Separate universes

When I was a boy, my parents taught me about Hitler’s attempted extermination of the Jews, creating very early on my insatiable curiosity for all matters related to what would later be referred to as the Holocaust. It seemed so incomprehensible in so many ways. I read about people in Germany who heard the whispers of gas chambers in Poland, and of brutality beyond all belief right next door in the lovely suburb of Dachau. And they pushed the rumors aside, not wanting to know, because they were doing alright and to question was dangerous. But there is no doubt they saw their Jewish friends and neighbors disappearing, and most said nothing. And I marvelled at that and wondered how it was possible.

Today I understand it a little better. While the situation isn’t exactly analogous, I would say that most of us in Beijing know about the atrocities being performed in other, less visible and developed parts of China. To those who have been here a long time, the story of the Shanxi province brick factory using slave labor came as no surprise at all. It happens all over China, they tell me. And yet I, too, I have to admit, feel distant from such atrocities. It is as if they occur in a separate universe. Here in Beijing we have at least the semblance of rule of law, and we are comfortable and secure. Most of us. Life is good. When we hear about the brutality taking place not so far away, we may feel some outrage, we may even speak out, but then the lure of Beijng’s prosperity lulls us back into the sense of peace and of hope. China is getting better, we tell ourselves, and we can’t change the system overnight. Baby steps. Give the Party space so they can grow and acquire wisdom via osmosis as positive influences continue to raise the tide, lifting up all ships.

I began thinking about this phenomenon after I read a story linked by a commenter of yet more horror stories of slave and child labor. The kinds of stories that, were this any other country, would enrage people to the point of demanding immediate justice. But this isn’t like other countries. Here we are so tolerant, so concerned about shaking things up, lest the goose that lays all those golden eggs should be harmed. The article made me wonder how we could all remain silent; but then, I realized that like the rest of us, I wanted to push it out of my mind and focus on what really matters, making money in the booming Chinese economy. I didn’t want to think like that, I simply observed myself thinking that way. And it bothered me.

Here’s a glimpse of what’s going on right in the backyard of Munich Beijing:

Just within a week or so of the brick kiln story, there were several reports of labor abuses against children. A 14-year-old boy was killed in an explosion while filling a tank with napthalene at a chemical factory near Nanjing. A 15-year-old boy was dragged into a cotton gin and crushed to death in Nanchang after working a succession of 20-hour days. And 70 girls from rural Henan Province were brought by their teacher to work at a grape processing plant in Ningbo, where their hands bled from working 16-hour shifts.

From the densely packed factory zones of Guangdong Province to the street markets, kitchens and brothels of major cities, to the primitive factories of China’s relatively poor western provinces, child labor is a daily fact of life, experts here say, and one that the government, preoccupied with economic growth, has traditionally turned a blind eye to.

‘In order to achieve modernization, people will go to any ends to earn money, to advance their interests, leaving behind morality, humanity and even a little bit of compassion, let alone the law or regulations, which are poorly implemented,’ said Hu Jindou, a professor of economics at the University of Technology in Beijing. ‘Everything is about the economy now, just like everything was about politics in the Mao era, and forced labor or child labor is far from an isolated phenomenon. It is rooted deeply in today’s reality, a combination of capitalism, socialism, feudalism and slavery.’

….This was underscored by another story that emerged the same week the kiln factory abuses were revealed. Students from the Dayin Middle School in Sichuan Province, in China’s interior, complained in newspaper reports about a work-study program in which they were shipped to an electronics assembly plant hundreds of miles away, in the industrial boomtown of Dongguan, which is near the coast.

The students told about having to work 14-hour days, with mandatory overtime, and having their wages withheld. In some instances, they said, those who wished to quit the program had no way of telephoning their families or paying for transportation home.

The article tells us in painful detail how local authorities participated in what amounts to the kidnapping and enslavement of children. It’s a story so morally repugnant, so despicable in every way you’d think those living in the country where these offenses are perpetrated would be up in arms. And some are. But most of us shrug it off; it’s uncomfortable to dwell on such depressing matters, and if we don’t think about it, it’ll go away, at least figuratively.

