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Archive for the tag “Cultural Revolution”

Hong Kong’s Daddy Issues

If the Hong Kong-PRC relationship were a marriage, it would be Ashton and Demi.[1]  Face it. The only crazier math than “One Country + Two Systems” is “27-year-old actor marries actress 15 years his senior with 3 kids and a psychotic ex-husband.” It was only a matter of time before Hong Kong – I mean, Ashton – started stepping out on his own leaving Demi/Beijing to wallow in a growing pile of recrimination, hurt feelings, and used whippet canisters.

When a marriage goes this badly, there’s not much left to do except see how profoundly you can fuck up the children.

This past Sunday, thousands of demonstrator marched to protest the “National Education Curriculum” planned for Hong Kong public school students.  The new materials, modeled after the “Patriotic History” taught in mainland schools since the early 1990s, have drawn sharp criticism from Hong Kong citizens concerned that it amounts to little more than pro-CCP brainwashing.

Who do you love, kids?  Tell the nice man.

First of all, the timing sucked. This has been a weird year for identity politics in the SAR.  In January, researchers at the University of Hong Kong released the results of a poll – one which has conducted every year since 1997 – that found nearly twice as many residents preferred to identify themselves as “Hong Kongers” as opposed to “Chinese.”  A month later, a bitter spat erupted on the InterWeb over a video showing Mainlanders cavalierly eating on the Hong Kong MTR and berating fellow passengers for not speaking Mandarin.  The kerfuffle reached a new low when an advertisement appeared in a Hong Kong newspaper depicting mainlanders as locusts and that reliable source of patriotic douchebaggery Kong Qingdong took another giant steaming dump on his family’s legacy by calling out Hong Kongers as “British Running Dogs.”

Earlier this month the carefully choreographed 15th Anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the Motherland was upstaged by irate Hong Kongers who took to the street to protest…just about everything. C.Y. Leung. Hu Jintao. The Mainland. Housing Prices. The stagnant economy. The disturbing trend of people dying their dogs to look like pandas. Whatever.

While the new curriculum was in the works long before Beijing started sleeping on the couch, the Hong Kong government handled the announcement with all the subtlety of a fart in a bathysphere.  A fart which got just a little juicier when Jiang Yudui, a member of the pro-Beijing Civic Education Program, proclaimed that some brains did indeed need washing.

Parents were furious, opposition lawmakers smelled an opportunity for cheap publicity, and before you could say “But we saved you from the British you ungrateful curs” the streets of Hong Kong filled again with demonstrators this time waving signs channeling Pink Floyd (“We Don’t Need No Thought Control’) and wearing black and white to show, you know, that people in Hong Kong understand right from wrong.

Patriotic Education is of course nothing new in the mainland. Two decades ago CCP leaders – with their characteristic blend of denial, stupidity, and blinkered batshit paranoia – attributed the 1989 Tiananmen Demonstrations to a “failure of propaganda.” Basically all those kids in the 1980s who were reading “Pride and Prejudice” and listening to “Country Roads” needed to be reminded that Jane Austen and John Denver were the opium-soaked faces of naked aggression.  Oh, yeah and that Fang Lizhi was a bad, bad man.

The goal of “Patriotic Education” in mainland schools, at least in principle, is to boost the nation’s spirit, enhance national cohesion, foster national pride, and to rally the massses’ patriotic spirit to “build Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”  In practice this means highlighting the crimes committed against the Chinese people by foreign imperialists and traitorous collaborators while skipping over atrocities of a more domestic vintage such as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.

Now, I have no problem with calling out the imperialist powers for the damage they did to China in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Even the most gung-ho British apologist has to admit that going to war to turn South China into a Victorian-era version of Hamsterdam is pretty messed up.  Nobody should want to gloss over that or any of the other humiliating and atrocious crimes committed against China during the 100 years from 1840 to 1949.  But the problem with “Patriotic Education” is that focusing all the attention on “China the Victim” does little to actually encourage students to love their country or nation, instead it teaches them to fear and loathe other people while giving sole credit for all that is good and glorious in China today to the Party.

Lucien Pye once wrote that China is a “civilization masquerading as a state.” Allowing for a generous dollop of overgeneralization, the basic problem Pye identified would have been immediately familiar to Sun Yat-sen and other early state builders.  Before China could rise again, it needed to be unified. William Callahan, in his book The Pessoptimist Nation, argues that at the time nationalism based on shared culture, language, or ethnic identity would have been problematic because the Qing Empire was made up of many ‘national’ groups with almost nothing in common and little incentive to stick together.  Forging a nation would require the artificial imposition of a higher form of identity, one which eschewed narrow definitions of nationalism in favor of a strong shared identification with The State and, ultimately, The Party.

