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The New China -- 
Reflections on Political Rage

(May 1999)

For those with more than a pica-second of historical memory, the last two weeks have been an eerie reminder that China is living in another political age. It is a wake-up call worth heeding. Kosovo has become more than a metaphor for Balkan bloody-mindedness. Now it is a pawn on the Chinese chess board. That is, Chinese foreign policy is 100% about domestic politics, and particularly about the need to distract the Chinese population from getting restive over internal events in the motherland itself. America is a perfect foil.

The artefacts of American living are feverishly copied in mainland Chinese life. From the clothing styles in crowded department stores, to dental braces, to building design to the ubiquitous Internet, the outward form of Chinese living is a cargo-cult built on the American dream. Graduate students cannot earn higher degrees without an English language passes, and nothing is more coveted than the chance for overseas study, from which only a handful of the anointed ever return. China's growth has been powered by international trade, particularly with America, and the shoals of school and college leavers who say "manager" when you ask their career choice, feel in their bones that English is the key to their dreams.

An outsider is bound to contrast the copy-America obsession of Chinese (especially middle-class Chinese) with the vituperation heaped on "evil American hypocrisy" that erupted when three embassy workers were accidentally killed in far away Belgrade. Those screaming loudest were exactly the privileged university students who hope so fervently for a "better life" in America, or at least a glamorous lifestyle in some international joint venture business. Blackboards throughout my university in central China suddenly blossomed with violent accusations; at least one foreign teacher (not me) was accused of being a Nazi; late night meetings of students and staff bubbled with high-minded resolutions, hand-written onto board posters, or sent off to "the leaders" in Beijing. Yes, China was undoubtedly going to solve the problems of the world. No matter that 83,000 Chinese are killed every year on the roads (five times the world per vehicle average), and 500 Chinese students even die on Chinese unversity campuses every year. Not a whimper about such matters. Far safer to demonstrate with government approval about the foreign devils. China would be the leading light of truth and justice.

Well Virginia, what's going on? Lot's of things, and not all admirable, I'm afraid. At the macro-political level it is rather depressingly simple. As one ex-CIA director grated through envious teeth, "agiprop" (the old Cold-war acronym for "agitation & propaganda"). The ageing gents who are minding the store in Beijing learned agiprop at their mother's breasts. They are Cold-war warriors, indelibly shaped by the lunacy that has been most of China's post 1949 history. Regrettably, the homilies of the Communist Manifesto have proved unlikely to work in this or any other age, but the old, old narcotic of Power is as potent as ever. Like every imperial executor since the Yellow Emperor, their dream has been to subjugate the will of the Chinese people to the Emperor's greater glory. Where that means business suits and toasts of mao-tai, so be it. They will scrape and whimper for the TV cameras like any chief executive the world over. Where it means squashing bodies under tank tracks, they lose no sleep. But mostly it means being economical with the truth, controlling the flow of information, or simply lying.

The targets of official Chinese misinformation, "the masses" and "the intellectuals" are actually rather more complex vectors than their would-be puppet masters. A nation of people is an abstraction. There are around 1.2 billion Chinese, and they are certainly not cloned from a single mould. Surveys amongst my own students have shown radical differences of perception on a wide range of beliefs. Nevertheless, I believe it to be true that there are tidal influences among the people in any culture group that overlay individual differences. It seems to me that the seismic shifts in life and culture that accompanied the industrial revolution in Europe were followed by mass psychoses, a sort of psychological imbalance, that found some outward expression in the ravaging wars of this century. Something similar may be going on here.

The cultural schizophrenia of my Chinese students is not a new phenomena, in China or elsewhere. No place in Asia was more cosmopolitan, European-centred and worldly than Japan after the Meiji Revolution of the 1860s. Japanese, having decided that their training, equipment and institutions were hopelessly outclassed, went ape for all things Western; (of course, they are still at it, which wins them no friends in the rest of Asia). The Japanese, being analytic people (a trait of theirs despised by many Chinese), sought out "the best" model for each of their new institutions, borrowing variously from France, Germany, England or America. Not least, they borrowed Western models of military operation. Yet every ego has its alter-ego, every admirer a heart of envy. It was not enough to stand as an equal with any Westerner, to lounge over coffee in a double breasted Western suit, to make money with the best of them. Like a self-made man at forty-five, would they look around and say with despair (of brief life) "is that all there is to it" ? They would not. There had to be more to The Great Game. There had to be the taste of blood, the sweet scent of power. They had to surpass, to dominate, to subjugate. Only then could past humiliations be expunged. And so we had the mad, bloody tragedy of Imperial Japan's "greater co-prosperity sphere", and the horror of Hiroshima.

So it is with China. The young have no memory (anywhere) of lessons learnt, and the old choose to remember selectively. Lately in the Chinese press we have heard much of the "May 4th" movement, an outraged protest against the Versailles Treaty which awarded Germany's Chinese concessions to the Japanese after World War I. It was indeed a shameful occasion, but what are its salient "lessons"? The Chinese governent has drawn a long bow on "American imperialism" in Kosovo and tied it into a neat parcel with the May 4th Movement for my credulous students.

There is an ancient tradition in China of using historical events as tools of political convenience. They are seen as a legitimate prop for agendas of the moment. For this reason many of the more mature Chinese people I know regard "history" with considerable distaste, and have little inclination to learn its more subtle lessons. Thus, each generation will have to relearn the price of old follies. At this moment, the elemental force of envy is a dominant theme in the Peoples Republic of China. Chinese youth is powered by envy, and envy will have it's revenge. Envy has delivered them into the hands of the old men in Beijing, and in its name they will recklessly destroy the thing they love. As many a fairy tale reminds us, envy is blind. Eagerly these folk hear and believe that America with its evil cabal, NATO, is bombing poor Yugoslavia into the ground, killing and maiming its peoples to achieve "world hegemony", violating national sovereignty (theirs now, ours later, when China grabs Taiwan).

The whole structure of education in China has conditioned people not to think, not to question. No one pauses to wonder why the Kossovars are fleeing into the arms of NATO countries, not north to Belgrade and that friendly uncle, Russia; (indeed, few Chinese could find Yugoslavia on a map). Above all, they have no idea that Milosovich's thugs have murdered perhaps ten thousand men, women and children in cold blood, and driven seven hundred and fifty thousand into exile. For that matter, they have no idea that in their northern provinces the PLA has recently pushed thousands of starving, desperate North Koreans back across the border of that jolly, fraternal regime in Pyongyang.

What should I do? The short answer is nothing. What if I did lift the scales from the eyes of a man or woman, here or there? It would be a self-indulgence, with no bearing on the tides that are sweeping like great shadows across the minds of countless others. And if my imagined believers stood on a soap box in some park, they would be quickly be on a short ride to join the nineteen million prisoners in Chinese jails and gulags. This is not the Evil Empire, not in the streets and buses. People mean well, after their own fashion. They are easily deceived, and will shout the slogans they are prompted to shout, just as the blueberry pie Americans in middle-America are easily deceived. But the first and over-riding instinct of these people in the streets is, as everywhere, to get home to their families, and find a way to pay for the next generation of TV sets. So I smile mildly. And when a young girl of eighteen hangs back after class to ask with fierce passion in her eyes, why Americans are murdering the innocent, I look sad and worldly. "I could tell you many things", I murmur, "but I've signed a contract to say I mustn't talk about things like that". She understands. In this place, she understands directives like that.

"The New China" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved, 15 May 1999

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