The Grand Spin: How China Makes Sense of the Syrian Refugee Crisis to Itself

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When radio broadcaster and columnist Lu Jin posted her friend’s first-hand account of how Germany coped with the Syrian refugee crisis, she did not expect the vitriolic comments that flooded her Weibo wall. She was dubbed a “Holy Mother Bitch” (shengmubiao), a coinage of Chinese netizens to describe those who occupy moral high grounds through cheap and naive posturing.

Lu’s friend is a Chinese German citizen who lives in Munich. What her post tries to convey is the calmness and dignity with which the German society welcomes the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees trudging their way into Europe’s strongest economy. One particular thing she takes note of is the almost complete absence of national pride in the whole affair: “there is no attack on the refugees, no media singing praise of Germany the country, and no politicians venting emotions.” It seems to her that the whole society is discussing rationally about solutions to the problem, and is ready to give the refugees an equal opportunity to have a life in the country. She claims this experience to be the “most thorough education about humanitarianism” that she has ever received, and marvels about “not seeing a single article in the German media that implies any self-elevation of Germany as a country.”

Germany’s post-war aversion to the collective expression of nationalism should not be too surprising for anyone with a basic understanding of its historical trauma. Its suppression of even the spontaneous surfacing of national pride is a perfect example of how deep-seated that aversion has become. The fact that a Chinese observer highlights this particular aspect of Germany’s response to the refugee situation speaks more about the Chinese mindset than that of Germany. There is a subtle intention of contrast in the blog. For a moderately well-informed Chinese reader, the nationalism innuendo would ring a bell of China’s recent efforts to evacuate its own civilians from conflict stricken countries such as Yemen and Lybia using its navy, an act that came with a considerable amount of national pride.

The intended contrast and the discernible air of admiration in the blog explain why some Chinese readers get stung and agitated. For them, the exaltation of German selflessness is nothing more than a symptom of political naïveté and wishful misrepresentation. They were quick to pull out media reports in Germany that sound alarm of the deteriorating security situation in the streets of German cities, particularly a (dubious) story about a 7 year old girl got raped, as evidence that the German response to the crisis was far less “dignified” than what the author of the blog led people into believing. They went further by questioning the wisdom of the Merkel government’s decision, seeing it as misguided by liberal sentimentality rather than based on rational political calculation. Ironically this line of questioning was itself fueled by not-so-subtle Islamophobia and bigotry, which is no more reasonable than the “liberal sentimentalities” that they derided. In many such comments, the refugees were referred to as future terrorists, lazy idlers and sneaky free riders that would quickly take over the entire Europe.

To be clear, a large part of that anxiety-filled commentary on the Chinese internet comes from the Chinese community living INSIDE Europe, who has as much a stake in the problem as the Europeans themselves. But it is still interesting to note how narratives dominant in a Chinese domestic context are projected onto a crisis that is happening thousands of miles away from home, which in some cases results in bizarre interpretations on the verge of sheer fantasy.

If the nationalism lens adopted by the author of the above mentioned blog is still a legitimate and valuable perspective, other analytical frameworks used by Chinese authors would seem a bit too idiosyncratic. For example, a popular article that popped up in many people’s social network accounts these few days tries to (partially) attribute the refugee crisis to the political insensitivity of the “Syrian middle class” itself. It first states in a matter-of-fact way that the majority of the Syrian refugees are former lawyers, doctors and engineers, who used to be the pillar of the Syrian middle class. Then it launches into an eloquent line of reasoning that those white-collars are partly to be blamed for their own plights because of their cynical acquiesce to Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic rule: “They considered themselves the elites and the future of the Syrian society… Indifferent to the suffering of the lower classes, they believed that as long as they closely followed the ruling Assad regime, their life will get better… Even though they had witnessed the cruelty of the regime and its rampant corruption, they saw them as problems that can be solved through development.” At one point, you can’t tell if the author is writing about the troubles of the Syrian society or an allegory of contemporary China aiming at the Chinese middle class.

