Yup, and that Chinese guy would be me.
Of course, as everyone knows, today marked the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics, held in Beijing, China. People have asked me whether I am excited about the Olympics’ being held in China, probably on the account of my being Chinese and the fact that I was born in Beijing.
And they all seem surprised when I tell them that I don’t really care, as if by virtue of my being Chinese, I am somehow obligated to be proud and excited about the prospect and what it all means for China. Well, I am here to explain why I really am indifferent: I cannot genuinely bring myself to care whenever I think about the political realities of modern China.
A full disclosure before I go on any further: my view of Chinese politics is undoubtedly influenced by my family history. My grandparents were old enough to remember the Second Sino-Japanese War, the civil war between the Kuomindang and the Communists, lived through the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent famine that followed, and survived the Cultural Revolution, when my grandfather was imprisoned, beaten, and compelled to forced labor. My parents lived through the Tiananmen Square massacre and personally knew of people, including their own students, who were killed when the soldiers and tanks rolled in 1989. As you no doubt can infer from all of this, I am not exactly a fan of the Chinese government.
Okay, having said that, I will not deny that there is a part of me which is extremely proud of what China has been able to accomplish, after recovering from the traumatic decade that was the 1970s. In the span of little more than three decades–if you told anyone, and I mean ANYONE, living in the 1970s in China, that in some 30 years, it would play host to the most prestigious international sporting event, no one would have believed you. It was just THAT inconceivable.
And I completely understand the pride that Chinese people feel today, because Chinese people of my grandparents and parents’ generation suffered tremendously in the 20th century–two wars, a huge famine, distratous political upheaval–resulted in millions of death caused by retarded policy and brutal repression. The fact that the Chinese people have been able to recover so rapidly from such historical traumas is nothing short of amazing, and it truly speaks to their tenacity and sheer will to survive.
But as always, the question is: at what cost? While it is true that no country in modern history has raised so many people out of poverty in so short a time as China, the tremendous economic growth has not been distributed anywhere even resembling anything equitable. The wealth accumulates predominantly at the top and along the coasts, lining the pockets of government officials, foreign-educated elites, people with connections, all the while millions of people in the countryside are still living in abject poverty, lackin such basic amenities as electricity and clean water. And while it is certainly true that the Chinese government is no longer as authoritarian as it was in the 1970s, very little substantive political freedoms exist in China: there is no such things as a democratic election with secret ballots and equal votes, no real ability for civil society groups and non-Communist political parties to organize, no independent judiciary to enforce rule of law, no real power to demand accountability from the government other than at the mercy of bureaucrats, and rampant corruption at every level of government.
And while it is certainly true that cities like Beijing and Shanghai come to look more and more like any other major cosmopolitan city, complete with trendy nighspots, shopping centers, eateries, and skyscrapers, hundreds and thousands of migrant workers from the country side live in shanty-towns surrounding the city centers, creating crime, disease, and social unrest. While shopping centers and skyscrapers seemed to be built by the minute in Shanghai and Beijing, hundreds and thousands of people are being displaced as their homes are demolished, and they are not being compensated adequately to live in the new fancy apartment complexes that stand above where they used to live. And the displaced constantly face threats and even physical assaults, both from the thugs hired by developers, and the official state police directed by corrupt officials working with the very same developers.
Surely this litany of problems is familiar with anyone who follows modern China, but yet the Chinese government, in hosting the Olympics, have tried their damn hardest to conceal the ugly realities that accompany any country in the throes of modernization in its early stages, especially one as big as China. I do realize that modernization is a painful process–all western industrialized countries have went through it, but what makes China special is its sheer size: both geographically and demographically. Problems that were manageable for a small island nation like Britain during industrialization will expand their scopes dramatically when transplanted to China, and China has modernized quicker than just about any other western industrialized society has ever done. What does this leave us: political, social, economic, demographic, and environmental problems that no other modernizing society is facing, perhaps outside of India.
When I think about this, I am inevitably worried about the future of China. Even though I am an American citizen now, I can no longer deny my Chinese roots than I can deny my family. And while a certain hopeful optimism exists, it is inevitably mixed with trepidation, doubt, and fear, fear that the cost of modernization might prove too much to bear for a people and a country that have already suffered so much in this century. And in my mind, the Chinese government’s style of governing (top-down, authoritarian, corruption-laden) is not suited for a country facing such dynamic problems.
I hate to ruin the party, but when you see the spectacular opening ceremonies and the sleek, modernist architecture, please remember that away from the Olympic village, away from the shopping centers and the nightclubs, away from the well-to-do Beijing’ers and tourists, there is another China, one that is obscured from your view, hidden deliberately by the Chinese government to present a fascade of complete control and unadulterated prosperity. Please remember that for this China, the Olympics really don’t benefit them, that after the foreigners and the athletes have left, they are still there, living in putrid conditions, working in factories for 20 hours a day for a nickel, making your socks and plasma TVs. Please remember that after the games are over, the ordinary Chinese citizen will go on living a life with little real freedom, where they are at the whim of the bureaucrats and the police, signing and delivering petitions to no avail. Please remember that hundreds of miles away from Beijing, in places like Sichuan and Shangxi, there are farmers scratching out a living on barren lands, cut off from the world by mountains, where people have never seen a lightbulb or even a gas lamp for that matter.
Remember them, and don’t ever, not even for a second, believe the Chinese government when it tries to tell the whole world that China is fine, that everything is hunky-dory, that it is taking adequate care of all of its citizens.
As Chuck D once said, eloquently but tersely: DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE!