Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Eye on China: Congress talks two faced

By Dan Slater

If you ever want a more gritty reality show than the carefully-orchestrated nonsense you normally get on TV, you might check out a Chinese programme called Law and Order. The format involves sending out journalists to get to the bottom of rural crime cases.

These crimes involve the expropriation of Chinese peasants by networks of government cadres and thugs, and the pictures they give of Chinese society are hard to stomach.

There is nothing quite as bleak and depressing as a Chinese village many kilometres from the prosperous coastal strips and the giant cities of Beijing and Shanghai. Cold, grey weather, tumble-down dwellings, muddy roads and a lack of basic infrastructure combine to project an image of millennial misery.

With peasants being forced out of their dwellings so that the officials can sell the land to property developers, conflict in these villages is rife.

But it's on hugely unequal terms. There is little a farmer can do, weighted down as he commonly is by the need to ensure the safety of his wife and child, and scanty resources.

During one recent case, (which I watched in the comfort of my luxury gym in Shanghai), a farmer was beaten up and sent to hospital and his wife put out on the street.

The programme followed her efforts to negotiate with the County Government to get her house back and for help to pay spiralling medical fees. The woman's gentle persistence in the face of the gangs of weasel-faced men opposing her was heartbreaking. Deserted by friends and neighbours, she lacked that crucial element in Chinese society, sheer weight of numbers.

In contrast, wherever she went in the course of seeking justice, she was met by large groups of officials and their henchmen in what came across as a carefully organised effort to frighten and intimidate her.

In one especially cold-hearted instance, the officials took her to the hospital where her emaciated husband, looking more dead than alive, was stretched out.

One female official then spent 20 minutes exhorting him to back the official version of events. When it became clear he was too sick to speak, she barked at him to nod or shake his head in answer to her questions. Her implacability was a terrible reminder of the stress and terrors that being poor in China involve.

In contrast to these miserable scenes occurring in the countryside, you have the carefully organised National People's Consultative (NPC) meeting in the capital this week. The week-long meeting is supposedly the opportunity for the country's legislative arm to set the agenda for the following year.

It's all tosh, of course. What happens is merely a series of tedious, long-winded speeches by the country's top leaders, to which foreign and domestic journalists pay slavish attention, despite the repeated absence, year after year, of any genuinely new pronouncements.

Here, the scenario is a deliberate inversion of the splintering of Chinese society that is occurring at local level: all is red flags, official rhetoric, cavalcades of limousines and a carefully arranged impression of unity, firmness, order and progress.

Foreign observers always seem a bit baffled by this quintessentially Chinese piece of theatre. This is the government flexing its muscle and, unlike so much showboating in China, it's not for foreign consumption.

That makes things difficult for foreign observers, who generally love dwelling on those aspects of Chinese society that show China is becoming more similar to the West.

Hence, the thousands of articles carried in international newspapers pointing out China's sexual revolution, and the rise of a car culture and modern consumer behaviour.

These same observers are far less comfortable with aspects which show China to be profoundly different.

It's amazing that foreign journalists find it hard to engage in more critical thinking given that most of us grew up with George Orwell and his observations on the way language is manipulated in totalitarian society.

The documents and speeches coming out of Chinese ceremonies show that the same linguistic totalitarian strands Orwell describes so well are still active in China.

Unlike the English language, Chinese loves repetition. The same point, framed in long, clumsy sentences, will appear in identical form several times in a brief article.

Hard data, in contrast, will be minimal, despite numerous claims in the text that the analysis is 'scientific','sincere' and 'rigorous'.

To any intelligent human beings, these documents are an affront. Their implication is that nothing needs to be explained or justified, since they have been spoken by a supreme authority, the Government.

The citizen's job is to sit still and listen, just as the thousands of comatose delegates have to do in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Tianamen Square. As far as the Government is concerned, a good coma is the ideal condition for its subjects.

* Each week, the Business Herald's columnists track the latest developments in the world's two emerging economic superpowers.

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