Long-time China hand Ross Terrill writes today of China’s efforts not only to clean up Chinglish in Beijing, but also to create its own truth, Potemkin Village-style, to show you the China it wants you to see, which often has little to do with the China that actually is. This is, of course, nothing very new; it’s why CCTV-9 exists. Will the masses of tourists and foreign journalists be fooled?
Banished from Beijing for the Olympics will be not only fractured English, but disabled people, Falun Gong practitioners, dark-skinned villagers newly arrived in the city, AIDS activists and other ‘troublemakers’ who smudge the canvas of socialist harmony.
Fictions will abound for the month of August 2008. On all fronts the party-state will pull the rabbit of harmony from the hat of cacophony – ‘What do you mean by dissidents?’ Scientists have been told to produce a quota of ‘blue days’ with a clear sky, perpetuating a Chinese Communist tradition of defying natural as well as human barriers to its self-appointed destiny. Mao vowed to plant rice in the dry north of China as well as the lush south, to prove the power of socialism. ‘We shall make the sun and moon change places,’ he cried. None of this occurred.
Likewise, in 2001, arguing before the world to get the Olympic Games, the vice president of Beijing’s bid committee said, ‘By allowing Beijing to host the Games, you will help the development of human rights.’ Yet the opposite danger looms: Games preparation has spurred repression.
Every day, government censors send news organizations a list of forbidden topics and guidelines for covering acceptable ones. The price for ignoring the list: dismissal of an editor or closure of the publication. Last spring, government supervisors even instructed the TV producers of ‘Happy Boys Voice,’ a Chinese version of ‘American Idol,’ to eliminate “weirdness, vulgarity and low taste.’ No wonder Dai Qing, a journalist who was imprisoned after Tiananmen in 1989, says the only thing she believes in China’s press is the weather report.
Truth and power are both headquartered in the Communist party-state. ‘Truth’ (socialism sparkles, people adore the party) is not only enforced by the party-state but created by it. Stamp out Chinglish; ban ‘unhealthy thinking’; just keep the picture pretty – or else.
Living in China is great right now, for me, anyway. But think about how much greater it would be if it didn’t fall for its own propaganda, if it didn’t feel it needed to scrub the city of its handicapped and dark-skinned citizens, if it didn’t feel it had to cover everything with window dressing. Terrill ends his op-ed with some wisdom that should be obvious to everyone, yet somehow seems permanently to elude the CCP.
The Chinese state, for better and for worse, knows exactly what it’s doing, in Africa and at home. Still, a brilliant Olympic Games will be no more of a clue to the future of Chinese Communist rule than the spectacular 1936 Berlin Games were a sign of Nazism’s longevity. Correct language, like a gold medal, is desirable in itself. But neither guarantees glory for a state that pursues them for political ends (ask the Soviet Union). Sport should just be sport. The democracies should insist on that and leave political manipulation to the dictatorships.
It’s really a shame that to the party, the Olympics is all about altering the world’s perception about China using whatever methods possible, no matter how ham-fisted or unintentionally droll, a strategy that’s bound to backfire. Sure, every country that hosts the Olympic Games wants to show the world its best, but “the best” that China’s intent on showing is manufactured, having little or nothing to do with China’s reality.
China is such a great country with so much vitality and ingenuity. Why try to blind everyone with cheap stunts and pyrotechnics designed to obfuscate rather than educate? I don’t want to see China turn itself into the laughing stock of the world. Can someone just tell them to cut the sugar-coating and act like a real country, one that acknowledges its strengths and its weaknesses, its greatness and its shortcomings. The world will be fooled by all the smoke and mirrors just as it is fooled by those insane public rallies for Kim Jong Il across the border, which is to say not very much.
Yeah, I know this is a rant of pure wishful thinking, and Hu is highly unlikely to take my advice. But it’s okay to dream, isn’t it?
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.