Politics & Policy

Between the Middle Kingdom and the Land of Snows: Part I

Olympic fever, subtle tyranny, and a Buddha called Jesus.

Undaunted — nay, seduced — by the prospect of long exile among strange peoples in a strange land, I undertook, this summer, to live one month in the Orient. Prior journeys therein had detained me for a year in China, at her great river port Nanking, where I acquired a modest proficiency in the Mandarin tongue. This sequently afforded me unique access to the Han people and their curious ways, as well as to Tibet, the quondam Forbidden Kingdom of Shangri-La, where Mandarin is today widely spoken.

My most recent peregrinations found me in Shanghai; in non-Tibetan regions of Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan Provinces; in Kham and Amdo; and in Central Tibet, from Lhasa to Mt. Everest.

What follows is my report, consisting of observations many and sundry. Some are proffered in earnestness unfeigned; others, with intent not unironical; but all partake fully of that humble yet cardinal virtue, Truth.

It is my hope that this travelogue in the form of a polemic will, if not enlighten the reader, afford him some small measure of entertainment.

The report will appear in five installments, one on each day of this week. Here commences Part I:

‐ The Chinese are obsessed with their Olympics. Obsessed. (These would be the 2008 Summer Games, to be held in Peking.) You see China’s Olympic logo everywhere you go, no matter how far from Peking you venture. (It is a clever logo: the second Chinese character in “Beijing” — the “jing” — made to look like a runner.)

I suppose this Olympic enthusiasm is to be expected. I am a Utahn, and I saw enough propagandizing in my home state prior to Salt Lake’s 2002 Winter Games to regret the advent of competitive sport. In China, however, the Olympics are a question of national pride. Certainly the Chinese government presents them as such: as China’s moment, at long last, to be applauded on the world stage. And the Chinese, unseemly in both their nationalism and their womanly spite, tend to share that judgment.

‐ Womanly spite: It is not uncommon for the Western traveler in China to hear a native recite grievances which the West supposedly inflicted upon his people a decade or a century ago. Once, as I made a rail journey from Urumqi to Kashgar, a Chinese gentleman invited himself to sit on my berth (just after I had lain down to sleep) and engaged me in a tour of modern Chinese history. We began with the Opium Wars, colloquized on “the Taiwan problem” (I learned that Taiwan is economically advanced, not because of its capitalist system, but because it received illicit “help” from America at some unspecified time), and concluded with NATO’s accidental (or, as the gentleman insisted, “accidental”) bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. My interlocutor was, to his credit, exceptionally polite, and ended by expressing the hope that, should America and China take up arms, he will not find himself shooting at me.

‐ I was, incidentally, in Tiananmen Square on the night in 2001 when Peking’s selection as an Olympic city was announced. The thousands of assembled Chinese were positively euphoric. No less so were my fellow foreign students (I was attending a summer language course at the time). This I found curious: I was the only Westerner among roughly 100 who felt that China did not deserve to host the Olympics — that a state which suppresses free speech and religion, and jails anyone deemed a threat to the one-party dictatorship, should not be made to look respectable. (I say this, moreover, as someone who favors a policy of economic engagement with China.) My Western friends not only disagreed with me, but regarded me as quite mad. I charitably credit them with a less-than-ample awareness of the Chinese government’s rottenness, which is hidden from the average observer.

‐ Hidden rottenness: If you visit China and spend your time in big, modern cities such as Shanghai and Peking, you are unlikely ever to see an instance of oppression. This is true even if you speak and read Chinese. Most Chinese manage to live their lives without drawing the wrath of officialdom down upon them. If they do not defy or criticize the party, or if they are too unimportant for their defiance or criticism to be noticed, they will be ignored.

The economic reforms begun under Deng Xiaoping, meanwhile, produced a system which the party has quaintly christened “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” In practice this means capitalism within a vexing regulatory framework (you can, thankfully, bribe your way around it), and imperfect but improving property rights. Owing to these reforms, significant social mobility is now possible for the first time in Chinese history. The twenty- and thirtysomething crowd on China’s eastern seaboard lives essentially as most young New Yorkers do, even if at a slightly lower material standard. They work hard, party on weekends, drink too much, sleep around, and try to get rich. The Communist party plays no part in their thoughts and lives; certainly it does not and cannot hold that absolute dominion over the private realm which characterizes totalitarian states (cf. Mao Tse-tung, Cultural Revolution, related psychotics and psychoses). In this light, it is easy to understand, if not excuse, the political complacency of most Chinese: Had you lived through Mao, or grown up hearing stories about his China, you too might conclude that the situation today was pretty damn good.

But for those who run afoul of the government, life is truly awful. I meet one such person — a Tibetan monk — in Qinghai Province. He and his fellow monks are on a pilgrimage to Lhasa. Last summer, he tried to sneak into India to visit the Dalai Lama at Dharamsalah. The Communist party takes a rather dim view of this practice. Before the monk reached the border, Chinese police detained him, beat him, and sent him to prison, where he suffered more beatings (severe ones, too: a fellow inmate had his leg broken by the guards) and six months of forced labor.

At least the Chinese army didn’t shoot him as he stumbled, unarmed and exhausted, up a mountain pass. (That has been the fate of not a few pilgrims, most recently last year.)

I have known Chinese Christians whose churches were shut down, and their pastors jailed, for such offenses as unauthorized Bible printing. The persecution of Falun Gong has been widely remarked, and needs no comment here. And there are of course a great many journalists, artists, and scholars whose errant ways are routinely corrected by the besuited, bespectacled thugs in Beijing.

My point is this: China’s political situation is both better and worse than most people realize. It is not Soviet Russia; it is not even substantively Communist, and has not been for decades. And yet China is very far indeed from being free.

‐ That monk is remarkably forgiving of his captors. Several of his prison guards were Tibetans. (It is common for Tibetans to collaborate with the Chinese government — so much so that incarnate lamas occasionally hold important posts in the Communist party.) I ask the monk if he regards these collaborators as traitors, to which he answers no. “We Tibetans are of one heart and mind,” he explains. This view is self-evidently false, and contradicted by his own experience. But it is possible to admire his sacrifice of consistency on magnanimity’s altar.

‐ The monk also shares a theological insight. After telling a story about one Living Buddha or another, he says, “You Americans have a Buddha too, don’t you? I can’t remember his name.”

“Jesus?” my traveling companion asks with a smile.

“Yes!” says the monk. “That’s just the one.”

‐ (“Living Buddha” is the Chinese term to denote any of the hundreds of high lamas, such as the Dalai and the Panchen, whose successive incarnations occupy seats of clerical and — traditionally — political power. The Chinese government announced last week that, henceforth, no Living Buddha shall be recognized in Tibet without its approval. Given that Living Buddhas are both objects of mass veneration and foci of the monastic institutions, this new law can be expected to inflict catastrophic damage on Tibetan culture.)

‐ Let us adjourn for the day. In tomorrow’s installment: a smattering of high lamas, and the world’s most gruesome funeral.

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