The new Hong Kong curriculum describes the Chinese Communist Party as “progressive, selfless, and united” while criticizing as sloppy and inefficient multi-party systems like the United States and, presumably, Hong Kong.  It presents history as a morality tale of venal foreigners with their native lackeys being defeated by the Party.  Historical actors are either “Patriotic Heroes” or “Race Traitors,” a sensitive subtext for a city which spent nearly 160 years under foreign rule and which continues to pride itself on being a bastion of cosmopolitanism.

Unfortunately for Hong Kong, it can’t just pull an Ashton and spend anniversaries cavorting with naked blondes in a $4000/night suite at the San Diego Hard Rock.  In fact, it can’t even move out of the house, so instead the uneasy coexistence between Hong Kongers and Beijing will continue while the grown-ups fight endlessly over just what to tell the children…


[1] Will suggests Tom and Katy because of the whole Scientology-brainwashing thing. I disagree. That’s over the top even for the CCP.  There’s crazy. Tanks in the Square crazy. Great Leap Forward backyard steel furnace crazy.  And then about three levels beyond that you get Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

So, bye bye Bo Xilai. Tripped up by your wife and a dead Lao Wai.

On the scale of falling from the Party’s graces, the news of Bo Xilai’s ouster and the criminal investigation of his wife and associates ranks somewhere between “Zhao Ziyang getting Fredo Kissed by Deng Xiaoping in 1989″ and “Lin Biao hitting Outer Mongolia at 1000 MPH.” It’s certainly the most spectacular – and public – booting of a high ranking CCP official since 1989.[1] Bo’s naked ambition and high profile all but guaranteed that when he fell it was going to leave more than just a plane-sized divot in the Mongolian turf.

For nearly two months after the “Lin Biao Affair” in September, 1971, the Party was able to keep a lid on the story, knowing how confused people would be to hear the Mao’s closest comrade at arms and chosen successor had in fact tried to betray the Chairman and then died in the act of defecting to the Soviet Union.[2]  By contrast, the Party’s attempts to control the Bo Xilai story over the past few months has been like watching drunk chimps try to make wall art with a bucket of jello and a couple of nail guns.

The problem with rumors is that they’re usually not true.  The problem with rumors in China is that people believe them anyway because most people know that the ‘state media’ is nothing but an enormous firehose of steaming donkey shit. The problem with rumors in China NOW is that wild suppositions which at first glance seemed too crazy to be true turned out to be pretty accurate.

Last week the government made Sina, Baidu, and Tencent pull down their pants, lube up, and swear that they would help guide public opinion and participate in the fight against the spreading of online rumors.  Good luck with that.  At this point Boxun could probably run a photo of Wen Jiabao dressed in a gimp costume dipping chunks of Mao’s corpse in gutter oil hotpot while singing “American Pie”, and people are going to say, “Well, that shit about Wang Lijun was nuts, and look how that turned out. I dunno, this could be true as well…”

Global Times editor Hu Xijin both on Weibo last night and in the paper this morning has been gloating about how this whole mess is really a testament to China’s rule of law.  You see, we foreigners have it all wrong.  We look at the situation and see a high-ranking Party official who ran his own personal fiefdom while torturing his enemies and allowing his wife to take become the Tony Montana of Chongqing.[3]  What we’re missing is the part where…No, I don’t think we’re missing anything here.  That’s pretty much what happened.

It’s not rule of law if everybody’s doing it and you only oust the people who piss on the shoes of the top leadership. It’s not rule of law if every case of corruption is due to a lack of personal virtue on the part of the official with nary a word about the system that allows this kind of venality to flourish. It’s not rule of law if the police chief of a major city has to threaten to defect in order to get the attention of the central government.

As one Weibo user put it:

对胡锡进这条微博,看到两条神吐槽:1、什么屎到了胡老师嘴里都能吃出甜味来 2、主人的飞盘甩得再远,胡老师都能给她叼回来

“Two takes on Hu Xijin’s tweet. 1) Master Hu has a knack for finding the tasty morsels in any turd you stick in his mouth. 2) No matter how far his masters throw the Frisbee, Master Hu will always fetch it back for them.”

Lin Biao’s fall from grace marked the beginning of the end of the Cultural Revolution and, indeed, the Mao era.  It forced too many people to confront the very real possibility that the Party had been jerking them around for years.

People today are already very cynical.  The government’s annoucement of Bo Xilai’s dismissal and the investigation into his family and associates – essentially confirming rumors that for months the censors have been working overtime to squash – just might be one of those moments.

[1] Hu Jintao’s orchestrated ouster of Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu in 2006 probably comes the closest, but even then Chen didn’t have 1/10th of Bo Xilai’s charisma or pathological need for the spotlight.

