Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Humiliation and Disgrace: Interfering With China's Attempts to Improve Its Image and the Lives of its Citizens

[UPDATE: Follow-up to this post here

James Fallows has a post about another post by Richard Burger on the site The Peking Duck.  They are both well worth reading and they discuss how an editorial about the recent detention of the artist Ai Weiwei by the Chinese publication "The Global Times" does more damage than good to how foreigners view China -- despite its apparent aim to protect China's image.  Yesterday, in a post about the renovation of a major museum in Beijing I made a very similar point about how China's methods for trying to portray a positive image can backfire and that "When China can more openly confront its warts, its genuine achievements will be better recognized and appreciated by the world."

In regards to the concern many Chinese have about China's image, "The Peking Duck's" account includes a telling quote from a senior Chinese newspaper editor:
"'How can China admit to the world it is being defeated, it is bowing to international pressure and not doing what is right for China? How can we humiliate ourselves like that?'"
The concern in China about humiliation was particularly highlighted to me during a visit to the Unit 731 Museum in Haerbin, Heilongjiang.  Unit 731 was
"a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that undertook lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and World War II. It was responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes carried out by Japanese personnel."
The atrocities committed at the site are shocking.  While I've commented before on the almost religious use of dioramas in Chinese museums, the Unit 731 Museum had a diorama that I felt effectively added to the museum's message.  It captures the insanity and terror of what happened at a nearby location in its depiction of the testing of chemical weapons by the Japanese military years ago:

Scene of chemical weapons testing on live Chinese prisoners

Sites such as these in China often bring to mind many of the sites I've visited in Europe and the US regarding the Holocaust.  One quote commonly seen at Holocaust sites is "Never Forget".  Its simple message resonates the purpose in keeping the facts of the Holocaust alive -- to ensure it doesn't happen again.

At the Unit 731 Museum a message prominently displayed in a movie room had a similarly worded  message, but I think the additional words in the message say so much about how history and current events can be viewed in China:


The fixation on disgrace is further exemplified at the 9.18 Memorial Museum in Shenyang, Liaoning.  It highlights other aspects of the war with Japan and further atrocities.  Towards the end of the exhibit is this set of figures:

Rows of figures of Japanese involved in the war with China

A sign nearby read:
The disgraceful end of the Japanese agressors
The unconditional surrender of the Japanese imperialists marked the shameful loss of the aggressors.  The war criminals were brought to justice by the people and history.

One of the largest displays in the museum was solely dedicated to depicting rows of Japanese apparently bowing their heads in shame, again focusing on the issue of disgrace.

Both museums are invaluable in telling their respective stories and I'd highly recommend visiting them.  However, the issue of disgrace, both China's and others', can come across as being more important than expressing a key hope -- that such horrors never happen again anywhere.

Even if one is primarily concerned about disgrace, Fallows points out that if Ai Weiwei were released, or never detained in the first place, it would not be seen by the rest of the world as a sign of weakness.  That the act to cover up or explain away a self-perceived weakness could be so self-defeating came up in another experience of mine.

Previously, I wrote about my discussion with a policeman during my detention in a northern city in China (see here).  In short, I was detained under suspicions of being a journalist (I am not) due to photographing an area with recently demolished homes.  I later discovered that it was a particularly sore topic for the local residents (as it is in many locations in China) since the previous residents didn't feel they were compensated appropriately.  The Chinese media had covered the incidents in the area the very day I made my visit.

On my part it was a complete coincidence and I ended up in the neighborhood after randomly walking about the city.  The policeman I spoke to told me they were investigating me because they believed foreign journalists typically put China in a very poor light.  His comment about the issue was particularly intriguing since he viewed the forced eviction of residents to be a genuine problem in China.  However, his concern about China's image and what he thought would best protect it trumped his other concerns.

After gaining an understanding of his feelings, I told him that similar issues of eminent domain, though not on the same scale, come up in many countries around the world and are openly discussed.  It was not an issue such as this that reflected most poorly on China, but instead issues related to what was happening to me at that very moment -- China's desire to repress news it deems unfavorable.  Although he had never considered such a possibility before, upon hearing my account he seemed to genuinely appreciate the irony of the situation and gave it thoughtful consideration.

I have had many constructive conversations with Chinese about this and other issues of concern.  Richard Burger commented on his similar experience when having a discussion with the editor of The Global Times about the error the Chinese media was making in its attempts to influence foreigners:
"This was, as I said, a long, polite and serious discussion. I never experienced anything quite like it before, because despite the mental barriers I referred, to, she genuinely wanted to hear my opinion and to learn how the West sees China, and I think she actually “got” that the GT, even if they’re right, is scaring people away and damaging its own cause with readers who are not Chinese. She actually said she wanted to discuss my argument with her superiors."
My experience was similar.  The policeman was very curious to hear my viewpoints on this and related issues.  And also like Richard Burger, I hope that my conversations have made even the smallest of differences.

Finally, James Fallows writes, "...the way official China "presents" itself to the outside world makes conditions look considerably worse than the mixed realities of the country itself."  With that in mind I'd like to share where I was when I first read James Fallows' post:

Yes, I was enjoying a tasty salad at a comfortable cafe in China (I typically like to enjoy the local fare wherever I go, but today I craved for a salad).  Not just any cafe, but one I suspect James Fallows would particularly appreciate -- the Prague Cafe:

I was in Kunming, Yunnan, a city in Southwest China, far away from the more metropolitan areas full of foreign influence, such as Shanghai and Beijing.  At this cafe and other nearby cafes, restaurants, and street markets Chinese were relaxing where they wanted to, talking about what they wanted to talk about, and sitting with whoever they wanted to openly and without fear.  The cafes themselves are also a sign of the growing number of people in China with increased disposable income -- even in relatively less prosperous provinces.  This is part of "the vast other areas of Chinese life that are ticking away open and uncontrolled" that James Fallows references.  It is unfortunate that China's advances in this regard are often overshadowed by the Chinese Government's continued desire to repress viewpoints that differ from its own and any "bad" news  -- sometimes at the expense of harming some its own citizens' lives.

So, like Richard Burger, James Fallows, and many others I hope China grows in its ability to be more open.  The world is not looking for China to be perfect -- we all know other countries such as the US have plenty of their own issues.  And countries such as America don't expect China to agree with them on every issue.  But the world is looking for more honest and open discussion about a variety of issues important to China and its people without anyone fearing detention.  This way, the world can better cooperate with the Chinese Government and its people so that China can continue to healthily grow and scenes such as of these young Chinese:

Dancing game at a video arcade in Guiyang, Guizhou

At a festival in Guangzhou, Guangdong

Rollerskating at a park in Shangqiu, Henan

Students studying at a modern library in Shantou, Guangdong

Students raising money for charity in Dalian, Liaoning

can make more of a positive impact on how people around the world view China.


  1. I was in China for two years and I am going back to Kunming in the middle of June. I am living in Oregon now.

    I will be there for five years or so. I plan to check out Prague Cafe while living in Kunmming.

  2. Regarding the sensitivity about eminent domain issues, could it have anything to do with the reliance of local gov'ts on kickbacks and fees associated with property development?

    To say that other countries in the world have similar issues is to ignore a systemic pathology that, if not unique to China, has certainly entrenched itself into the political economy.

  3. Jeff, I replied in a full post. Link in the "UPDATE" at the top of the above post.