And it works. It is very easy to have a hell of a time here and love just about every minute of if. Just focus on the positive – hundreds of millions lifted from poverty, an economy so robust it can shake the world, a mood of hope and irrepressible optimism. We can say the same about “that other country,” where life was glorious, and everyone chose to look away from the horrors right around the corner. The rising tide lifted all ships, or almost all. And no one cared to look at the ships that were being pulled down, it was just so irritating, such a downer.

I’m not complaining here about anyone – only myself. I’ve watched the change within myself as I got intoxicated on the never-ending story of success and prosperity. Stories like these, of the child labor and and mentally retarded slaves being beaten to death, they arouse me for a while, they infuriate me, and then it’s back to work, back to the bright side of China where we don’t have to worry about the poor souls in the other universe who are being enslaved, maimed, killed. These articles remind us of the inconvenient truth we’d rather not hear about, the elephant in the living room corner we hope will just go away if we don’t give it too much thought. And I’m guilty. At least it’s given me greater insight into how the human mind works, and how we can block out just about anything if by doing so we can feel safe and warm. Anything.

______________

Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 31 Comments

“It happens all over China, they tell me.”
Who is they? Foreigners like you who are expert in China? You criticise China for atrocities in the same week NATO bombs kill children in Afghanistan. All foreigners are experts on human rights in China. According to western experts there is no atrocities in Palestine where children are shot dead for throwing stones. Nobody talks about that in America.

June 24, 2007 @ 11:58 pm | Comment

WWL,

MAybe you dont know of the human rights abuses in China. There are lots of big problems about people being treated terribly in China. Maybe you should do some research. There is a reason there are blogs like this that adress this issue and its not because we want to blame China for being worse than America. I’m not American, nad yet I choose to talk about China because according to my research China is the biggest problem in the world. A huge part of theproblem is that the propaganda people have made it so that lots of peopel dont even know about it.

Anyway, there is a reason the CCP has a really bad reputation, check it out.

Anyway if you’re not interested in the issues of China and more interested in the US, then why not discuss the US on another site? There are a lot more sites dedicated to justice in America then about China.

Anyway I thinkits the ideology and intentions of the CCP that makes people upset and not just the physical problems. I dont see any other government thats as totally evil and freaky as the CCP.

Maybe you dont see it that way, but you could maybe open your mind to seeing that perspective.

June 25, 2007 @ 12:30 am | Comment

Richard, the fact that you have chosen and are able to take a step back from the side of you that is uncaring and greedy shows that you are better than that.

Its jsut depressingly common, what you talked about, but it is very precious and rare that you have the ability and courage to acknowledge whats not so good about yourself.

YOu gotta admit theres a problem before you can move on to the solution they say. I guess if people dont start thinking about their consciences, then there wont be change.

The CCP wants you to follow your greed and follow it zealously, it wants people to follow the CCP way of no human rights, no conscience, only pursuit of comfort and love for the party that gave you the freedom from your conscience. Thats my opinion about them. The only way they can save their butts is if people love and accept evil. I hope people are more Richardy and can see whats happening and not just live the life calculated by the party.

June 25, 2007 @ 12:38 am | Comment

“Nobody talks about that in America.”

Who tells you that? A collection of people in China who’ve never been to America?

The whole world knows about what’s going on in Palestine. The whole world knows about what’s going on in China, except the Chinese, they’re protected from the knowledge of what’s going on in China by the very same group of people that are doing it?

Do you mean to say that because something is going on in another part of the world, it’s okay for China to do it to? If we all had that attitude, nothing would ever be accomplished, no improvements would ever be made. Fortunately for humankind, no one outside of China is that dense. Sadly, China is screwed, because it is a nation of willing victims, who go so far as to defend the murder who kills their wives, children, sons, daughters, husbands, parents and mothers.

June 25, 2007 @ 1:13 am | Comment

This attitude isn’t unique to expats in China; it’s a very normal thing worldwide, even for those who have never set foot in a developing country living under a Leninist dictatorship.

