As mentioned, I went into China with some preconceptions, many with a degree of negativity and probably arising from years of exposure to Western media and also from the Hong Kong part of my heritage.
In the West, China is usually painted as slightly sinister, repressive, and unaligned with collective Western interests, particularly as seen by its long-held tacit and not-so-tacit alignment with the more reprehensible regimes in the world such as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
Every Chinese action is heavily scrutinised; from its handling of domestic issues such as Tibet, the 2008 Olympic Games and the recent upheaval in Xinjiang to Chinese foreign policy (such as their handling of North Korean nuclear disarmament) and even to her handling of her currency and her alleged deliberate devaluation of the Renminbi (RMB) (as if other countries don‟t do the same).
It’s not just the West; Hong Kong people are also generally uneasy about their future with China. Prior to the handover to the Chinese in 1997, Hong Kong had been under British control for around 150 years and the island saw phenomenal growth under colonial rule.
Despite China’s assurance that Hong Kong‟s status and institutions would remain stable for at least 50 years post-handover, Hong Kong fears China‟s perceived gradual neglect of its interests in favour of its economic rival, Shanghai. Further, on a less self-interested note and on a more prejudicial note (as we have seen), Hong Kong people have many negative perceptions of people from the mainland; principally that mainlanders lack sophistication, both in manners and in taste.
Needless to say, prior to my visit, all of the above had permeated my consciousness to some extent. However, thankfully, all of the above negativity was challenged, re-evaluated and overturned during my time there; I‟ll try my best to explain why.
Let’s have a closer look at some of the charges made against China. China has many critics worldwide, particularly from many parts of the Western media; nearly every human rights organisation; and most Western governments, to a greater or lesser extent. She comes under criticism and scrutiny for, amongst other things, her human rights record, her handling of domestic unrest (witness Tibet 2008, Beijing 1989, Xinjiang 2009), and her financial affairs (alleged devaluation of her currency to maintain her export driven economic model).
Recently, heavy scrutiny of China came during the Beijing Olympics 2008. The media chose to focus on the alleged “forcing” of child athletes into extreme training programmes for years in order to ensure the biggest medal tally; on the wider treatment of Tibetans and foreign journalists covering the contemporaneous unrest in Tibet, and on whether the fantastic pyrotechnics of the opening ceremony would be possible under a multi-party state etc.
Underpinning all this negative press and scrutiny is, I think, the fact that China is a one-party state and (to exacerbate this in the eyes of the West) there’s the fact that she is not a natural ally (China holds a veto on the UN Security Council and the US, the UK and France are generally not able to “count‟ on China’s vote. (They can’t count on Russia’s either but Russia may be held to a lesser standard of scrutiny as today Russia is, to a greater extent than China at least, democratic and perhaps viewed as more of an ally to the West). Worse, in the West’s eyes, China often aligns itself instead with unsavoury regimes such as Zimbabwe). Now I’m not passing judgement on China‟s human rights track record or any of the above, but I think it’s only right that, in the absence of any forthcoming defence, the debate be given some proper context.
It probably winds the West up more when it appears that China just doesn’t really seem to care what the West thinks. China never looks to defend or explain herself and her recent history goes some way to explaining its refusal to listen to the West. Since the end of the Ming and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty in the 1600s, China had been in relative decline to emerging world powers, (the newly industrialised powers of Europe and the US and also (later) in the modernised, militarised and resurgent Japan).
China’s military weakness and insularity was exploited by the British who forced the opium trade upon the Chinese (effectively creating markets in China), with the resultant epidemic drug dependence further weakening the nation. The Chinese desire to rid itself of the drug trade led to conflict with Britain and to the First Opium War. China’s defeat and the resulting settlement meant that Britain had exclusive rights to continue the opium trade and also to receive sovereign rights over Hong Kong. Shanghai eventually became controlled by the British, the Americans and the French.
Imagine the national sense of humiliation of losing a war that was forced upon you and then having major parts of your country controlled by foreign nations. In 1895, China lost further face when she lost the Sino-Japan War (further evidence of relative decline). Further humiliation came with the Versailles Treaty in 1919 when Germany‟s territorial interests in China were not returned to China but instead were given to Japan. Before and during the Second World War, Japan invaded, occupied and committed countless atrocities against the Chinese population. In light of all this conflict and deeply felt humiliation heaped upon her by foreign powers, it is little wonder that China, to this day, might distrust outside influences, and view unsolicited criticism as unreasonable interference. This history goes a long way to explaining China’s current diplomacy and foreign policy for, psychologically, how does one overcome a sense of humiliation? Through self-analysis and confident self-assertion without the aid of others, particularly when those “others‟ played a big part in that perceived humiliation. This is the prism through which much Chinese action and policy should be viewed.
