Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A poem for the West

To get a feel for the reaction of average Chinese towards criticism from the West, read the excerpt below from a poem now circulating on the internet. (See also video version at bottom.) If you are not familiar with some of the historical references, you might ask someone like Howard Zinn to explain them to you.

Most Chinese are incredulous that european colonialists and imperialists, many inhabiting the lands of indigenous people exterminated or displaced only a few centuries ago, would think to assume the moral high ground.
by Anonymous

...When we closed our doors, You smuggled drugs to open markets.

When we embrace Free Trade, You blame us for taking away your jobs.

When we were falling apart, You marched in your troops and wanted your fair share.

When we tried to put the broken pieces back together again, Free Tibet you screamed, It was an Invasion!

When we tried Communism, You hated us for being Communist.

When we embrace Capitalism, You hate us for being Capitalist.

When we had a billion people, You said we were destroying the planet.

When we tried limiting our numbers, You said we abused human rights.

When we were poor, You thought we were dogs.

When we loan you cash, You blame us for your national debts.

When we build our industries, You call us Polluters.

When we sell you goods, You blame us for global warming.

When we buy oil, You call it exploitation and genocide.

When you go to war for oil, You call it liberation. ...
This NYTimes article and this Time magazine blog post are good examples of how poorly the Chinese worldview is understood here.

The poem was erroneously attributed to Dou-Liang Lin, an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY Buffalo. Professor Lin writes that he is not the author and doesn't know who is.
On 4/25/2008 at 7:56 AM, Duoliang Lin wrote:

Dear Friends,

Thank you for your enthusiastic praise and support. Several of you have asked for my authorization for translation into Chinese and/or reprinting. Since this was an anonymous poem circulating in the email, I suppose that the author would not mind to be quoted, translated or reprinted. But I was not the author of the poem. Please see below.

This is to clarify that the poem circulated in the email recently was not my work. I received it via email last week. There was no author shown. I read it with great interest and was impressed very much. I then decided to share it with my friends through my email network. Apparently some of them forwarded it to their friends, and in a few days, it has reached a large number of readers. Because my email is set with a signature block, some of the recipients assumed that I was the author. This is a misunderstanding and I should not be credited for its success.

I appreciate compliments from many within the last few days, but I must say that I am not the one to be credited. I am trying to trace back the email routes to see if I can find the original author.

I was informed today that it was also quoted in Wall Street Journal: There has been a poem by an anonymous author circulating in the internet recently. I feel relieved because I was not cited as the author. Thank you for your attention.

Here is a nice observation, originally due to Henry Kissinger, which appeared in the comments below:
...America needs to understand that a hectoring tone evokes in China memories of imperialist condescension and is not appropriate in dealing with a country that has managed 4,000 years of uninterrupted self-government.

As a new century begins, the relations between China and the United States may well determine whether our children will live in turmoil even worse than the 20th century or whether they will witness a new world order compatible with universal aspirations for peace and progress.


Anonymous said...

Do you think China understands the West better than the West does China?

Anonymous said...

...And we find it equally puzzling that they are happy to apply outdated moral standards from centuries ago to their country today. We have slavery two centuries ago, too.

I actually don't think there is much of a gap in understanding here. The West understands China but doesn't agree, and vice versa.

Anonymous said...

Are those two articles demonstrative of poor understanding or do they elucidate how poor the understanding is?

Either way, I've been thinking about how hillbilly we seem. I guess that I was fortunate to grow up as a child in a military family.

For my own kids, I have told my wife that I want to live in a place where they will have enough stability to have lifelong friends, but enough transience that there is grist for the social mill [challenge and competition].

I've been thinking a lot about the geometry of things in space and time. We talk about social networks, and they are examples of spatial relations. I think most people discount their networks very quickly. There may be six degrees of separation between people in the world, but by the time you get to three people out, the personal value of the person is probably discounted to zero. So we end up arguing the vacuous 'principles' [which the economists will tell you is silly, because not set of governing principles can be perfect]. It's the food fight at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy.

I took Chinese 101 in my first go-round in school. The TA said that he had been at Tiananmen Square. He was pro-democracy, but he was also pro-China. I can sympathize with both sentiments.

WRT outdated moral standards, I can only comment that moral standards are probably still close to what they were two centuries ago, and if they appear to have changed, it is only because they have gotten a new paint job.

But I'm rambling, so I'll stop.

Steve Hsu said...

David (perceptively) asked:
Are those two articles demonstrative of poor understanding or do they elucidate how poor the understanding is?


Anonymous said...

Understanding but not agreeing -- that's actually not strictly possible between sane, rational groups of people.

Moral choices by individuals are at some level random. But for large groups and whole societies such choices are not arbitary, and there are always clear lines of causation going back to the founding of the group, when it was small and subject to randomness in moral choices. In other words, after initial fluctuations seeded during the early expotential stage of the expansion of the human occupation of the planet, moral codes are shaped primarily by events of history and are rationalized.