[2] Which is how the Party spun the whole “Holy Shit, Lin’s gone Rogue!” story.

[3] Although to be fair, the focus on Gu Kailai (or as CCTV keeps calling her, Bogu Kailai) seems awfully similar to the way women in Chinese history frequently get blamed for political disaster.  I’m not saying Yang Guifei, Cixi, Jiang Qing, or Gu Kailai are innocent lambs, but when the same script gets used every time it’s hard not to wonder. As Hung Huang wrote on her Weibo account last night, “In China, whenever men are bad it’s the woman’s fault.”

A little bit of history repeating

A very powerful and popular leader, with an equally strong wife, who organizes patriotic campaigns for ordinary people while at the same time allegedly orders the torture of his political rivals. For many Chinese, this all sounds very familiar.. Reading Bo Xilai’s story, it feels like it’s all just a little bit of history repeating. It was enough of a similiarity, that Premier Wen Jiabao could use it against Bo at the NPC meeting.

How to avoid making the same historical mistakes again and again? There is no better way than having an informed public who can look to the lessons of history, particularly the darker periods in the past.  Slavery in the United States. Apartheid in South Africa. The Holocaust in Europe.  These all have had profound and lasting effects, none of which can be fixed overnight or even over many generations, but without a discussion of those horrible moments in a country’s past then progress is not possible.  There is still a lot of racism in America, but could the US have elected its first African-American president in 2008 if the government prevented schools from teaching about the history of slavery and racism in America or if If it had kept African-Americans from writing about their own stories and own experiences, no matter how uncomfortable that might make the majority?

However, in China, history is neglected and often intentionally manipulated. A good example is the famine which occurred from 1958 to 1961. Over 30 million Chinese died of starvation and many of those deaths can be attributed to bad CCP policies during the Great Leap Forward. However, in our history text books, the tragedy was solely the result of “natural disasters.”

Former Senior Xinhua Reporter, Yang Jisheng wrote a famous book called Tombstone, which uses primary materials, many unreleased, to analyze the real political reasons behind the famine. Of course, the book is officially banned in China, but I was lucky enough to get a copy from my friend who went to Hong Kong.  I couldn’t believe how much I never knew and was never taught.

Many Chinese, even the ones who lived through the starvation never mind the younger generation, don’t know about the real causes of the famine.  My parents were only children back then. They remember being hungry all the time. A small piece of candy was their breakfast and their lunch.  They also called the time the “Three Years of Natural Disasters” and never questioned the real cause.  One of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century happened right here, and nobody talks about it.

Without proper introspection, the problems have a history have their way of resurfacing.  The Great Leap Forward was over fifty years ago but the Great Leap Forward mentality still exists.  China’s push to build the fastest train in the world as quickly as possible, whatever the economic and human cost.  Local governments competing with eachother to report the highest GDP figures or have the biggest, tallest, or fanciest new buildings built in their district.  Even in the private sector, Chinese companies want to be worldbeaters, expanding rapidly without always considering product quality for consumers or the environment.

One of my aunts was sent to Shanxi when she was young. The only thing she had to eat was a kind of cornbread and porridge. Whenever she came home to visit, my grandmothers would ask her to take as much food as she could carry with her.  She always ended up dragging bags and bags of flours, pickles, pancakes, and snacks with her on the train.

Today her own children aren’t interested in her stories.  Even I am surprised by how my aunt sounds like she is telling some other person’s story. There is no anger or discussion of why it happened or who started the campaign that took away a decade of her youth.  We talk about what happened, but not why.  I don’t know if it’s because she never thought about it, or tries not to think about it, or whether growing up in such politically sensitive time makes her reluctant to speak openly about her experiences.

Many people in my parents generation, even those who lived through the political movements of Mao’s era, can relate to what Bo was trying to do.  During the Reform and Opening up, the restructuring of state owned companies meant a lot of people lost their jobs and fell behind as others became richer and richer. After 35 years as a worker in a factory, my dad is still a big supporter of Mao. The reason is simple and straightforward: During Mao’s time, people enjoyed equality and there wasn’t any corruption.  Bo is connecting with that feeling and it won him a lot of support.

But there was corruption during the Cultural Revolution and it appears from the stories coming out of Chongqing that Bo wasn’t any less corrupt than the officials he may have tortured.

Once again, we do not know what is the truth and what is the lie.  Will we ever really know what happened in the Bo Xilai case?

Every society has its problems, but my country will continue to suffer from the scars of history until we, and the Party, has the guts to face the unpleasant things and to learn from our mistakes.

Hung Huang: “When parents sneeze, it’s the children who catch the cold”

In Hung Huang’s latest column for the Nandu Zhoukan (Southern Metropolis Weekly) she recounts a harrowing memory from her childhood and wonders what might be in store for Bo Guagua.  

