Ma Jian: Olympics in China
19. December 2008 13:14
Ma Jian's interview in The New York Times
Questions: What does the Beijing Olympics represent for China? Why is it so important?
Ma Jian: The Beijing Olympics represent China’s grand entrance onto the world stage and confirmation of its new superpower status. The Games are crucially important, not for the Chinese people (who now seem weary of the whole charade), but for the Chinese government. Behind its arrogant swagger, the Communist Party is insecure and afraid. It bristles at any criticism from abroad and is terrified of internal dissent. The Olympics will give it the international recognition it craves, and will legitimize its dictatorial rule.
Q: Your new book, “Beijing Coma,” is about the Tiananmen Square crackdown. How might the Beijing Olympics affect the memory of that event?
MJ: The Chinese people have been forced to forget the Tiananmen massacre. There has been no public debate about the event, no official apology. The media aren’t allowed to mention it. Still today people are being persecuted and imprisoned for disseminating information about it.
The government hoped that the Olympics would stir up a nationalistic frenzy that would erase memories of the past. But by turning the Olympics into a mass movement, it has inadvertently reminded the Chinese people of 1989, which was the last time the country was mobilized on such a scale. Despite, of course, the fact that the ’89 Democracy Movement was a spontaneous, jubilant show of people power, whereas this year’s movement is an artificial, state-engineered propaganda pageant.
The state of high alert Beijing is now under is another reminder of 1989. It recalls the tense period of martial law before and after the massacre. Today, the army has once again surrounded the city. Taxi drivers remark that they haven’t seen so many troops deployed since 1989.
Q: You once said that, “China is completely lacking in self-awareness.” What do you mean by that?
MJ: I meant that the Chinese people are not aware of their own entrapment. They believe they live in a free society, but don’t realize how much they are being monitored and controlled, how much the information they receive is restricted and warped, until they step out of line, that is, and feel the heavy hand of the state fall on them. Then they discover that the rights granted to them by the constitution are meaningless, and that the freedoms are a sham.
To become self-aware, people must be allowed to hear a plurality of opinions and then make up their own minds. They must be allowed to say, write and publish whatever they want. Freedom of expression is the most basic, but fundamental, right. Without it, human beings are reduced to automatons. But I’m hopeful about the future. Travel and the power of the Internet will slowly open people’s minds.
Q: Based on your travels through the Tibetan regions of China, you’ve written a collection of stories about Tibet that offers a less than idealized view of a culture and people. Many critics were startled by your portrayal of a Tibet rife with sexual abuse and physical cruelty. How much of what you wrote about was a realistic and accurate view? What are your thoughts about the recent Tibetan protests?
MJ: I wrote “Stick Out Your Tongue” after wandering through China for three years in the late 1980s. The Tibet that I discovered at the end of my journey was very different from the rosy picture painted by the Chinese government. It didn’t feel like a “liberated” country; it felt like a nation under siege. But when writing the book, I wasn’t aiming to give a “realistic and accurate” view. That’s the role of documentary, not fiction. I wanted to write about the country as a state of mind. I’d traveled to Tibet as a Buddhist. It was a pilgrimage of sorts. But when I arrived, I suffered a crisis of faith. The emptiness of the landscape, the desecration of spiritual life, the poverty and isolation mirrored my own feelings of confusion and despair. The book is a work of the imagination, a meditation on death, religion and love. It shouldn’t be read as reportage.
I can understand the frustration and anger that drove the Tibetans to protest. They have been reduced to a minority in their own land. Tibet is a so-called “autonomous region” of China, but Tibetans have no real autonomy. They can’t choose their leaders; they are banned from worshipping the Dalai Lama; their resources and economy are monopolized by the Han Chinese. Their country has become a huge prison. These protests are like jail riots.
I believe that the Tibetans should have the right to control their own destinies, and decide for themselves whether they want to be part of China or not. But this view isn’t shared by most Chinese, or even the leaders of most Western democracies. As long as the Communist Party is in power, there is little hope for Tibet.
Q: Do you think the Sichuan earthquake had any effect on China’s state of mind leading up to the Olympics?
MJ: The earthquake reawakened the Chinese people’s sense of compassion. There was a mass outpouring of grief. The media took advantage of the chaos to prove that when restrictions are loosened, it is capable of reporting objectively. But after a couple of weeks, the government regained control, and the earthquake became just another of its propaganda shows, a tragedy with no victims. All criticism of the government was silenced, and the “stars” of the show were not the victims or the members of the public who had rushed to help them, but the Party leaders and People’s Liberation Army soldiers.
There is little talk of Sichuan now. As Olympic supporters shout “Go Sichuan! Go China!” the tragedy has been reduced to a slogan.
Q: If you were in Beijing during the Olympics, what stories would you pursue?
MJ: I’m in Beijing right now. I’ve come to observe the charade. As a novelist, I’m fascinated by the gap that exists between spectacle and reality. I’m not looking for any particular stories. I just want to walk through the streets, talk to people and let the absurdities of the event seep into me.
Q: Do you have any additional thoughts you’d like to share?
MJ: I was in Beijing three months ago, but this time it seems like a different city. The streets are half-empty. There are no beggars or pimps, no traffic jams. The taxis are frighteningly clean. The roads are lined with flags, slogans and the Olympic sponsors’ huge advertising hoardings. It feels like a sanitized, soulless exhibition center.