Reflections on China

My following article appears in the Amnesty International Australia’s Uncensor campaign about human rights in China:

There are small signs that Chinese nationalism is being tempered by more thoughtful analysis of the motherland, writes Antony Loewenstein.

The Olympic torch relay has arrived in China. Unsurprisingly, the route in North Korea was protest-free.

Away from the Western media, however, the ethnic Uighur population are calling on the world to boycott the route through East Turkestan, alleging human rights abuses. Darfur campaigner Mia Farrow arrived in Hong Kong to highlight Beijing’s complicity with the Sudanese regime. American Jewish leaders are urging Jews to boycott the Games.

Nobody should expect the remaining leg of the torch to be trouble-free. Any number of minorities will attempt to disrupt the route, especially in Tibet itself, despite the undoubtedly excessive Chinese police presence.

The result of global outrage over Tibet and China’s human rights abuses continues to generate intense nationalism at home. The regime remains unsure how to manage the conflicting challenges. On the one hand it wants to show the world that its citizens love the motherland and don’t take kindly to Western lecturing. On the other hand, foreign investment is central to the country’s rapid economic rise and officials fear intense anti-Western sentiment may scare away much-needed financial support. Recent anti-French protests in China failed to generate the expected interest.

The reasons behind the nationalist surge are explained by Canberra-based, ANU Sinologist Geremie Barme who writes that, “many observers feel they have seen a sort of “export authoritarianism” masquerading as Chinese patriotism.” He continues:

“It is noteworthy that some bloggers in China are also disgusted by the self-indulgent rhetorical hysteria of their (generally) middle-class countrymen and women overseas. They say that they’d like to see them go back to China and fight for political reform, media freedom, and human rights on home turf rather than making an hubristic spectacle of themselves internationally.”

Jin Jung-kwon, a lecturer in German studies at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, says: “China seems to have no intention of making the Olympics a festival that people around the world can enjoy together.” It’s a sentiment that I’ve heard across the Western blogosphere. If the Chinese regime has to choose between cool and controlled, writes the Australian’s Rowan Callick, “they will always opt for the latter.” Especially in the year of the Olympics. It is even more remarkable, therefore, to read about a Tibetan blogger in Beijing continuing to discuss the reality on the ground in her homeland.

Away from the political controversies, Chinese officials are attempting to appease global fears over air pollution for the Beijing Games. China is home to one in three of the world’s smokers – during my visit last year I was constantly suffocating under a haze of smoke in seemingly every bar, restaurant and hotel – but last week announced a ban on indoor smoking.

Improving public behaviour – essential if the country will impress the tens of thousands of foreign visitors in August – is often taken into personal hands. Last year dozens of security guards used metal pipes to beat up builders having a cigarette break during the construction of the Olympic Stadium, breaking a ban on smoking at Olympic sites.

Unrest in Tibet continues and harassment of Tibetans in China proper is increasing. There are small signs of positive change, though. A Chinese student at Columbia University, after spending time with the Dalai Lama, wrote an essay with his reflections and concluded that engagement was preferable to conflict. He said:

“The meeting lasted for roughly 75 minutes, and I was deeply impressed by his sincerity and hospitality. His advocacy for non-violence, support for the Games and promise of non-independence are all consistent with what he has said and done in the West. As an ordinary overseas Chinese student, I think not only the future of Tibet requires formal discussions between Chinese government and His Holiness, but to abandon hatred and to promote harmony between Chinese and Tibetans also require continuous dialogue and communication between the two peoples, and this is the main purpose of my trip.”

Such statements would have been almost unimaginable barely a few months ago. If the recent strife leads to further dialogue between opposing parties, something positive will have emerged from a potentially diabolic situation.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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