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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