Friday, March 12, 2010

Personifying China's Unhappiness

Wang Xiaodong (王小东) is a complex character. The man in his mid-50s has dishevelled hair, and his left hand is in a fist as he holds a microphone with his right hand. As people ask him questions, he becomes more and more animated, his voice becomes louder and stronger, with a defiant tone.

He is of the co-authors of China is Unhappy 中国不高兴, a best-selling book that came out a year ago in March 2009. In it several writers contribute essays talking about things like the overseas protests during the Olympic torch relay, the west's assertions that China is polluting the world, and how the west is unwilling to give key technology to China to develop further.

Wang probably felt he should be in a defensive mode, as he was in a room full of foreign journalists and boldly claimed they write lies.


"Western media are less reliable now," he said. "When I was 10, 11 years old, I would listen to the BBC and VOA. We were taking a risk at the time because it was illegal to listen to foreign media. But to us we were listening to enemy radio stations.

"The reason we took the risk is because we believed their reporting was truthful and objective," he recalls. "But later when we grew up we realized they lied quite often."

It is this ingrained belief that has spurred Wang to think that foreign reporters either do not know China or are not doing their jobs properly.

"This especially happened in 2008 and 2009 during the Xinjiang and Tibet riots," Wang said. "The foreign media published fake information and pictures, where a Han person was beaten by a Uighur terrorist but it was captioned the other way around."

He adds that he personally experienced being misreported when he was interviewed by the BBC.

"I said 'I hope China can build an army to defeat anyone anywhere in the world', but this was translated and published as 'conquer anyone in the world'," Wang told his audience. "There is a difference between 'defeat' and 'conquer', as 'conquer' can mean taking land and enslaving others. The reporter was implying I wanted to start war.

"A friend saw the article and asked me, 'Did you say this?' and I said yes but it was translated wrong. He said, 'If you did, you should be 30 years younger.'"

Wang also contends the west is very ignorant about China and the foreign media should help them understand the country better, not reinforce their misunderstanding.

However, he doesn't give suggestions on how foreign journalists can increase their understanding of China and didn't have much to say when these overseas reporters explained that they were barred by the government from going to places like Tibet and Kashgar to see firsthand what is going on. He only said that he could not answer for the Chinese government even though he wished they could see for themselves the truth.

Nevertheless he finds it irresponsible of foreign media to not print the truth. "Some foreign journalists tell me that what was published was not what they wrote, that it was changed by an editor," Wang recalled. "Whoever is responsible is not good. Not only are they losing the trust of the Chinese people, but also making the world a more dangerous place."

He also blames foreign reporters for painting two pictures of the Chinese. The first is that the Chinese people hate their government and love western democracy. The second is that Chinese people are like Nazis in that they are nationalistic and love war. To him, these two pictures are a contradiction, and both don't reflect at all what Chinese people think and believe in.

Wang's voice rises when he talks about the Xinjiang riots last July. He again charged that foreign reports were untrue, with some media outlets later adding corrections of apologies in misreporting. He doesn't understand that though journalists strive to get the facts right, sometimes they are not available to them at deadline, or because of short deadlines will miss out on things.

"We call Uighurs terrorists," he declared, "while the foreign media call them freedom fighters. What the foreign reporters said started off as peaceful protests were not true. They were violent all along -- they even took children and killing them and hung their corpses on meat hooks," he said. "You didn't see these pictures published. The number of Han people killed may be even higher than what the government said," Wang insisted.

This sounded like a conspiracy theory. Someone asked how he knew all this and he responded that his aunt and her family live in Urumqi as well as some friends who told him these things. One wonders where they got that information from.

A book he talked a lot about is called Chine-Afrique, written by three European journalists, athough it is mistranslated as China's Africa in English.

Apparently this book is near impossible to find in China according to Wang which has led some to believe the government has banned the tome.

But Wang defends it, saying China has done a lot of big projects in Africa that people need to know about. "In fact China should worry about foreigners not reading the book," he said. The last line of the book, Wang paraphrases is that "Africa was derailed from humankind and China brought it back to life."

Wang admits not all the projects China is involved in in Africa are humanitarian. "They are done by Chinese companies for their own profits under the leadership of invisible hands," he said cryptically. The audience laughed.

Western countries haven't done the hard work that China has in helping to build the African continent, Wang says, like for example construct a mobile communication system in Ethiopia, with Chinese engineers willing to withstand the heat and tough conditions, while western ones chickened out.

He says China is different from the United States. "The US says everyone should learn from them, but China believes it has the right to be different," Wang says. "In Chinese history, there was a belief that Chinese civilization was the best and everyone else should learn from China's political system. Either become civilized or be savages was the slogan," he explained.

But today, Wang says, no one thinks China's system is good. "If people thought it was the best system they would tell others to follow us.

However at the same time, Wang believes China should take greater leadership in the world when it has a better political system. "It should be better than the west," he proclaimed. "When we achieve that then we can be like the US today, telling others to follow us, but not with the system we have now."

In another twist, Wang is in favour of democracy in its western sense, from rule of law to freedom of the press and freedom of speech as well as elections.

Wang sounds like a first generation product of the Communist Party of China. He doesn't think Chinese media is too biased but also would like his government to invest less in US dollars and treasuries and put the money back into Chinese infrastructure. He has idealistic views of what China should be, but has no proper road map on how to get there. While there was no discussion of domestic issues, he didn't seem to want to admit, particularly with the two riots that there was anything wrong with China's domestic policies with regards to minorities.

He claims China is unhappy because foreign countries are picking on his homeland, but he does not understand that criticism is healthy -- it is what can lead to progress and fulfilling the demands of the people. Wang is simultaneously arrogant and proud, insecure and humble. Just like China. 

The question now is, is every other person in China just like Wang?

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