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Our Western reporters seem shocked, amused, even smug about discovering modern China's repressive practices. In her recent Op/Ed article, "Beijing reality show," Heather Havrilesky believes that because China oppresses its 1.3 billion people, the Olympics is a complete PR sham. However, it is the Chinese way to clamp down on protest and exercise self-control.
Social harmony: Chinese culture reveres social "harmony" over individuality and dissent. From the time of Confucius, Lao Tzu and the dynastic emperors, and continuing through the communists, Chinese authority figures have preached the value of family, hierarchy, social cohesion and getting along without rocking the boat.
Many Westerners approve of the harmony-and-serenity part of ancient Chinese philosophy and Buddhism but scorn the part about surrendering to totality and obeying the big ruler, which is often the means toward harmony. This dedication to solidarity wears a happy public face, the one we usually see in China. The mass Chinese displays of synchronized movements in the Beijing Olympics can seem to us like robotic oppression of the individual, but to them, it is the dance of social harmony.
Without a tradition of individualism and personal rights, Chinese society represents the perfect counterbalance to our own rights-emphatic culture. If we find fault with the suppression of the individual in China, we also might fail to see the disadvantages in the West of devaluing social harmony. We in the U.S. seem to be going off in 330 million directions at once. Contrariwise, our current administration wishes to overrule the Bill of Rights in the name of security, our debased form of "harmony."
Economic powerhouse: China takes great pride in its unprecedented economic gains and the amazing rise in the standard of living of many millions of people. Although it's true that those living in the big cities, about 65 million people, only represent 5% of the total population, city dwellers enjoy modern conveniences and lifestyles comparable to anywhere in the West. We should celebrate this economic miracle. The Chinese have pulled themselves up from a backward "closed" society to a world economic power in just a few years with their unique hybrid form of capitalism and socialism. Whatever happens to the remaining 95% of the people may depend on continuing that same miracle.
It has come with great costs -- environmental ruin and pollution, painful displacements -- yet it is real. They own a big chunk of us. We may resent and fear their gain and our loss. We should not devalue the immense hard work, the dedication of leaders and the intellectual and economic resourcefulness of the society that can do this. Our own environmental destruction in the name of progress and profit still makes us No. 1 -- both as the economic superpower and global polluter.
Complex mind-set: Chinese people will confide in private that they do indeed understand the limitations and failures of their government. In an environmental literature class in American studies I taught in Shanghai, graduate students criticized, though impersonally, the Three Gorges Dam as an eco-disaster. This was one of Mao Tse-tung's last projects, and criticism is allowed of his mainly discredited policies.
China's media have plenty of articles about major problems, but they do not criticize current authorities directly. How can we understand this?
Both the emphasis on "harmony" and the new status as a world economic power override the impulse for dissent in most people. They may understand China's abuses and failures, but in the grand scheme of history, culture and modern development, it does not seem to matter too much.
As for the hot-button issue of Tibet, the Chinese have a completely different interpretation, while Darfur is way off their scanner. Instead of being whipsawed by contradictory ideas, as we are in the West, they settle on uncritical support. Being a vast, ancient place of multitudes creates not diversity but uniformity, a conformist mind-set. This mind-set accentuates the positive at all costs.
We might label this attitude as self-delusional. We may view the majority of modern Chinese as self-deceived, ready for some shocking disillusionment and collective revelation and comeuppance. It could happen, though not any time soon and not due to revelations that flatter us, which Western media send home triumphantly from the Olympics. It would have to come from within.
China has many more evolutions to go through before it occurs to ordinary people to complain about core values of their culture that have gone amok. Too much social cohesion, too much money and economic disparity, and way too much development and pollution would have to be seen as serious problems rather than tolerable excesses. Right now, China's citizens are supporting an unprecedented transformation of a country whose future seems in its own hands.
And those hands are more disposed to applause than fist-shaking.
Robert Louis Chianese, professor of English emeritus at Cal State Northridge, was a Fulbright Senior Specialist in American Studies at Shanghai Normal University last fall.
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