Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Friday, April 25, 2008

You really don't know about China.

Update: This post deserves a fuller explanation.

Reading a list of Chinese regions, I realized why so many Chinese might be pissed off at the west for focusing on Tibet.

So I made a graph. Look for Tibet.

That's right: Tibet has only 3 million people. (The U.S. is on the right, for comparison.) There are probably hundreds of problems in China that affect as many people as what's happened in Tibet, but get next to no attention in the West.

There are two other things that strike you:

1. Social dynamics within China might be unique -- there's nowhere else with as many people who share a language and culture (more or less). Ideas could propagate differently. We'll have to readjust our thinking to get a grasp on what's happening.

2. There's a whole huge-ass part of the world -- comparable to Europe and the U.S. put together (that's without counting the people in dire poverty) churning out culture and architecture and whatever else, which I know next to nothing about, relatively speaking.

I like that; it's exciting.

I've been following the current wave of chinese nationalism through wikipedian Andrew Lih, and I hesitated posting this because I thought it might be seen as promoting that nationalism (which is just about as stupid as the Freedom Fries stuff preceding the american invasion of iraq).

But then I remembered that this blog is inaccessible in the chinese mainland (last I heard, a couple years ago). :P


Christina said...

westerners don't know bout my immense population statistics.

sorry. heh.

you make a good point but you don't really say why the giant population makes a difference. the Chinese culture values the individual over the state and to them the idea of preserving a tiny minority to the detriment of the majority is simply Not Done. the West, in contrast, values individuality and preservation of uniqueness even at the expense of "progress" (which can have different definitions for different people). the human rights issue is the face of a larger cultural clash. not to say the human rights issue should be ignored, but the US and China are coming from two totally different corners of thought and the manner in which the situation is handled should take that into consideration.

Ben Yates said...

I think you mean to say that Chinese culture values the state over the individual. That might be true, but I think it's usually overstated as an explanation for everything that happens in china.

Tibet is probably only one chinese issue out of hundreds that are comparably important (affect just as many people) but draw very little attention in the west.

Dhartung said...

Sorry, I find your analysis beyond facile.

As christina said, it is much more about the refusal to conform. They are just not accepting that they are Chinese -- they insist on special treatment (like being left alone).

I think it is also very much a status issue. It is much closer to the way that American Indians are viewed here.

When international critics bring up the Indians, the American mainstream view is largely "that's a dead issue, and any problems the Indians have today are because they won't get off the reservations and the bottle". In other words, we don't really force them to be under our thumb, their bad treatment is solely their own choice.

Just as with Indians in America, the Tibetans are very low status people and are viewed within a range of outright contempt to at best patronizing condescension.

Another analogy. My paper runs the columnist Leonard Pitts. An excellent writer, of course, but white people (ones who write letters to the editor) seem to universally think that he harps on black issues way too much. Why, almost as if black people in America experience racism every day! Can't be possible, because JFK banned racism or something and now everything's hunky-dory.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading your blog from Beijing, so it looks like your site is no longer blocked. Congrats. ^^

I very much agree with your title, that Western people tend to know very little about China. The Western media, often their only source of information regarding all things Chinese, does a poor job in portraying an accurate picture of China and Chinese issues.

My first year was one in which all the myths and misconceptions I held about China were dispelled as the reality of life here settled onto me. Reading the Western media stories on Chinese issues, and on the events in Tibet in particular, is rather embarrassing. Chinese people reading those same articles can only conclude that Western people are, for the most part, uncritical buffoons, or at the very least, unsophisticated and rather gullible. A harsh statement, I know, but the latest spate of media attention on China has been an epic failure on the part of Western mainstream media.

Ben Yates said...

Dhartung -- sorry if I seemed too facile. Actually, I probably was too facile -- this post was attempted reddit-bait, so I was trying to make it as snappy as I could.

I wasn't trying to totalistically encompass the whole tibet/china dispute, I was just trying to get across the point that the relative sizes of tibet and china (particularly just how fucking huge china is) have really been overlooked in thinking about the whole thing.

I was not saying tibetans aren't persecuted and actually went out of my way to dissociate myself from chinese nationalism in general. Of course, I could have offered plenty of examples of the tragic way china's treatment of tibet is playing out. (I think -- though I'm not ultra-informed on the topic -- that it's basically colonialism and will probably fail in the same ugly, chaotic way that colonialism has elsewhere.) But you already know those examples.

The mysterious thing to westerners is not why tibetans are chafing under the cultural yoke. It's why china is pissed off. I was trying to help illuminate that (and to get ridiculous numbers of pageviews, which didn't pan out).

Draeton said...

Didn't the colonization of the Americas and Australia ultimately succeed? The indigenous people were nearly annihilated and almost completely supplanted by Western European people and culture. Even after the changes in government, and over 200 years later, London reaps great economic benefit from her close relationships with D.C. and Canberra.

Ben Yates said...

Plus, they got tea and the electric guitar. :P

The motives might have been self-interested, but colonialism wasn't always a naked attempt to annihilate other peoples. In Britain's case, it was an attempt to "civilize" the world. Kipling's "white man's burden" gives a good sense of what they thought -- damn, now we've got to try to better the lot of these savages. Going in with that degree of cultural blindness and condescension, they couldn't possibly succeed in improving the lives of their "sullen new-caught peoples" but that was the goal. (I'm excluding the most brutal countries like belgium, of course.) Some of the greatest damage was done when european powers tried to force their own social and political structures on other societies, duh. Institutions can't be installed, they have to evolve from preexisting structures.

From a broad memetic perspective Britain obviously benefited (though the colonial era ended with bankrupt european govs), but that doesn't mean the ways it benefited bore any resemblance to colonialism's intentions.

That's what I was trying to get across when I said colonialism failed. If you asked most chinese people whether they were trying to harm the tibetans, they'd think you were insulting them. They're not trying to harm them. At worst, they don't care about the tibetans much, and have vague ideas about bringing them into the modern world. These ideas are tied up with self-interest (tibet as a strategic location, resources, trying to hold a large country together, blah blah blah) -- I'm trying to untangle them so that chinese (in the unlikely event that many are reading) can draw lessons from history, see that they're probably fucking the tibetans over, and do the decent thing.