As a China blogger, it’s a pretty big week, open rebellion in Wukan has attracted a flock of journalist, and then Hollywood star Christian Bale/Batman attempted to visit blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng. The big question floating around at the moment is does foreign pressure mean anything to China?
Before I address that question I would first like to point out that Christian Bale has created one heck of a dilemma for China’s censors. The media gears have been spinning wildly to promote his new film, The Flowers of War, which opens today in China. I passed Mr. Bale’s image at least 4-5 times just on my way to work this morning. How are they going to block discussion of his trip to Linyi without limiting the reach of what has been called a propaganda film?
The film has been criticized overseas already for portraying the Japanese soldiers as monochrome monsters, and I am worried that the film will be fraught with historical inaccuracies (the Rape of Nanking is something I have spent a considerable amount of time researching). He also hasn’t given the most impressive answers to questions asked about the film.
That being said, his trip to Linyi is nonetheless heroic. The video of him being chased out of the village has refocused the spotlight on Linyi, at a moment when efforts from Chinese activists were waning. Both Yaxue and myself were overwhelmed upon hearing that a prominent westerner finally made the trip, knowing in advance what the result would be. I’m sure many other Chinese were moved by this as well.
So will Bale’s visit to Linyi and the media gathering in Wukan help or hurt the situation?
Many observers worry that foreign coverage will allow the Party to label these incidents the result of foreign involvement, but there is a growing gap between what the gov’t says and what the people believe (as evidenced by the air monitoring debate in Beijing). Claims of “foreign involvement” have already been made in both places, and have been soundly rejected by Chinese activists. In one case, a prominent commentator claimed that Chen had been funded by foreign forces and was met with a lengthy confrontation by a young woman wearing sunglasses, a symbol of Chen’s supporters, demanding proof that he couldn’t provide. The video spread quickly across Chinese forums.
In Wukan, foreign journalists are reporting that the villagers are very much aware of the danger that comes with communicating these problems beyond China’s borders, but they feel it’s the only way to get China’s gov’t to act. One journalist, Tom Lasseter, tried to buy toothpaste from one of the shops in Wukan, but the manager wouldn’t accept his money and thanked him for being present. In both places, Chinese villagers/activists have sought foreign attention.
In the situation of Wukan the villagers still firmly believe that the central gov’t will help rescue them from the clutches of the corrupt local officials. Activists in the Chen Guangcheng case continue to press the fact that his detention is illegal, and hope that the central gov’t will push the local gov’t to set Chen and his family free.
Both cases rely on action from the Central gov’t, which prefers to plead ignorance about problems caused by local gov’ts. Foreign media coverage will very likely force some kind of resolution, whether or not that is a positive is impossible to know.
This brings us to another one of the big problems with this question: it assumes China and its people are one homogeneous mass. Within China there are currently two factions competing for future control of the Party. One seeks to further liberalize the economy and promotes grass root efforts; the other urges the Party to reassert itself as the sole power.
While this blog often focuses on the activities of China’s netizens that are pushing for reform, it is important to remember that China’s internet is also home to a large group of Nationalists who would urge the Party not to appear weak in front of foreign cameras (remember what happened in a certain square in ’89).
The central government’s reaction to either of these situations could signal China’s future direction, and the Party prefers to communicate through drastic measures. A shift towards liberalization and democracy, might be shown with investigations into local officials, demotions and possibly executions. A shift back to centralized power could include investigations of local “agitators”, as well as lengthy jail terms and possibly executions.
There is also a third group to consider, perhaps the largest, that is indifferent when it comes to these issues; the side that doesn’t want to discuss “unhappy things” as a co-worker calls them. This group shrinks each time something happens in a place that reminds them of their hometown.
Ge Xun, an activist involved with Chen’s case, told me, “In my view all publicity will help. I am one who believes in openness (no face saving backroom deals), and that freedom is something that people are born with, it is not given or granted. No one can regain their freedom once it has been taken away by begging, it must be fought for.” Today that fight involves a man and his family in Linyi, and a village of farmers and fishermen in Wukan, struggling to regain what has been taken from them. Whether the Central gov’t decides to side with the people or the corrupt officials, we will be watching.