On the other end of the spectrum, commentators are spinning the Syrian crisis to a completely opposite direction. Zhanhao (占豪), a prominent left-leaning account on both Weibo and WeChat, prescribes its own medicine to the Syrian refugee crisis: Return the control of Syria to the Assad regime. To achieve that, Western countries should abandon their support to the rebels. The logic can’t be any simpler: it is the West’s continued support of the rebels to overthrow the “legitimate” government of Syria that is the origin of all the mess. To solve the exacerbating problem of the massive exodus of refugees, Syria needs to be returned to a state of “tranquility” maintained by its original government. The simplification in this line of argument is glaring. It refers to all the Syrian rebel groups as “terrorists”, ignoring their highly complicated composition and the fact that some of those groups were formed out of secular protestors. The notion that the Assad regime (“the legitimate government”) can somehow regain control over the country and rule Syria happily ever after as long as the West withdraws its support to the rebels is also close to wishful thinking completely overlooking the sectarian strife that has almost irreversibly torn apart the country politically, ideologically and geographically.

Its anti-West sentiments aside, the article epitomizes the kind of mental framework through which China’s conservative elites view the Syrian situation. In that framework, the state/society dichotomy is the dominant relationship trumping any other relationships. And within that relationship, the non-state forces are viewed with undisguised hostility (rebels equal terrorists), while the state, no matter how flawed it may be, is seen as the proctor of stability, and should be granted legitimacy for the sake of that. The complexity of the entangled Syrian situation, the Sunnis, the Alawites, the Kurds, the secular rebels, together with Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Turkey, are all reduced to that simple equation with only two variables: the state and the rest of the country which is messy and dangerous.

So when a Foreign Policy commentary rebuts a People’s Daily op-ed for its double standard of accusing U.S. meddling while turning a blind eye to Iran’s deep intervention into that same country, it misses the key point: from a Chinese perspective, shoring up the “legitimate government” of Syria is in itself a politically justifiable thing, while supporting rebels is not.

Following the same logic, a Global Times editorial brings the argument to a new height of absurdity by openly musing about a hypothetical Chinese refugee crisis: “In the past century, most Chinese emigrants to the outside world were of economic nature. Large scale Chinese refugee outflow has almost never happened despite China’s internal turmoil in early 20th century. In the future if any unexpected developments were to occur, the external world would not allow large scale influx of Chinese refugees. This is not surprising, as an exodus of refugees from China would be in the millions or tens of millions. Western countries of course would not stomach that.” The editorial goes on to remind people what a big contribution China has made to “world humanitarianism” by reducing poverty and keeping peace domestically. “Only in a society enjoying a sustained period of peace can TV entertainment shows such as Voice become prosperous. The fact that they are the most talked about shows in today’s China is just awesome.”

It would be interesting to hear how a Syrian refugee at a European train station would respond to her personal tragedy being juxtaposed with a singing competition show as a way to justify a “stable” status quo that probably only exists in certain Chinese elites’ imagination.

More informed Chinese opinions do exist. Prominent Phoenix TV journalist Lvqiu Luwei points her readers to an article written by a researcher from one of China’s leading international relations think tank that provides a decently accurate summary of the current Syrian situation.  One commentator compares the refugee crisis with the annual influx of rural migrant workers into big Chinese cities and considers the current refugee situation in Europe to be much more manageable than many would perceive. He also cautions against the Islamophobic view that sees the refugees as potential extremists, arguing that those who fled from ISIS persecutions are less likely to be jihadist fellow-travelers, and could inject new labor forces into an aging Europe. But lacking the potency of domestic anxiety and imagination, such views are quickly buried by the moving dunes of online opinions that are eager to score points using someone else’s misfortune.

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All Taboos Are Created Equal. But Some Are More Repulsive.

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If an event finds its way onto the dinner table of my parents-in-law, it means it’s turning into a phenomenon. More so if their own social groups, made of retired former state-owned company employees, who are otherwise immune to cyberspace chitchats, are discussing about it vigorously in their WeChat circles.

The recent misfortune of (former) CCTV variety show host Bi Fujian, falls under this category. On Apr 6, a video clip showing a drunken Bi chanting a modified version of a cultural-revolution-era Peking opera at a private dinner party appeared on the internet and quickly turned into a mega-cyberevent. It was not so much the drunkenness but rather the adaptation that got him into trouble. In the playful and somewhat vulgar adaptation, he referred to Chairman Mao as “that son of a bitch who caused us lots of suffering” and the People’s Liberation Army as “just bluffing.”

