Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Reflections on Urumqi

The unrest in Xinjiang recently has revived in my mind some of the discussions I've had in the past regarding Chinese nationalism. I don't mean the Generalissimo Chiang-type Nationalist Party, I mean the burgeoning self-righteousness and pride. Most obviously beginning in the mid-90s, China began pulling herself out of the wallow of state regulation and self-destructive purging. China's cities began to leverage the cultural heritage of entrepreneurship and cutthroat economics under an iron hand of state surveillance.

Towards the late 90s, and perhaps most obviously in during the winning of the 2008 Beijing Olympics bid, a thread of Chinese nationalism emerged. This "nationalism with Chinese characteristics" is marked by paranoia, anger over centuries'-old injustices, a sense of entitlement, a sense of "manifest destiny," self-righteousness, minimization of problems in society, and a carryover of imperial-era narcissism (wherein other countries' problems and lessons-learned do not apply to the only "true civilization"). All of these characteristics are foreseeable and perhaps a natural result of an unleashed id, but all should be exposed as irrational and unhealthy. However, each and every one has been cultivated by the Chinese leadership to serve as a yoke upon the populace so that they may channel the emotions of the Chinese populace toward their self-serving goals.

I acknowledge that with the unhealthy characteristics, many healthy characteristics emerged as well. Pride, in moderation, leads to joy; hope leads to achievement; unity leads to harmony. However all these beneficial characteristics can be fostered while minimizing the unhealthy ones.

In 1999, I spoke with a pro-Taiwan Independence friend of mine, who was confident that China would not risk the anger of the international community during and could not sustain public support for an aggressive invasion of a "peaceful" Taiwan. A Korean friend of mine who has lived in China and I immediately informed her that we believed China would most definitely carry out its threats based on the level of knee-jerk nationalism we saw.

The Taiwan issue engages so many of the myths and legends underlying the Chinese psyche. First, Taiwan was taken in the one-sided and tragic Sino-Japanese War; this history triggers the PTSD-like memories of all of the slights and indignities of the colonial era. Second, Taiwan is largely inhabited by and was considered during the the imperial era to be Han Chinese (some Taiwanese will dispute this and claim independence prior, but this post is about Chinese thought processes); this belief triggers romantic notions of thousands of years of Chinese territorial and cultural unity that differentiates Chinese history from barbarian history. Third, strategically-speaking, Taiwan is too important to Chinese "Manifest Destiny" in the Far East to allow off the leash and into U.S. protection; in a sense, China has arrived at the Prom of colonialism a week late and is attempting to dance with the ladies on Bingo night. Fourth, Taiwan serves as one focal point to measure wills against the most powerful nation in the world and allows an objective verification of China's potency on the international stage. All of these factors swirl in a heady mix of self-loathing, self-love, and injured pride and create a potion that robs many Chinese of moderation.

Case in point: many Chinese were and still are convinced (based upon conversations I have had) that the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was a deliberate attack by the U.S. on China for no other purpose than as a display of strength and dominance. They refuse to believe that the U.S. is capable of making targeting mistakes as claimed and reject the idea that the U.S. might not want to antagonize the Chinese people in such a public way when there are any number of options that do not involve political repercussions within the U.S. They furthermore refused to accept the NATO apology (although they willingly accepted monetary reparations). It is precisely this lack of moderation, lack of willingness to consider innocent explanations, and jumping to conclusions that frightens me most.

All this brings me to the impetus for writing today. I am no fan of the Uighur independence movement, or for that matter, either the Taiwanese or Tibetan ones either! It's probably some artifact of my upbringing, but I have no desire to see these areas descend into chaos. However, I willingly acknowledge that the fist of Chinese power surrounds each, and as it squeezes, the proverbial sand is trickling out. When the Chinese media shows Han Chinese in rags streaming blood and tears, but neglects to show police action against hundreds, thousands of men, it screams a call to arms to defend the motherland, never mind the reasons. When Chinese mobs run down the streets of Urumqi telling reporters to cease filming, it cries out their shame for what they are about to do for the motherland. The self-righteous claim virtue and hide their actions: but the truly righteous are bold as a lion.

Among the lessons of the 20th century experiments in nationalism were the conclusions that submerging oneself in a national cause can lead to atrocities in its name. In short, the utilitarian concepts of ends justifying means have their limits, just as a Kantian mind might instinctively push back when pushed too far. Many willing accomplices of the Nazi regime were later ashamed at their fervor. The late Robert McNamara regreted many of his actions in Vietnam. Latin America has been poorly served by a series of dictators installed to combat communism. Despite this, whether through a belief in superiority to or perhaps just immunity to the problems of other cultures, Chinese seem to think they can avoid these lessons. I know my Chinese friends are optimistic that China will emerge from this police-state era as a vibrant and flourishing socialist democracy. I sincerely hope they are correct. However, I am not an optimist by nature and what I see are entrenched prejudices being harnessed to erect a national mythology designed to enslave the many to serve the few. Unfortunately for Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan, they are "thems" in a country where "us" is very fashionable.