Ask any citizen of a first world country what the working conditions are in the developing countries that provide them with all their cheap ‘stuff’, China included. They have a vague idea of how bad it is, of course, but thinking and worrying about it excessively complicates matters. So they don’t think about it, and only a minority demand changes be made, even in a society where there are no government ‘crackdowns’ to such demands.

The road to Auschwitz was paved with apathy…and while it’s a bit sensationalistic to suggest they are anywhere near the same scale of horror, so was the road to this particular brick kiln factory in Shanxi.

Incidentally…

“You criticise China for atrocities in the same week NATO bombs kill children in Afghanistan.”

This might have something to do with the fact that this is a blog about China, and not about NATO in Afghanistan. Just a theory.

“According to western experts there is no atrocities in Palestine where children are shot dead for throwing stones. Nobody talks about that in America.”

They don’t? I’ve read a number of American reporters and authors who talk about exactly that, relentlessly attacking U.S. and Israeli policy, though admittedly rarely mainstream ones.

That being said, how are the Noam Chomskys of China holding up in criticizing THEIR government? Enjoying their silenced articles and prison cells?

Possibly one of the most damaging aspects of China’s propaganda machine is the horrible things it does to even the most fundamental idea of logic. In this case, given the number of responses I’ve seen that take this ‘line’, I have to wonder if any Chinese ‘patriot’ will ever stop and ponder the sheer irrationality and absurdity of defending their government’s policies by pointing out that, y’know, America is Bad! Why don’t you criticize America instead!?

I do. I also criticize China. The two are not mutually exclusive.

June 25, 2007 @ 1:27 am | Comment

Personally, I think putting genocide together with slavery and social equality is alittle far stretch. All these have shown how BAD a human can be and that’s extremely sad.

Btw, when you was a children you heard about holocaust. Care to answer how many time did you heard about Japanese massively killing Chinese during WWII? Cough… I don’t know is racism or just euro central culture here. Holocaust is mentioned a lot but crimes committed by Japan is rarely mentioned in American media. Personally, I think is the later though, but I don’t know should I find that comforting or not.

June 25, 2007 @ 2:50 am | Comment

I would say that The FgAoLnUgN issue is the most classic example of all the problems the CCP imposes on China and the world.

This P e r secution started in 1999 and people (no offense, neither am I so innocent) like Richard, like most people, would just rather accept the story that it’s not true, that its not happenning the way the FgAoLnUgN say it is.

Same with the Chinese, they want to believe the CCP is not lying to them because they want that goose to lay the golden eggs in their hmes where they feel cozy and warm, they do not want to know that they are being had.

Money is a really big deal to people so is comfort, so the threat of stirring up issue with China right now threatens peoples dollar stores etc as well as the idea of a possible big nuke out…

This is a really real thing to discuss, its so pertinent and Im glad Richard brought it up.

I have no doubt that CCP brainwash tactics plus peoples wish to be cozy and ignorant is the recipee for letting FgAoLnUgN people stay in the other universe, the reality universe where they need our help.

The cultural revolution of CCP feeling threatened by the way people think is happenning, the reason yuo dont feel it is because you are in line. The FgAoLnUgN makes the CCP feel threatend by the idea of strong principled morality, the CCP cant handle peoples values cause it is against them.

As long as you make excuses and deny that reality, they wont come after you.

Anyway I think the people will oust the party, if they have brains, so China wont be so messed up anymore…

June 25, 2007 @ 2:59 am | Comment

I already dread what this comment thread will surely become.

Great post, Richard.

June 25, 2007 @ 3:16 am | Comment

Westerners and Chinese alike need to take a step back and see how not just the CCP but also the world of finance and MNCs has led us by a carrot called “potential wealth” down a road paved with bones, sadness and despair. And with the rise of Blackwater, MNCs are growing their own high-tech army.

It just so happens that these same “masters of the world” became so glossed over by the CCP that they gave in to the greed they were trying to generate, they supported the CCP and without realizing the scale of evil they were dealing with. So now china represents the sum of ecological and humanitarian failures of humanity.
Some may argue Africa is worse, but we know what is going on in Africa, it may be decades before we know the true extent of what is going on in China.

How many other foreigners in China have seen newspaper ads to buy embryos from women?

