America’s outdated view of China

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By Perry Link, , May 11, 2012 (originally published in The Washington Post


Perry Link, who was a co-editor of “The Tiananmen Papers,” teaches comparative literature and foreign languages at the University of California, Riverside.
When the human rights lawyer Chen Guang­cheng escaped ­extra-legal house arrest and beatings and found his way to the U.S. Embassy last month, he became an instant hero on the Chinese Internet. How had he escaped? How could a single blind man tear such a hole in the government’s pervasive blanket of weiwen, or stability maintenance? Many called it a “miracle”; stories of “China’s blind spiderman” went viral. Eventually someone who had helped Chen tweeted an account. Chen had done merely this: “In nineteen hours climbed eight walls, jumped a dozen or so irrigation ridges, fell down a few hundred times, injured a foot, and finally crossed a stream that got him out of the village.”

The Internet is the first medium in the history of Communist rule in China that the government has not been able to fully control. The authorities hire hundreds of thousands of police and spend billions of yuan annually monitoring the Web and blocking unwanted messages. Yet for hundreds of millions of Chinese, the Internet continues to grow as a source of uncensored news and platform for popular expression. Regarding Chen, Internet opinion has been overwhelmingly positive.

Chen Guangcheng leaves U.S. Embassy, may be allowed to study abroad: The blind activist, who fled de facto house arrest last month and sought refuge for six days at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, left the diplomatic compound on Wednesday to seek medical treatment after American officials said they received assurances from China’s government that he would be treated humanely.

The U.S. misreads the Chinese government.

Online chatter in recent years has generated new notions of what it means to be Chinese. For decades China’s rulers have insisted that “China” means not much more or less than “Chinese government leaders.” To be “patriotic” has meant to support the party-state; anyone who disobeys is “anti-China.” After the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in 1989, China’s government demanded, as a condition of his release, that he promise to refrain from “anti-China” activity. Fang agreed — but refused to allow the party to own the word “China.” He pledged that “my concerns for China, as a Chinese citizen, will be for its peace, its prosperity, and its modernization.” Then, after his release, he continued to criticize China’s rulers.

Twenty-three years ago, Fang, who died last month at 76, was a lone pioneer. Today, people frequently distinguish between themselves and their rulers. The practice has become sufficiently common online that Chinese authorities have declared zhengfu (government) a “sensitive term” that Internet filters must highlight so police can check how it is used. To avoid the filter, micro­bloggers refer to their government in such sarcastic terms as guichao (esteemed dynasty) and xi chaoxian (western North Korea). Meanwhile, use of gongmin (citizen), in the dignified sense in which Fang used it, has spread widely.

It is regrettable that American experts on U.S.-China relations continue to use “China” and “the Chinese” to refer exclusively to elite circles within the Beijing government. For these experts, “the Chinese” view of anything — currency, technology transfer, cyberwar, Tibet, Taiwan, Syria — is inevitably the government’s view, no matter how far it departs from the views of other Chinese. They warn that such adherence is a matter of respecting the “sensitivities” of “the other side” and that if Washington supports human rights or democracy it will be “seen in China” as American sabotage. But seen this way by whom in China? In the days since Chen left U.S. protection to go to a Beijing hospital, Chinese opinion online has weighed heavily on the side of saying the Americans did not help Chen enough.

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