Bi’s tremendous fame surely is a definitive factor in the blow-up. He is the host of a prime-time CCTV variety show that promotes grassroots performers. His popularity, especially among a middle aged female audience, wins him the privilege to host the annual CCTV spring festival gala, and the nickname “national grandpa”.

But other elements surrounding the video, the fact that it was leaked from a private party, the reference to Mao, and his communist party membership, played out in a more significant way that shapes the online debate.

Is this just one of those “hot mic” moments where celebrities inadvertently reveal their “real” thoughts? At least the Global Times thinks so. In its Apr 7 editorial, it puts this event in the context of a “globally common phenomenon of leaking celebrities’ private utterances onto the internet”, and places the responsibility squarely on the shoulder of Bi himself (“He has only himself to blame”). In terms of the key elements involved, the incident indeed resembles scandals such as Donald Sterling’s (owner of the NBA basketball team LA Clippers) PRIVATE comments to his girlfriend that he did not want her bringing African Americans to games or taking pictures with them, which led to a big controversy in the United States and Sterling’s removal from the league.

Yet liberal commentator on Weibo still can’t let go of the “private” nature of Bi’s chanting. Some of them see the development as a horrifying infringement of freedom of speech. As scholar Cui Weiping puts it, “We thought in a post-totalitarian era, everybody can say anything in private. As long as you don’t broadcast it, it’s ok.” Some of them go even further by saying that “the bottom line is: speech cannot be punished; thought cannot be policed. If you violate these rules, you are anti-civilization and anti-human.”

Really?

By pushing the issue hard as a battle for freedom of speech (in private), liberals provide ammunitions to their criticizers online (who cite the Sterling case as a slap on their faces), and also risk missing the true point of the whole thing: policing a lingering political taboo in the Chinese society.

That’s exactly what the Maoists are trying to do. From the very beginning, their attack on Bi’s denigration of Mao has been politically loaded. “As a CCTV host, Bi’s insult of our founding father, his mockery of the People’s Liberation Army and the Communist Party is flabbergasting. He himself is a party member and an army veteran. Such a betrayal of one’s faith is thought provoking.” An Op-Ed on the Communist Youth League’s official website goes even further by making it explicit that Mao is the ultimate “political bottom line”: “Mao Zedong is a giant of his era. He is the founder of the People’s Republic… Even if it’s a private party, even if it’s a private space, not everybody, everything can be mocked and satirized like this.”

Dealing with the legacy of a previous leader has always been a thorny issue for an authoritarian regime. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev probably knows it the best when his 1956 secret speech lambasting Stalin unleashed political shock waves all across Eastern Europe. Fully aware of this, China has been very careful in its handling of Mao’s postmortem reputation, even though many of those post-Mao leaders (including Deng Xiaoping and President Xi) had personally suffered from Mao-era political persecutions. It’s within this context that President Xi made his famously dialectic and Newspeakish comment that “we cannot use the past 30 years of history (opening and reform) to negate the party’s 30-year rule before that; neither can we use the previous 30 years (Mao era) to negate the later 30 years.”

By charging aggressively to enforce the political taboo on Mao, conservatives also inadvertently triggered a backlash that is only barely short of an online referendum. It is very clear that many reactions to this incident have been stirred up by the memory of Mao-era horrors. As an 80-year-old college professor writes on his Weibo, “for us old persons, that comment of Bi is just plain truth.” Others invoked the “culture of tattling” that was a feature of Cultural Revolution tragedies where wives tattled on their husbands, and sons tattled on their fathers, just to show their loyalty to the revolutionary cause. One of the posts was sneaky enough to bring the elder Xi (President Xi’s father)’s own experience to the attention of the netizens: “Xi Zhongxun was tattled on by his communist colleague in Shaanxi, and all of a sudden he became an anti-party, anti-Mao element to be banished from power for the next decade.” If comparing a leaked video to Mao-era tattling is a bit far-fetched, the hard-liners’ vituperative diatribes on social media only reinforced the mood. The ultimate moment came when Bi Fujian made his public apology on Weibo on Apr 9. Comments, as many as 100,000 at one point, flooded under his post. And before they were being deleted, a great number of them were in SUPPORT of him. If left untouched, it could easily become an incomplete yet revealing polling of the public’s real take of Mao’s legacy. All the tens of thousands of comments were deleted in a matter of hours.