I was just leaving China as the Xinjiang (a province in western China) riots in the summer of 2009 were blowing up. Tensions between the minority (in China as a whole) Uyghurs and the majority (in China as a whole) Han Chinese exploded resulting in at least 200 dead. Much of the world’s media reported this as an inevitable result of Chinese policy towards its minority groups, such as that of the recent mass migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang. This policy on its own may not have led to tension but the perception amongst Uyghurs is that there is bias towards the Han from policymakers and that the economic mushrooming which has benefited vast swathes of the country has passed them by. Comparisons with the situation in Tibet were inevitable in the outside press and world opinion. There‟s no easy solution to this issue but again I think it’s useful to consider the history and the particular circumstances of China as a nation before judging the policy. China has always been made up of disparate and diverse peoples and cultures and she was only unified in around 221 BC after great struggle.
Keeping it together and maintaining racial and cultural harmony has been a struggle ever since, with a return to the Warring States from around 300 AD to the 12th Century. Just think about it: China has a huge population; with easily 1.3 billion people. That‟s more than 20 times the population of the UK. To exacerbate the obvious difficulties of governing this massive country and the vast lands within her borders, China is comprised of around 56 ethnic groups. Many speak their own dialects, the problems of which are obvious even to the extent that Mandarin had to be standardised during the 20th Century. This is the context that global calls for Tibetan autonomy and the growing calls for Han withdrawal from Xinjiang have to be addressed in light of. The concept of “One China‟ has been around for millennia. The current policy towards the minorities is driven by an ancient history of keeping all the elements of China under one umbrella; it is not driven by persecution but by a deep-rooted desire for harmony and union. Indeed, it’s often overlooked that there are actually various positive discrimination initiatives to help minorities such as exemptions from the “one-child, one-family‟ policy that holds in most other parts of China.
All of which raises the old debates surrounding self-determination. Should Tibet be granted independence if it wants it? Should Xinjiang be treated in the same way? Oddly, the West is strangely silent when it comes to the same issues at play within the borders of its allies. How else to explain the global silence regarding the Catalan issue in Spain? Nobody calls for the Spanish Government to grant the Catalan province independence. To do so would be considered unreasonable interference in internal affairs. The same goes for the internal rifts in Belgium between the Flemish and the Walloons, the not insignificant movement for independence from nationalist elements in Scotland, the French Canadians in Quebec, the Chechens in Chechnya etc.; outsiders don‟t interfere with these states.
It seems though that China is considered fair game. Why? I think it‟s because it‟s a one party state etc. something that‟s seen as a bit morally suspect, with the consequence that its policies are seen to have less legitimacy. Now I‟m not advocating the one-party state over the multi-party system (!) but whilst I was in China, I didn‟t see an oppressed, unhappy people. I saw people who were going about their daily lives trying to make their way in the more open economy of recent decades. People don‟t live in fear of the thought police either; witness the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, where many have been openly critical of the Government particularly in respect of allegedly poorly constructed buildings that collapsed in the massive tremors. When people say that there‟s no free press in China; well that‟s true probably in terms of criticising the government but otherwise the same preoccupations concern the press in China as they do in other countries, with pages devoted to sport, movies, music, celebrities etc. topics about which reportage is unfettered.
One thing that did concern me, however, was the state surveillance of the internet. I was there during the spat that China had with Google in around June 2009 (an issue which has since exploded again in January 2010), to the extent that Google was disabled in China for a few days. Foreign media websites are clearly vetted before the page opens (as there‟s a lengthy time lag with sites such as the BBC and The Times) and some story pages don‟t open, citing server issues. Whilst some censorship may be necessary in all societies (such as in the interests of national security), this type of information censorship is clearly not a good thing. However, it’s not such a stretch to imagine that multi-party democratic states also monitor the internet, and if they do, then maybe the state in question is just far more judicious as to the sites that are vetted and disabled. Regardless, the extent to which the internet in China can actually be controlled by the state will inevitably decrease as vast numbers of its huge population are online with so many of the users being active bloggers, social networkers, instant messengers, etc. who’ll all become harder to monitor and control, just as the real-time reporting and information that pinged around the world during the 2009 Xinjiang rioting demonstrated. China is on the way to becoming a fully open society; it will just take some time.
In terms of any snide prejudices about the people themselves, particularly from the Hong Kong perspective as described above, from my first contact in China, through Nanning and then on the train from Hong Kong to Beijing, I found any hitherto held opinions to be completely unfounded. Chinese people are incredibly friendly and kind. From train staff to food sellers to fellow hostel guests to other shoppers, the people were just lovely. Encounters I remember particularly fondly were the staff at Nanning train station who kindly waited with me through the night, the great hot-pot stall lady in the next hutong down from the one we stayed in Beijing, animated taxi-drivers, and friendly fellow customers in restaurants and street stalls who implored (read dared) us to take on more and more chilli or eat sheep’s testicles! Like anywhere in the world, people outside the cities may lack a certain worldliness but the charges of a lack of sophistication definitely cannot be levelled at the people in Beijing and Shanghai who are, for the most part, cultured, confident and achingly urbane. I absolutely love it in China; I love the culture, I love the food and I love the people; I’m definitely going back.