June 25, 2007 @ 4:49 am | Comment

Westerners and Chinese alike need to take a step back and see how not just the CCP but also the world of finance and MNCs has led us by a carrot called “potential wealth” down a road paved with bones, sadness and despair. And with the rise of Blackwater, MNCs are growing their own high-tech army.

It just so happens that these same “masters of the world” became so glossed over by the CCP that they gave in to the greed they were trying to generate, they supported the CCP and without realizing the scale of evil they were dealing with. So now china represents the sum of ecological and humanitarian failures of humanity.
Some may argue Africa is worse, but we know what is going on in Africa, it may be decades before we know the true extent of what is going on in China.

How many other foreigners in China have seen newspaper ads to buy embryos from women? Also in Shanxi province. Discover magazine back in 2002 had a little article on it.

June 25, 2007 @ 4:50 am | Comment

Richard, I don’t care which direction this thread is taking (though, judging from the first comment you got, I believe Lisa’s guess won’t be far off the mark), this is just another heck of a post. And I only want to tell you this, before any more nitwit commenter tries to further discourage you: when the four hundred parents of the slave children started their campaign on the internet, they were looking for the active involvement of the online community and a dedication to their case that they are being denied by their own government. This is exactly what this blog and many others are about. I’m quite aware that as a foreigner you won’t be able to twist anybody’s arm in the Chinese government, but by hammering the nail’s head time and time again, the world will eventually start to listen to that sound and in return China will eventually start to listen to the noise made by that world. Remember that post from Sam (http://tinyurl.com/26oua2) where he discussed the inability of Bush to do something about the situation in Iraq because he wouldn’t name it for what it was (a civil war in the making) ? Well, you are naming the things, and that in itself is an onset to doing something about it. Bloggers start to make a difference, so when you’re in the line of blogging, quit blaming yourself, and continue to do what you’re good at: blogging. And do it for the myriad of others, be it in China or elsewhere, that could not join in that internet campaign … yet.

June 25, 2007 @ 5:08 am | Comment

Lisa, you’re not alone.

In my time in China, I often wondered about those “other people”. The window washer that always waved to me when he went past my office–and one day fell and broke both his legs (our office donated some money to the management for his healthcare, but we don’t know whether that money made it to him or not). The taxi drivers (although I hear they are not that badly off.) The teenagers we saw on that one due diligence trip into the “countryside” (full of factories)–and the fact that they bore scars on their hands, the kind of scars my brother had from his car battery exploding.

Now that I’m out of China, I don’t think about it often. I think it’s the price of being busy–work makes you forget so much more than a vacation ever will. I assume Richard, being an ad exec and all, probably knows that fact as well as anyone.

June 25, 2007 @ 5:26 am | Comment

“Now that I’m out of China, I don’t think about it often. I think it’s the price of being busy–work makes you forget so much more than a vacation ever will.”

The price of doing business…what a nice way to whitewash slavery. David Copperfield The Sequel far surpasses the original.

June 25, 2007 @ 6:30 am | Comment

First thing I thought when reading about these horrific labour camps in the periphery of Chinese population centres with the outright collusion of the system and the dogs preventing escape and brutal murders was the Nazi death camps. Who knows what other stories I cycle past on my way to work that I’m not concerned about? The trouble is that we’re all well aware of the situation in China; it’s one more drip-drip-drip of news about corruption, violence and abuse. Outside China this story will just come across as another isolated story to be forgotten by the end of the day, like those Drudgereport links to children in Kansas being locked in cages or another teacher running off with her daughter’s 16 year old boyfriend.

But I do also want to comment on the term Qin Shi Huangdi uses and which is always bandied about to disparage China as a “Leninist dictatorship.” Forgetting the fact that China bears little resemblance to what Lenin had envisioned (although it does have more of a collective leadership since Mao), Lenin only had seven years to show the world what his type of leadership was. Of this, his first year was devoted to ending and surviving the horror of the Great War where he gave up >30% of his land and population and 60% of all industry, had a brutal 3 year civil war to deal with (with the UK, US, France, Japan etc.. invading and providing help to his enemies), and survived an assassination attempt and four strokes leaving him incapacitated for close to three years. His type of dictatorship as seen when the politburo refused to agree to the treaty of Brest-Litovsk was “OK. That’s your decision, fine. I quit.” Can’t see Hitler or Stalin doing that.