It is one of those rare occasions when you need to appreciate the restraint shown by official media outlets such as the Global Times. In its signature anti-climax tone, the above mentioned editorial contains passages like this: “If we only use this video to make judgments on Bi’s political leaning, it is obviously unsound. This is not something that should be encouraged after decades of opening and reform… It is also not encouraged to release a celebrity’s private utterances online without his or her consent.” This is where some less melodramatic reading of the event starts to converge. As one coolheaded commentator puts it: “No, this is not going to affect YOUR freedom to say anything at a private party, cuz you are not Bi Fujian. Even if you call the police and tell them you said so, they won’t give a damn. Bi is a state-owned TV station employee and a party member. He is subject to an employee’s code of conduct and party discipline.”

If taboos and political correctness are universal checks against freewheeling speeches, and their very existence does not constitute an infringement of personal rights, then is this Bi controversy much ado about nothing? Maybe not. Not all taboos are equal. And (interestingly) an economist most accurately summarizes the difference:

“In the U.S. you can mock the President in every each way as you like, but never caricature disadvantaged communities such as African Americans. In China, it is ok to say whatever denigrating things about migrant workers or the disabled, but don’t say anything negative about the leaders. If you think this is the same, I have no further comments.”

The latest news says that CCTV has suspended Bi Fujian and has removed his name from the catalogue of CCTV hosts on its official website.

The Lee Kuan Yew Complex

I’ve never been to Singapore. The closest “Singaporean experience” I can get is to visit Suzhou, a city two hours of car drive away from Shanghai. In 1994 China and Singapore signed an agreement to co-develop the Suzhou Industrial Park, a tiny area of 278 square kilometers (by Chinese standard) to be modeled on Singapore’s success with Singaporean support in both capital and expertise. It is probably pure coincidence that they picked Suzhou as the location of this experiment, wherein a young, small “Garden City” would teach an ancient Chinese city most famous for its stunningly exquisite gardens how to develop. Nowadays, if you visit the SIP and the old Suzhou city, you can vividly see the difference: the former is built out of fresh blueprints, with glittering skyscrapers, newly paved six-lane roads and well-trimmed roadside greenery; the latter is weathered, more chaotic, with congested old-town blocks still filled with traditional buildings of black roof tiles and white walls, and, of course, gardens listed as World Heritage sites. (Below, Left: old town Suzhou, Right: Suzhou Industrial Park)

Suzhou SIP

The (unintended) symbolism in the cooperation between Suzhou and Singapore: the old learning from the new, the master from the student, the cultured from the unsophisticated, is not without a bit of irony and has an intrinsic “un-Asianness” in it. Yet in some very mystic way it has become a motif in the China-Singapore relationship. Maybe the best example is Lee Kuan Yew’s now well-known exchange with Deng Xiaoping, who was twenty years older than Lee and much more experienced in political struggles. During their 1978 meeting, Lee assured Deng that he had absolute confidence in China’s ability to do a better job than Singapore. “After all”, he said, “we are only the descendants of those poor, illiterate drifters from southern China’s Canton and Fujian provinces, while you get to keep the successors of the most gifted and well-educated.” Those comments reportedly struck Deng silent. Upon his return to China, which was on the verge of ruin after a decade of Cultural Revolution, Deng called on the country to “learn from Singapore.”

This episode, together with Lee’s other encounters with “generations of the Chinese leadership”, is repeatedly referred to by Chinese commentators over the past week, when news of his death finally landed. All of a sudden, a nation is obsessed by the late former Prime Minister of Singapore, a phenomenon that has perplexed some. The Chinese public’s reaction to the passing away of Lee Kuan Yew which is disproportionate to the size of his country again illustrates that perpetual motif which I can only describe as “the Lee Kuan Yew complex”.

One component of that complex is probably just a misplaced sense of ethnic goodwill. Many people in China liberally associate the ethnic Han Chinese with China the country, no matter whether the upbringing of the former has anything to do with the latter. This sometimes leads to an uncalled-for embrace that may confuse its subjects. For example, the Chinese public greeted Gary Locke (a Chinese American) with such a high tide of enthusiasm when he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to China in 2011 that both the Chinese media and he himself need to reaffirm publicly of his allegiance to the United States. If such show of emotions is just simple derivatives of the traditional filial piety that the Chinese expect from any of their extended “families”, then a sense of betrayal can emerge if that expectation is not met.

