I have been thinking about China, “human rights”, “freedom” and “democracy” for some time now. When I lived in India, my views were smug. We have freedom. They don’t. Ocassionally, there would be a moment of doubt – “but they have all those fancy buildings and seem to be doing so much better”. But that would be quickly quashed – “but we have freedom of speech which is so much better”.
Living in Hong Kong, which is on the Southern tip of China, nay, is IN China itself, my perceptions have altered. Hong Kong is an interesting place to be because like Taiwan, like Tibet, it is China but then, it is not. Fortunately, for Hong Kong, when the territory was handed over from one colonial master to arguably the next, what was insured was a continuation of the old system – which by the way was never democratic even under the British though in a rather peculiar turn of events, the British saw fit to demand that the Chinese communist party give to Hong Kong what they never gave to their colonized people themselves.
But then, this is typical of the greater powers of the West. They champion democracy but forget not so long ago that they too were depleting the resources of countries around the world and enslaving them. Those now liberated countries, however, somehow unquestionably adopted the same systems as their colonizers in a move reminiscent of Stockholm syndrome.
Back to Hong Kong though. Hong Kong people, as I have oft said, are concerned about democracy only when the market is not doing well. Till then, as long as big Chinese IPOs are feeding their prosperity and shoppers from the mainland are lining their pockets with purchases of Louis Vuitton bags, they will learn Mandarin and even be mildly proud to be associated with China.
It has to be said here, that Hong Kong people were caught in a bit of a conundrum at the 1997 handover – they weren’t quite sure how to feel because the British were a humiliating presence and it is actually more natural that they be part of China than part of Britain but they didn’t have a choice in the matter anyway, so what was the use of feeling?
But living amid this ambivalence allows me the possibility of actually taking the unthinkable view – that maybe, just maybe China is not so bad after all. Or rather not worse than many other countries. It’s just that it has become succesful under a completely different system and the West – not dictatorial China – is afraid of other systems. Think the Cold War.
For all the tales of repression et all, if you actually visit China you see people going about their lives quite normally. There seems to be more religion in China than in Hong Kong (well in Hong Kong the stockmarket is religion but nvm). Just like India, there are different provincial cultures and they do seem to preserve their traditions. Just like Hindi, Mandarin is widely spoken thanks to the government’s, um, efforts but in the South everyone speaks Cantonese and there are regional dialects which just like in India, are in danger of disappearing but this could be because people are realising it’s more commercially viable to speak the dominant language. There is a big middle class that is lapping up all the trappings of Western consumerism – which according to the West is a good thing and a sign of flourishing democratic life.
Of course, the presence of Chairman Mao looms everywhere and noone will openly criticize him but people do quite openly refer to the “hard times” they faced without actually pointing to who’s responsible. This is quite common though in this part of the world, even in Hong Kong where the British presence should have led to freedom of speech and all the outspokenness that goes with it – people allude to things not state them openly. Brashness is distateful. It’s similar to the Brit stiff upper lip actually. Maybe they don’t really want to be blathering about “freely”.
(Ok I’m trivialising here, it’s just a thought).
Yes, China has done terrible things to its people. It has tried to standardize its culture, its leaders have dreamed up fancy schemes that have led to mass starvation, it has imprisoned and executed those who criticise its system, it has pushed progress at the expense of the poor.
But really, I don’t see how this is very different from India. The very idea of India is the imposition of one umbrella over disparate people and the attempt to standardize the culture so that we all feel “Indian”. Did every “Indian” in 1947 joyfully join in the Congress dream of unity?
I don’t think so. There are “Indians” still fighting for their desire not to be Indian at all.
The first example, that comes to mind is Kashmir. Like most Indian, the thought that Kashmir should not be part of India never – was never allowed – to enter my consciousness. But isn’t that in itself curious? Is the unquestioning acceptance of Kashmir – an unarguably troubled part of our great nation for so so many years – evidence that it is, it should be part of us, or that there is something bizarre about the “unquestioning acceptance”?
I’m not going to discuss Kashmir here, just point you to two links:
The Kashmiri pandit perspective
I’m not choosing sides but I’m just trying to say, it’s all relative and simplistic “good” or “bad”, “better” or “worse” answers do not always work. And that democracy does not always equate with good because the same repressive practices, albeit framed under the auspieces of democracy, should not become more palatable.
Because Kashmir is so tied up with emotions for most of us, and Manipur is not (which in itself should rest my case), think about this woman who finds not eating anything for seven years and not seeing her own family preferable to being under Indian army rule.
Really, before we get all fired up about Tibet – and I emphasize here that my sympathies lie wholly with the Tibetan people – we need to set our own house in order. We need to support people who are part of our country and who are being oppressed in the same way within our so-called borders. But we don’t want to go there because supporting them might mean losing them – just like clingy parents are afraid of losing their children if they set them free. Let’s recognise that India is as much a big brother in ASEAN as China is in the larger Asian community and that we are not necessarily “the good guys” even if we are democratic and even if that’s what we hear every day.
And let me mention here, that we are not great hosts to the Tibetan people either. They have refugee status and I am told that every time they go to get their permit to stay in India renewed they are treated with contempt by the Indian officials. But they can’t say anything because they have nowhere else to go.
We hear that China achieved it’s progress at the cost of millions of people. What’s so different about what China is doing in the Yangtse River and what our own government is doing in the Narmada valley.
How is this bizarre story of organ trade in China very different from what’s happening in India? It’s just that China shows no remorse while in India we are remorseful but go on doing the same thing. The only difference is that China comes under greater scrutiny while in our country, everyone looks away and poor people continue to be pressured by circumstance to sell their body parts.
In India, we seemingly have the power to overthrow oppressive regimes. It is also the power to get mass murderers elected. I think “better” might be too strong a word when comparing India and China.
And on that note, spare a thought for all the former colonial and neo colonial powers who are championing human rights. Countries that are fighting an immoral war in Iraq, and I would argue Afghanistan as well, should be asked to be quiet about human rights. How come countries like Australia – whose entire history is predicated on robbing the land of the indigenous people – can host the Olympic Games without question? So apparently, the sins of the past are forgotten and it’s only the present memory that counts? What gives France the right to be outraged when they have a colony – sorry, “overseas department” – in the Reunion Islands?
The irony is that China was actually opening up and giving its people more freedom before this hoopla started and they began to clamp down again. The transformation of China into a more open and free society may have happened in its own course if the whole world hadn’t jumped down their throats.
I don’t grudge the Tibetan people their right to raise awareness about their cause at this opportune time, though I have mixed feelings about Sudan. Again, I think the countries that using China as a focal point need to reflect more deeply on the unholy alliances they made to feed their fuel-hungry populations.
I do think the Chinese government could have reacted more calmly in Tibet and used it as a demonstration of their, um, tolerance.
But now everything’s a mess, not helped by every righteous bigot jumping onto the bandwagon. The bottom line is – spare us the high moral ground guys. China is no better or worse than the rest of us.