June 25, 2007 @ 7:06 am | Comment

“Forgetting the fact that China bears little resemblance to what Lenin had envisioned (although it does have more of a collective leadership since Mao), Lenin only had seven years to show the world what his type of leadership was.”

And in those seven years, he gave us the Red Terror, the foundation of the Cheka, the use of families as hostages against desertion from the Red Army, the forcible requisition of grain from peasants on the verge of starvation under the policy of ‘War Communism’, the destruction of opposition parties, concentration camps, executions without trial, etc…..to give a short list.

No, I’m sorry. ‘Leninist’ and ‘Dictatorship’ are words that go very well together. Of course, I was being a bit flip in using that term in regards to China; the present Chinese government is a great deal less rigid than Lenin, and certainly less ideological.

June 25, 2007 @ 7:35 am | Comment

The difference is of course the evil deeds in Nazi Germany were sanctioned by the state, and now they are not. There are “poor souls in the other universe” in just about every country. I comment you the desire to help improve others’ lots — just hope that whatever the solutions you may propose beyond this piece don’t become an overall net negative to others’ lives.

T_co, there is a world of difference between the “other people” window washer who had an accident in your story, and the child slave labors. The former took his job with his free will, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with making a living by one’s honest labor. Some of the richest Chinese now started by working on some meager jobs. I have extended family members whom you may consider the “other people”. I will venture to say among all nations now, China probably ranks very high in those “other people” believing that they can make it all the way to the top.

June 25, 2007 @ 8:59 am | Comment

_I commend you the desire_ (not “comment”)

June 25, 2007 @ 9:03 am | Comment

Jxie, I don’t propose any solution. I don’t have one, except to raise the visibility of the situation. The slave and child labor may not be sanctioned by the state, but the state knows all about it and often plays an active role in it. The “state” in this case may be local officials, but the patronage system inherent to the survival of the Chinese government allows them to get away with it with a wink and a nod from Headquarters, and an occasional crackdown when an irritating reporter blows the lid on their operations.

Arty, I stated upfront that the comparison is not exactly analogous. Let’s give genocide a 10 and child slavery, maiming and death a 7.5. That’s still pretty bad. You ask why I point to the Holocaust and not the Nanjing massacre. Read the first line of the post again. I am a Jew. My parents taught me about the Holocaust when I was a small child and it helped shape my thinking. Had I been born Chinese and my parents taught me about the Nanjing massacre, maybe I’d point to that in this post. I am what I am. Take it or leave it. And I have posted here many times about the horrors of the Nanjing massacre.

Lao Lu, Lisa – thanks for the kind words, and I think we all know in advance how what I wrote will be misinterpreted and twisted, and labelled as hypocrisy because I don’t point out the bad things in America (which I do, but anyway…).

June 25, 2007 @ 9:19 am | Comment

Actually I believe Richard’s friends told him the truth in China, some unpleasent truth.

The reason is simple. There is just no simple solution.

June 25, 2007 @ 10:34 am | Comment

I suppose the best thing to do would be this, to complain from outside, (i.e from home, to your legislators) or just use your special status as foreigner/non-Chinese to circulate information around.

When you’re talking to Chinese though, be sure to let them know you recognize the US’s problems but that China is capable of better. They harden extremely fast to what they perceive as paternalism and probably won’t take anyone seriously if they preach.

Don’t know what else can be done, except of course the “wait and see” thing.

June 25, 2007 @ 10:43 am | Comment

The slave issue is, indeed, just the tip of the iceberg…

http://tinyurl.com/27oetu

June 25, 2007 @ 8:46 pm | Comment

Separate universes, indeed.

June 25, 2007 @ 8:48 pm | Comment

“When you’re talking to Chinese though, be sure to let them know you recognize the US’s problems but that China is capable of better. They harden extremely fast to what they perceive as paternalism and probably won’t take anyone seriously if they preach.”

