A very little speech
By Eric Abrahamsen, published
With all the excitement going on these days, staying home and translating the words of dead authors can feel a little irrelevant, if not actually escapist. I'm neither a Qing historian nor a diplomat, so won't stray too far from my comfort zone of language and literature, but I do think there's something to be said about the Chinese responses of rage to the reporting of the foreign media.
The anger of the people: To some extent, this has to be a subconscious train-wreck between several emotions. Anger that the foreign media can spout off whatever they please when they, the regular Chinese people, cannot publicly say what's on their mind. Anger that the Tibetans seem to be demanding privileges of self-determination when, again, the Han majority does not have those privileges, or has them only via the highly dubious proxy of the Chinese government. The people are angry for many reasons (Western hypocrisy, the targeting of non-Tibetans by Tibetan rioters, an unreconstructed imperialist belief in China's right to Tibet), but I suspect that one source of anger which goes unarticulated is bitterness at their own lack of voice. Bitterness which by rights should be directed at their own government, if only that were possible…
The anger of the government: China's leaders are working from a political playbook refined over two thousand years of empire. They know very well that power lies in speech, and in controlling who has the right to speak – restricting speech at home, cutting it off at the border. The fact that the foreign media is speaking with impunity constitutes something very much like a physical attack on government power. The enemy is flying sorties over home territory. Speech is a wartime activity in the sense that one side must dominate the other completely; there's no such thing as a military 'dialogue', if there were it would mean you were losing. The state media will continue to publish carpet-bombing articles in which all things positive are ascribed to the Chinese side, while the DL 'clique' and the Western media are saddled with all things negative. Never mind logical argument or internal consistency; this is merely the equivalent of an artillery cannon protruding from a piece of armor. There are no shortage of reasonable voices within China, but they are carefully removed from the arena of formal public speech.
Not that the 'foreign media' is blameless. But the government here doesn't understand that, at least in principle, one of the major historical uses of a free media is to attack government duplicity. It's in their blood. Western journalism may have strayed far from this principle – these days it takes a truly egregious lie to rouse anyone into action. But egregrious lies are just what the Tibet affair is producing, and the Western media, restored to its youth, is clamping its teeth in and shaking. People here ask, "Why does the West constantly pick on China?" (in the process eliding the difference between 'China' and its government). If the Chinese government were wiser, they'd do what the other governments do, and make their dishonesty just a little more plausible. A falsehood-to-truth ratio of 9:1 is simply not going to cut it. But it's become pretty clear in recent years that a ratio of something like 7:3 creates enough ambiguity that the media's teeth retract, the snarling subsides to an under-the-breath mutter, and the government in question can continue about its business unhindered. The solution: Learn to lie better.
Now back to our regular scheduled programming…