Ma Jian: The west is doing China no favours
06. February 2009 13:42
by rushing to apologise for every perceived slur.
When China was bidding to host the 2008 Olympics, the vice-mayor of Beijing, Liu Jinming, promised that the games would "help us establish a more just and harmonious society, a more democratic society and help integrate China into the world". Halfway into China's Olympic year, his promise shows little sign of being honoured. If anything, China is less democratic now than in 2001. Voices of dissent continue to be stifled. The government's impressive openness in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake is coming to an end as propaganda chiefs instruct domestic media to report only the "positive" aspects of the story. Even in the west, anyone who speaks out of line is eventually compelled to toe the Communist party line.
A few weeks ago in Cannes, Sharon Stone conveyed her distress at China's treatment of Tibet. "And then this earthquake and all this stuff happened," she said, "and I thought, is that karma?" Only a question, of course, but an infelicitous one. She did go on to say that she had received a letter from the Tibetan Foundation asking her to help the victims of the earthquake. "They wanted to go and be helpful, and that made me cry," she said. "It was a big lesson to me ..." But the official Xinhua News Agency glossed over this crucial part of her statement, denouncing her as the "public enemy of all mankind". Chinese netizens leaped to arms: "Sharon Stone should be stoned to death." "Boycott the whore's movies. Boycott the products she represents." Christian Dior, for whom Stone modelled, promptly dropped her from its Chinese ads and issued a written apology from her to the Chinese people.
Dior understood the power of the Chinese internet community. A few weeks earlier, angry nationalists had boycotted Coca-Cola after a Chinese blogger living in Germany claimed that one of its adverts promoted freedom for Tibet. The ad, from 2003, featured Buddhist monks on a rollercoaster and the slogan "Make it real". "From now on I will not touch this filthy product," shouted the blogger. "The three monks represent Tibetan lamas. They are riding a rollercoaster, which represents freedom. 'Make it real' means 'make this [freedom] real'."
Coca-Cola, a major sponsor of the Beijing Olympics, swiftly apologised and distanced itself from the Tibetan cause, which its marketing people had probably embraced as a means of further endearing its product to western consumers. "This advertisement is unrelated to Tibetan independence," it stated. "We regret that [it] should become misunderstood by certain Chinese bloggers ... We respect the feelings of Chinese consumers. This old advertisement at the Bremen train station has been taken down."
All this makes me think of a book that came out in 1996, by five Chinese authors, called China Can Say No, a fierce attack on the United States for its supposed attempts to demonise China and restrain the growth of its economy. Urging China to stand up to the "US bullies" who, it alleged, had sabotaged China's bid to join the World Trade Organization and host the 2000 Olympics, the book was welcomed by an increasingly confident and prosperous nation, and became an instant bestseller. Twelve years on, China's place as a world economic power is assured. China not only can, but does, say "no" to the west, and it is demanding apologies for every perceived slur. How is the west responding? Wrong footed, it has repeatedly made abeyances to the tyrannical regime, and said sorry.
During the violent suppression of Tibetan protests in March, President Sarkozy threatened to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. But when pro-Tibet activists disrupted the Olympic torch relay in Paris a month later and prompted anti-French demonstrations in China, Sarkozy sent an effusive personal letter to Jin Jing, the wheelchair-using athlete who had clung to the torch as a protester had attempted to wrench it from her hands. He condemned the Paris protesters and praised her "outstanding courage, which honours you, and your country".
Similarly, in April, CNN's Jack Cafferty criticised unsafe Chinese exports and called the Chinese a "bunch of goons and thugs". Already angry at CNN's "biased reporting of the Tibetan riots", the Chinese foreign ministry demanded that Cafferty withdraw his "vile remarks and apologise to all the Chinese people". Though Cafferty later explained that his comments were directed at the Chinese government, not the Chinese people, CNN nevertheless issued an apology.
Confucius said, "There are three friends that do good, and three friends that do harm. The friends that do good are a straight friend, a sincere friend, and a friend who has heard much. The friends that do harm are a smooth friend, a fawning friend, and a friend with a glib tongue."
Instead of fuelling China's paranoia, the west should try to understand its causes: the legacy of past humiliation at the hands of colonial powers, and the cynical fanning of nationalist sentiment by a communist government searching for legitimacy. It should stop glibly apologising for opinions that differ from those of the Xinhua News Agency. For 60 years, the Chinese people have been denied the right to question political orthodoxy. Critics of the state are condemned as "China bashers" or "enemies of the people". But that is China's problem, not the west's. The Chinese state only wants friends who say what it wishes to hear. But if China is to become a more just and harmonious society, it will need genuine friends who speak their minds with passion and principle.
Published in The Guardian, Friday 13 June 2008