Why is it that Chinese are free to lecture others but can’t get some of the same lecturing about their own shortcomings? Chinese really need to get thicker skins.

June 26, 2007 @ 12:41 am | Comment

I agree, this is a post as insightful as it is devastatingly true.

Anyone who didn’t fall asleep in their Psychology-001 class could identify this (and probably correctly) as confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance in action.

Still doesn’t make it seem any less terrible, though. I’m sure things will get better in china “in the future” but such a Thomas Friedman-esque assertion from my MacBook in my shiny new 公寓 is of little comfort to these children whose lives were destroyed before they even began….

Or we can depress ourselves even more and think about the millions of children in North Korea who lead lives that are just as destitute…but with even less reason to hope for a better tomorrow, as South Korea and China do whatever it takes to prop up Pyongyang…

June 26, 2007 @ 1:36 am | Comment

Richard

Great article.

I think this explains why I always seem to have a problem adjusting to many aspects of life in China. I have not yet given in completely to apathy. Maybe it would be best if I did as then I wouldn’t feel so frustrated when talking to people about China. With foreigners it is ok, as many can relate to what they see and experience here, but with many Chinese, there is a complete lack of interest in something unless it directly affects them. Life has always been cheap in China, but at least there was respect and support for others, now even that appears to have disappeared. Life here seems to be only about making money.

Qin Shi Huangdi was spot on when he talked about “The road to Auschwitz was paved with apathy” Lets just hope time can change this and people can start to think more about helping everyone else, rather than just themselves. I certainly hope this comes before I become frustrated not to care any more.

June 26, 2007 @ 12:34 pm | Comment

Once again, a topic is derailed by fallacious “tu quoque” arguments from Arty and WWL.

June 27, 2007 @ 12:40 am | Comment

Once again, a topic is derailed by fallacious “tu quoque” arguments from Arty and WWL.

Where did I say “you, too”? I am simply pointing out that Asian history is rarely mentioned in American media. Most American probably knows Hitler by name but how many knows the name of war criminal of Japan in the US; considering Japan is the only Axis that come close to invading US and last the longest. Also, it is hardly fallacious.

If I really want to derail the arguments, I can say that I can go to my neightborhood Home Depot and pick up workers for less than 3 dollars an hour and have them paint my house for as low as 25 dollars a day.

June 27, 2007 @ 1:50 am | Comment

If I really want to derail the arguments, I can say that I can go to my neightborhood Home Depot and pick up workers for less than 3 dollars an hour and have them paint my house for as low as 25 dollars a day.

That was slick. You went ahead and intentionally and admittedly tried to derail the thread. You are on my A list, “Arty.”

June 27, 2007 @ 9:25 am | Comment

I think part of the problem is that we all want to feel like we’re in control of our lives. Those children were abducted from train and bus stations, but we think, it’s OK: I won’t let my children go unsupervised to a train station. Therefore the abduction and the forced labour are things that happen to other people – poorer people, less careful people, whatever.

The alternative is to believe that what happened to them could happen to us at any time. I’ve just had a baby, and I tell you, I literally can’t think that. If it’s possible that my son can be abducted and forced to carry hot bricks, then I can’t live here – and I want to live here. So I choose to believe that this is something that happens to other people.

It’s just one of the strategies we use to get through the day, psychologically. But it has the unfortunate side effect of distancing us and dulling our anger.

June 27, 2007 @ 2:42 pm | Comment

It would also possibly lead to the affect of having your baby be more likely to be snatched of course, and thats the thing, thge old ostrich tactic may reap immediate gratification …BUT, theres areason why its called the old ostrich tactic, because its a fake security, its not real precaution or right behaviour, its a false sense of whatever, complacency/complicity, where the consequences are building up in the real reality and then Boom, just cause you got your head in the sand doesnt mean it wont hit you.

Thats why the Chinese people should stop willing to be so blind, I mean really, follow the CCP, with that bloody history of sneaking lies? Gee wiz hugh.

June 27, 2007 @ 5:07 pm | Comment

Quotes from “Meditation XVII” of
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, a 1624 poem by John Donne:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as
well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine
own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and
therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

June 28, 2007 @ 12:31 pm | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.