Vocal Chinese nationalists on the internet apparently cannot let go of Lee’s record of what they consider as “de-Chinesization”. One of them even names it as Lee’s “biggest sin against the Chinese ethnicity”, for he “used the force of the state to crush the people’s identification with the Chinese culture, and turned them towards Western cultures for their identity.” Other nationalists do not hold such an ethnocentric point of view, but they do not regard highly of Lee either. For them, his opportunistic approach towards communist China speaks to his foxy nature: “On the one hand, he took advantage of the Chinese market to advance the Singaporean economy, on the other hand, he urged Western powers to contain China.” These commentators believe that at least in terms of foreign policy China has nothing to learn from Singapore, as a “tiny city state can make a profit out of the chaos, how can a major power attach itself to others?”

But Lee Kuan Yew proves to be a conundrum for the Chinese nationalists, as his authoritarian rule of Singapore provides inspirations that are otherwise hard to resist. The People’s Daily’s WeChat account, for example, describes Lee’s crusade against media freedom, especially his handling of Western media reports, with a tone of envy. In the post titled “Why does the Western press not dare to criticize Lee Kwan Yew’s Singapore,” the author maintains that China has a lot to learn from Lee’s intimidating way of handling media organizations.

Liberal-leaning Chinese netizens are more consistent with their comments about Lee. They tend to view Lee’s political legacy, especially its admiration by some Chinese leaders, with alarm and wariness. For them, Lee’s political legacy is far from set in stone as “the effectiveness of the current Singaporean system so far has been built on Lee’s authoritarian charisma, and the lack of corruption is more because of his self-restraint.” To discredit the assertion that Singapore’s success is a slap on the face of “Western values”, they circulate one of Lee’s famous quotes that “Singapore’s success is less about Confucius values but rather the result of the rule of law left by the British.” One prominent Chinese lawyer got so alarmed that he spoke allegorically of “our own Lee Kuan Yew at home.” His Weibo account was quickly rescinded after that. This looks like something that Lee Kuan Yew would have done.

So far the most balanced and nuanced account of Lee Kuan Yew’s political legacy in mainstream Chinese media is provided by Caijing Magazine. In his in-depth rundown of Lee’s career, commentator Ma Guochuan depicts Lee predominantly as a pragmatic politician not bound by any doctrines. In that, Lee found a “soul-mate” in Deng Xiaoping. And that is probably his biggest contribution to the opening up and reform of China after 1978: his pragmatism inspired and encouraged Deng to take on his ideologist rivals and ultimately take a utilitarian approach to China’s development. Ma did not turn a blind eye towards the downside of Lee’s authoritarian rule. He notes that PAP’s domination of Singapore politics is increasingly being challenged and that the new generation is getting more impatient with the slow pace of political reform. But most importantly, Ma’s account goes beyond the simplistic caricatures of the nationalists and liberals alike, and depicts Lee as having true insights about the challenges that China faces. His warning for a visiting Chinese leader that too much emphasis on patriotic values might actually undermine China’s strategic interest in maintaining a peaceful external environment and a stable internal environment sounds particularly relevant now.

The difficulty for the Chinese society to come to terms with a complicated figure like Lee Kuan Yew mirrors the same difficulty it has to make sense of China itself. For a long time, Lee’s Singapore serves as a reference point for a China that just opened its gate to the world. Deng’s pragmatic Singaporean vision is a core component of the “reform consensus” that has concentrated the country’s energy for three decades. Now that consensus is full of cracks, the energy is dissipating and the schizophrenia about Lee Kuan Yew is a sign of that. In this new round of soul-searching for renewed affirmation of its own course, China comes to the dying Lee Kuan Yew again, only with pickier eyes. Ditto to authoritarian ruthlessness. A more global cultural identity? No thanks.

The substances of Lee’s political wisdom no longer matters that much. What matters now is his stance as a staunch challenger of Western universalism and an advocate for the ill-defined “Asian values.” In his keynote speech at the annual Boao Asia Forum yesterday, President Xi paid tribute to Lee Kuan Yew for his contribution to “Asia’s peace and development.” But in a speech titled “Towards a Community of Common Destiny,” the President seems to have chosen to omit the fact that Lee’s recipe for peace in Asia has never been a so-called community of shared interests (let alone common destiny). It has always been the cool-headed check-and-balance of major powers.