Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The ugly illusion

For those who live far away from China or who do not focus on its domestic politics on a regular basis, China seems to be coterminous with “rise,” an economy growing in the double digits, and the center of gravity of the future. All the media hype about Asia’s “new miracle” — exacerbated in recent weeks by TV and magazine features about its rich history and gigantic cities — could give the uneducated mind the impression that all is well in China.

But it’s all illusion. Away from the media — which Chinese authorities continue to hound, despite promises to open up for the Olympics — is a state that, for some China watchers, barely hangs by a thread and could collapse on its own weight at any moment. Poverty is rampant and discontent widespread, as entire groups of people are uprooted by force or evicted for mega construction projects, millions work in subhuman conditions in factories, and ethnic groups, from Tibetans to Mongols to Uighurs, are crushed under the heel of a state that will not recognize their identity or religious beliefs. All of this the Chinese authorities do not want you to see. Worse, Mao Zedong (毛澤東), responsible for the death of tens of millions of Chinese, remains an icon, his portrait omnipresent in key areas, his crimes beyond scrutiny, a taboo subject, as if even the ills of the past cannot bear scrutiny.

For the more optimistic analysts, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has things under control, but this comes at a price: Repression of dissidents, pervasive censorship, double-speak and propaganda. In other words, a police state. For visitors to China — especially diplomats — CCP minders ensure that the guests are only allowed to see what the state wants them to see (call this the “Gorbachev detour,” after his drive from the airport in 1989 was rerouted so he would not see the demonstrations and, later on, the massacre at Tiananmen Square). As a result, visitors to China usually return home with flattering stories about how well China is doing and how developed it has become. But it's a lie.

Though seemingly innocuous, Beijing’s latest illusion epitomizes everything that is wrong with China.

Her name is Yang Peiyi (杨沛宜), whose voice was heard by hundreds of millions of people all over the world during the Olympic Games opening ceremonies. Perfect looking, the essence of a beautiful Chinese child with an angel-like voice. The problem is that while little Peiyi’s voice moved us, the beautiful child we were fawning over wasn’t her and didn’t sing a single note. As it turns out, during a rehearsal, CCP officials ruled that Peiyi wasn’t good-looking enough for the nation; her lips were crooked and she was a little chubby (pictured right, with Lin Miaoke, her stand-in, on the left). So, like everything else in China, the state served the world an illusion to mask its true self.

When a government deems a talented child unworthy because of her physical appearance (and she is a perfectly fine looking child), there is something terribly wrong with it indeed. And it begs the question: If it can stoop so low, how could we ever believe it when it promises a “peaceful rise,” or “peace” across the Taiwan Strait? Or that it will act responsibly as it sells weapons to murderous regimes, from Sudan to Zimbabwe to Myanmar? Or that, come the next epidemic, it will do what it must to ensure global health? Or do its part on global warming?

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