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When I started Seeing Red in China one year ago, the plan was to write a post every weekday for a few months and see what happened. I am incredibly pleased by the way this site has grown into something beyond a typical travel blog, into a more complete guide to modern China, and that every post has been further supplemented by your excellent comments.
Through researching my posts each day, I’ve greatly improved my understanding of China, and today I’d like to share two of the major underlying themes that I wish I had known earlier, as well as my overall impression of this year spent studying China.
Scandals are all the same
While I had had some sense of this, after following the People’s Daily closely for a year, I realized that scandals in China really are all the same. They start as a murmur on Weibo, and spread faster than the censors can contain. This explains why the scandals are often so shocking, the only ones that survive the incubation period on Weibo are the ones that are not targeting issues already deemed “sensitive”.
The second phase involves a candid admission in either People’s Daily or Global Times that something did happen and it will be investigated. Many scandals disappear at this point since the gov’t knows that moving slowly allows for interest in the story to fade. If interest does not fade then they might actually investigate.
The third phase almost always involves a discovery that relevant laws were in place, but they had not been properly enforced (so it is not a problem at the national level). This means that a handful of local officials will be forced to step down from their positions for failing to enforce the laws.
Finally, several months after the incident, these officials are quietly reassigned to new positions.
China has no room at the margins
Until just a year or two ago, sign language was not taught to China’s deaf community. Instead, programs focused on teaching the deaf how to mimic speech. In fact, it was only after parents and children were taught sign language, that many parents realized their children suffered no other handicaps.
This is because there is very little room in China for those classified as “other.” This can be seen not only in handicap programs, like autistic children being trained to “act normal,” but also in how educational programs are designed for a single type of learner, or that society only accepts one kind of family (read: Why I hate the Chinese idea of marriage).
This causes China headaches when dealing with the minorities of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, since the country’s policies are generally designed for one type of person: Atheist-Han-Farmer/Factory Worker who will sacrifice themselves for economic gain. Gov’t officials seem to have an incredibly hard time understanding why everyone doesn’t fit this role (not only minorities resist the model).
One year later
At times it is hard to tell if I’ve just been following the news more closely, or if things are actually getting worse. At the end of the year though, I can say that: The number of activists detained far exceeds the number released, Weibo is becoming more tightly controlled, the gov’t is more sensitive to criticism and perceived trouble makers, and all of that will get worse if China’s economy slows down in the way many are starting to predict (I’m not certain it will). After reading thousands of articles on China this year, my confidence in the Communist Party is at an all time low.
That being said, the last year has also brought many advances: new methods of activism, both online and off; waves of bold candidates attempting to run in local elections; stronger calls for transparency and environmental protection, even in the countryside; and in many cases, open defiance of gov’t policies that deny people basic rights. I am quite pleased to say that after further discussing many of the issues facing China with co-workers, friends, and activists, my faith in the Chinese people is at an all time high.
Du Haibin’s film “1428” captures a variety of scenes from post earthquake Beichuan in a way that I hadn’t seen before. Even though I was in China at that time, and remember checking the news hourly for days, there was still very little I knew about the conditions in Sichuan at that time. All of the images were being very carefully selected before they were shown on TV, but this film manages to capture everything that was left unseen.
The documentary begins just 10 days after the earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people, and shows how chaotic life can be as people struggle to know what steps to take next. Many people spent their days trying to scavenge scrap metal from collapsed buildings to sell, while others looted their neighbors’ apartments, some searched hopelessly for family members, and others started to discuss rebuilding the temple. It was a strong reminder that there is no way to prevent these kinds of disasters, and few ways to prepare for life after them.
For being a film about the largest disaster China has faced in the last 30 years, I was surprised that there wasn’t much time spent on talking about death, instead this work is much more concerned with how life moves on afterward.
This is highlighted by Du Haibin’s interest in a father and his mentally disabled adult son. The man is eligible to move into a shelter, but his son is not, so they remain in a small shack built out of the rubble of other buildings. They live off of what the father manages to sell, and stay there for more than 7 months (it’s not clear if they ever move). This provides a very interesting glimpse at mental health in China.
Another great moment captured is a discussion between old men as to why the earthquake happened. Had the Buddha allowed this because they had grown the wrong kind of water lilies? Was the Earth God upset because many people had stopped worshiping him, and his temple was in disrepair? Or perhaps it was because they had insulted one of these Gods in another way they had not yet mentioned? Some decide that it is a clear indication that the temples must be rebuilt, while others see it as a sign that the old religions are a waste of time.
I thought the most interesting theme that developed through out the movie is how the local people try to find a way to criticize the way some of them had been cut off from aid. To me it seemed like most of them had legitimate complaints, like the old woman who was denied an electric blanket because she had lost her ID card during the earthquake. Every time a person would begin to raise a complaint a neighbor would quickly step in and ask why they are criticizing the communist party. Given the choice many would shut up, but one old woman said “the party is wonderful, but I think there are some problems in the local government.”
This simple sentence I think underlines so many of China’s problems. The national gov’t is unwilling to see arguments against the local gov’ts as anything but an attack on the whole party.
I would recommend this film to anyone interested in disaster relief, Chinese civil society, rural life in china, or Chinese family values.
I’m not sure how widely available this film is for purchase, but it is available for streaming through Amazon, and if someone could check Netflix and comment below that would be a big help.
Tomorrow marks the 3rd anniversary of the Earthquake and we’ll be looking at China’s response in those first few days.