When parents sneeze, it’s the children who catch the cold.

So many years have passed and I haven’t thought about these things in a long time.  Even when people talk about it, it always felt like they were telling some other person’s story.  I don’t feel anything anymore.  But I know clearly that this was one of the most important moments in my life, one which profoundly influenced who I am.

The events of the past few days have been dazzling, and make me think about what happened back then.  In October of 1976, Qiao Guanhua took part in his last meeting at the United Nations.  Before he returned to Beijing, he called me to his room and told me, “Your mother and I might have a problem, and we need to “inoculate” you, you need to be mentally prepared.

I kind of knew about their political problem, but at the time I was only 15 years old, I had been in the United States for three years and I really didn’t know much about what was going on back in China.  I didn’t know what I would do if something happened to them politically. I didn’t even know how I should “prepare.” All I felt was this enormous, invisible hammer being held over my head which at any time could fall and crush me.

Several weeks later, my American host father Tony gave me a copy of the New York Times, the top article said that Qiao Guanhua had been sacked.

Tony asked, “What does this mean for you?”

All I could say in reply was, “I don’t know.”

A few months later, the Chinese UN Delegation phoned me, and told me that all children must return the delegation for “study.”

“You only need to go back every two weeks right?” asked Tony. “Why are they calling you in on a Thursday?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. I had the same question.

Tony couldn’t accept this. He was thinking about this more than I was, and immediately called the Chinese delegation, demanding to talk to the person in charge of managing the students.

I sat there dumbfounded watching him call, knowing my life was about to dramatically change.

After Tony hung up the phone he told me that all the children studying in America were to return to China, not just me.  But Tony still took time off on Thursday afternoon and we went together to see the delegation.  I remember the person who was in charge of me telling Tony that in just a few days I would be returning to China.

Tony became furious.  He banged the table saying, “Who do you think we are? Who do you think these children are? You say come they just come, you say go and they just go? Huang is part of our family; she can’t go just because you say she’s going.”

At this point, the person in charge of me left the room, telling me to talk to Tony.

“Do you wish to stay?” Tony asked me in a low whisper.

“Stay here?” I asked, although I knew perfectly well what he had said.

“Stay in America, I can raise you,” Tony whispered.

“No, I want to go back,” I said firmly.

“Why? Do you know what they will do to you when you go back?” He replied.

“I don’t know. But if I don’t go back my mother will be in a lot of trouble.”

At the time I only felt I must not “betray my country.”  If in addition to being lackeys of the Gang of Four, Qiao Guanhua and Zhang Hanzhi also had a traitor for a child they’d never be able to defend themselves.

After the meeting, a member of the delegation accompanied me back for my last trip to Tony’s house. I packed my belongings and said goodbye to the whole family.

I and three other exchange students, who like me had to leave school in the middle of the term, boarded a plane and returned to Beijing via Paris.

Once back in Shijia Hutong,[1] I lived in a little room near the garage. At the time, I felt I was treated much better than the children of the “Black Fifth Category.”[2]  I saw my mom once when my mom had been locked in the attic at the Foreign Ministry building.  At that time it wasn’t called “shuanggui” (detain and investigate) it was “quarantined for investigation.”  I also saw Qiao Guanghua once. He still lived in the back of our courtyard, supervised by a 12-person working group.  When he saw me, he just patted my head and didn’t say anything.  Later I learned that not long after he broke his glasses and tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists.

The next time I saw Qiao Guanhua and my mom was at the Worker’s Stadium during the the “Session to Struggle Against Qiao and Zhang of the Foreign Ministry.”   I was given a very good seat where I could be sure to see everything clearly.  The struggle session was held in the afternoon, with a circus being performed in the same space later that evening.  They had already set up the round wooden stage used for the bears and I saw Qiao Guanhua and my mother being pushed into the ring just like bears.  Then all the people in the stadium started screaming, “Down with Qiao Guanhua! Lackey of the Gang of Four! Down with Zhang Hanzhi!”

My teacher stared at me, a slight smile forming on his mouth.  I was stunned.  Even if I had been “inoculated” a hundred times, I could never have mentally prepared myself for what I was seeing unfold in front of me.

So many years have passed and I haven’t thought about these things in a long time.  Even when people talk about it, it always felt like they were telling some other person’s story.  I don’t feel anything anymore.  But I know clearly that this was one of the most important moments in my life, one which profoundly influenced who I am.

Last week, I couldn’t help but think about Bo Guagua. Did his father inoculate him? Did he know what was about to happen? Did his American friends try to convince him to stay in the United States? Will he stay?

At least there won’t be any struggle sessions.  I guess we can call that progress.

[1] Where Hung Huang’s mother and step-father lived at the time.

[2] Reactionaries.

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