As the quoted poem summarizes, China and the West have been on opposite sides of history for the past 170 years. The way the Chinese cling to their history of suffering under foriegn abuse may seen strangely bitter, but that is the defining experience of the race. There's no "getting over it", because there have not been much redress. And since the West don't see much need for redress for their offenses during colonialism in China and elsewhere, the Chinese don't see much need to correct the Tibetan situation.

The current round of China bashing simply reminds the Chinese of and gets added to the backlog of "wrongs" they perceieve they've suffered, and they are passing that abuse right along to the Tibetans without moral conflict.

Going further back beyond the past 200 years, there is also the fundamental difference in basic social contracts. The Chinese experience in this regard is defined back in 11th century BC., when the Duke of Zhou first formalized the theory of the Mandate of Heaven and its testability thru civil war, to justify overthrowing the last Shang king.

The cyclic dynastic history; the acceptance of the majority Han of brutal minority rule over some off-and-on 1000 years; these are explained by the Duke's theory. [It's also why the Chinese don't see anything fundamentally wrong with the Tibetan situation.]

Mao's "power comes from the barrel of the gun" really means regime change must come from violent struggle, and is a rephrasing of the Duke of Zhou's theory.

Under such a premise, as long as a government can maintain reasonable stability and fill the people's bellies, the Mandate of Heaven has not expired. As along as Tibet remain governable under Chinese rule, there is no moral need for fundamental change.

The nation state and self determinency, vs. the empire and the Mandate of Heaven. Individual freedom vs. the collective good. The post Enlightenment ideas have gained wide acceptence in China, but still has a ways to go before they attain supremacy over old Chinese notions. When the assimilation of the Chinese into the Western norm is complete, we can expect a peaceful break up of the country. Bashing them now only alerts them to the Western program and delay the assimilation.

gs said...

Kissinger (boldface mine):

Attitudes are psychologically important. China needs to be careful about policies that seem to exclude America from Asia and about U.S. sensitivities regarding human rights, which will influence the flexibility and scope of America's stance toward China.

America needs to understand that a hectoring tone evokes in China memories of imperialist condescension and is not appropriate in dealing with a country that has managed 4,000 years of uninterrupted self-government.

As a new century begins, the relations between China and the United States may well determine whether our children will live in turmoil even worse than the 20th century or whether they will witness a new world order compatible with universal aspirations for peace and progress.

Alex Hsieh said...

The poem has two basic deceptive premises. First,the "we" in the poem confuses Chinese government with the Chinese people. Often times, Chinese people are victims of the Chinese government and not the West. To use "we" as if the Chinese government and Chinese people are one of the same is misleading. The poem referred to some historical abuses of foreign powers in China, elicited Chinese nationalistic pride and then assumed that Chinese readers will unwittingly accept the "we" as the poem defined it. Since the founding of the People's Republic of China, PRC regimes have always represent the Chinese Communist Party first and foremost. PRC never was a republic, its citizens do not have any real choice of government or leaders. Chinese people are coerced or lied to to support whatever policy the regime happens to espoused. Oppression, persecution and outright brutalization of activists, dissidents and anyone suspected of disloyalty to the Party have been the trademarks of all PRC regimes. The differences over the sixty plus years are only in the scope and scale of oppression. Victims from the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Tienanmen Square massacre and the currently persecuted or imprisoned writers, human rights proponents, reporters, labor leaders, lawyers, and the silenced Szechuan earthquake parents are certainly not part of the "we" in the poem.

Second, the "you" is supposed to be the West grouped together as a single entity of hypocrisy, evil and ignorance. That simple - only to the gullible. Any internal opposition to the "we" is also considered to be "you" or surrogates of the Western "you". The old rhetoric of "foreign devils, paper tiger, capitalist running dogs" has changed, but the same manufactured fear of foreign interference and the blaming of foreign influence for internal problems are masqueraded as "you".

The over simplified and distorted understanding of historical and current events permeates throughout the poem. Take for example, in the lines on " When we build our industries, you call us Polluters", who are the "you"? The phrase assumes environmental pollution is unavoidable to build industries in China, and that it is the West who accuses China of being the polluters. It ignores the internal "you" who are the Chinese people living next to the polluted areas and suffering if not dying from the polluted land, water and air. They have no legal or effective means to protest and assert their basic citizen rights. And what about in "When we were silent, you said you wanted us to have free speech. When we are silent no more, you say we are brainwashed- xenophobics", who are the "we" ? They are certainly not the students at the Tienanmen Square, they are not the writers who dare to criticize the Party and they are not the everyday citizens who were unable to seek justice for their grievances.

The current PRC leadership tries to hide behind "harmonious society", "democracy with a Chinese character", "non-interference of Chinese internal affairs", "upholding law and order" and many other ploys to make everyone conforms to their "we". Unfortunately, PRC have been successful to a large extent because the greater "we" in China have access only to their officially sanitized news and censored Internet. AFP, CNN, BBC, New York Times have their share of problems on coverage, objectivity and fairness. But would anyone rather have news access limited only to Xinhua News Agency, CCTV or China Daily?

Someone said...

Of course, or they wouldn't be worshiping white people

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