what the heck is going on? It is a giv­en that lots of shell games are going on. China’s emper­ors, the last of whom was Mao Zedong, have always estab­lished dynas­tic pow­er by force, and kept it by at least try­ing to man­age the appear­ance of good gov­er­nance. Mod­ern Chi­na is a vast­ly more com­pli­cat­ed place than ancient Chi­na, or even Mao’s Chi­na. Now it has a very large edu­cat­ed pop­u­la­tion, an extreme­ly dis­con­tent­ed une­d­u­cat­ed pop­u­la­tion, and innu­mer­able very ambi­tious peo­ple who have lit­tle chance of ever exer­cis­ing real pow­er. The mar­gin of sta­bil­i­ty which allows gov­er­nance in a mix like that is both nar­row and frag­ile. The police-state solu­tion of blan­ket sup­pres­sion is less and less viable for many rea­sons, not the least being that any police-state appa­ra­tus is always going to be dumb­er than lots of clever, edu­cat­ed and ambi­tious peo­ple who come to regard it as an imped­i­ment.

Think­ing about all this, and mak­ing a reck­less for­eign­er guess, one would have to lay bets that there is much plot­ting inside and out­side the walls of Zhong Nan Hai to make life uncom­fort­able for the present lodgers. Where chaos reigns, the ambi­tious and the ruth­less may seize a main chance. In the very least, when Chi­na cringes in embar­rass­ment or los­es face in the world, the biggest losers have to be the lead­ers.

For much of the last year, the skies over Zhengzhou have been blue, touched with wisps of white cloud. I have been amazed. Where was the chok­ing air pol­lu­tion I knew in Wuhan ten years ago? Well, almost to some sad script, late­ly those lead­en skies have returned. I can scarce­ly see the city sky­line through the haze. I won­der, is this some last cru­el Olympic joke?

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