Thursday, March 25, 2010

One China, Two Chinas, Many?

On Tuesday afternoon, Bob and I went to BU's Pardee Center for a well-attended event titled "Shifting Patterns of Dissent and Repression in a Changing China," sponsored by the Asian Studies Initiative at BU.  Jeff Wasserstrom (UC Irvine) and Yang Jianli (Carr Center for Human Rights) gave interesting – and different – perspectives on the topic.
Jeff Wasserstrom's talk was derived from his new book China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. He points out several misconceptions that Western people commonly hold about China, one of which is to view Chinese people as divided into dissidents and loyalists, whereas in fact there is a whole spectrum of political positions staked out these days. He views this as a very different reality from either the time of the May 4th movement in 1919 or the June 4th movement in 1989; in both of those times, Chinese people's political stances were more united than now.

As a historian, who wrote his PhD thesis on Chinese student movements in the early 20th century, Wasserstrom provides a more historical perspective on China than most. He was finishing his thesis just as the 1989 Tiananmen protests were erupting, so has a good angle to think about that movement. He points out that one of the things the Chinese government has learned from the June 4th event is to be more pragmatic. Recognizing that there are numerous mass protests in China every year, the government brushes most aside as unimportant. It is only when activities are not of short duration or not geographically and socially localized that the central government takes action against them. This is a political change, contrary to some people's view that China has only changed economically.

I largely agree with the views Wasserstrom presented. I categorize myself, for example, in neither the dissident nor the loyalist camp. I'd like to remain an independent thinker for the rest of my life, which is a rather difficult position these days. I've lost some American writer friends because I refused to call the Beijing Olympics "genocide Olympics."  And I don't necessarily fare better with Chinese readers of my blog either. Though most Chinese are not at the extremes of the spectrum, it seems that those who are, are most active and outspoken. Apparently my blog does not please readers who take certain strong positions – the left are unhappy with my often critical attitude toward the government as well as my refusal to let go of the memory of, and lessons from, the past, while the right are unsatisfied that I do not talk as radical as dissidents do and that I advocate political reform rather than revolution. No matter. An independent thinker I will continue to be. Just as there are reasons for the left and right to exist, there is also a reason for someone like me to exist somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. :-)

I'm always happy to hear Western thinkers and writers, such as James Fallows, Jeff Wasserstrom, and Peter Hessler, emphasize the concept of variety when it comes to China and Chinese people. The point that there is a spectrum of attitudes and actions within China is right on the money. With over one billion people you would expect to find almost every imaginable attitude present. Yet surprisingly many Westerners do not perceive this way. Even Yang Jianli wanted to talk about "two Chinas": the elites and the "shitizens" as he calls them. As a writer, I do like the colorful term, but compared to Wasserstrom's more realistic perspective, Yang's two-dimensional classification seems way too simplified to give much insight. One China, two Chinas, many Chinas. I would have to go with the last.

Of course, Yang Jianli is a dissident, as he declared himself right at the beginning of his talk, and he does have more than ample cause to bear ill will toward those that imprisoned him. He was certainly right about one thing. In responding to Wasserstrom's observation that nowadays an individual could stand on Tiananmen Square and curse corrupted officials without being put into jail, Yang Jianli argued that you might or might not be arrested, but you are never sure. This is certainly true. I, for example, when researching on the Cultural Revolution during my China visits, have always worried whether I would get into trouble. I never have, but that did not eradicate my worries.  Yang was also right that, because the political changes are not systematic, there is always a danger that the bad old ways might make a comeback.  I expressed the same concern in a post titled "What Kind of Country is China Today?" last year.

However, I don't see that Wasserstrom's observation necessarily contradicts Yang's. China has changed not only economically but also politically from the time I lived there, yet China has a much longer way to go in its political reform. Whether the Chinese government's current programmatic approach will lead to a more systematic change remains the important question.


Jeremiah said...

I agree. I think the dynamism and diversity is what makes China such an interesting place in which to work and study. And I also think there is nothing wrong with a "balanced" approach. Frankly, if you're taking flak from both sides it means your nicely centered.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Jeremiah, nice to see you here! I'm a fan of your blog.

Julen said...

Xujun, glad to see you finally managed to get the unblocked version going, congrats. I subscribe to this one ASAP!

I think the "shitizens" that Yang uses is probably a direct translation of the 屁民 that I see in many Chinese blog these days...

Sounds like an interesting debate, and I see what you mean about dissidents having a more unidimensional perspective. To analyze something rationally it is always better to be an outside observer, rather than a concerned party.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Julen! Good to know I'm not blocked for the time being. And thanks for connecting "shitizens" with "屁民" - I was wondering what the Chinese words were.

Their talks actually did not sound like a debate. They were complimenting and complementing each other, is how I see it. :-)

By the way, I really enjoyed reading your latest posts about Google, language and newspapers.