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?