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.

Down with the Nihilists!

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Multiple Choice Question: Who brought victory to the Sino-Japanese War 70 years ago? A. Kuomintang, B. The Chinese Communists, C. The United States, D. The Soviet Union.

If your answer does not in some way include B, then BAM! You are a historical nihilist, even though you might not have read a single word by Nietzsche, the German philosopher who elaborated on this important concept in the 19th century. He declared nihilism as a characteristic of the modern age and “a moment of the deepest self-reflection for humanity”. The “death of God” and the dissolution of Christianity as a singular source of truth deprive the world of meaning, intrinsic value and destiny.

But what has nihilism to do with the Kuomintang? This obviously perplexed a few serious philosophy scholars and historians who took pains to organize a seminar at Tongji University in Shanghai earlier this month. The seminar was titled “Nihilism and the End of History: a Dialogue between Philosophy and History”. A consensus coming of it was that “recent criticism on ‘historical nihilism’ has nothing to do with the academic sense of the word.”

The academicians were responding to a tide of attacks on “historical nihilism” largely waged by party publications and leftist opinion leaders. Their targets are very simple: anything that challenges the historical orthodox that depicts the Party as the decisive force in the Chinese people’s struggle for independence and liberation from suppression. It is basically a move against what they consider to be revisionist views of contemporary Chinese history, but for some curious reasons they adopt “nihilism” as the label for their target, probably just for the forcefulness of the word in Chinese (“xuwu“). In the past year, a few controversies surrounding the veracity of communist war-time heroism hammered the term into modern Chinese vocabulary. For instance, in April this year, a beverage company got harangued by conservative commentators for associating itself publicly with a Weibo personality who once compared a Korean War hero to “barbecue” (as party propaganda maintained that he endured being burned alive by an incendiary bomb in complete silence in order not to expose his comrades). The Communist Youth League’s official mouthpiece triumphantly declared at the time that “the consistent condemnation (of the company) from the netizens shows that the public is no longer swayed by the historical nihilism that uses the excuse of ‘freedom of speech’ to smear heroes.” But reality was far from “consistent condemnation.” Actually, the questioning of the “physiological feasibility” of that heroic act was so strong that official media even had to use the example of the 1963 self-immolation of the Vietnamese monk to establish its validity.

The crusade against “historical nihilism” met with a major setback this month when the cause suffered from unexpected friendly fire. A film commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II that sets its scene at the Cairo Conference of 1943 induced widespread astonishment by highlighting Chairman Mao in its publicity campaign. To be clear, the film itself does not put Mao in Cairo, as that would have been outright fabrication (It was Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek who represented China at the conference). But in its posters, the film’s PR team gave Mao an equal treatment as Roosevelt and Churchill, overshadowing Chiang. Criticism immediately ensued, some even from across the Taiwan Strait. Put on defense, the filmmaker responded by saying that the Cairo Conference was the result of the sacrifice of the entire Chinese population, and the Chinese Communists were surely an important part of it. Spurred by the unapologetic tone in the response, netizens made fun of it by photoshopping unrelated public figures onto the poster, claiming that they could all have legitimately been at the conference, the climax being the Kim Jong-un version of the poster.

Some left-leaning online commentators took a confrontational stance. One of them even declared that Mao’s blown-up role in the posters was a place he “deserved”. And if anyone had a problem with it, he should “win a war to make his point”. The winner-writes-history cynicism was blaring in this instance. Compared with their online comrades, commentators at the Global Times were much more worried that the backlash might give opponents of the anti-nihilism campaign excuse to discredit it entirely. They regarded the posters “inappropriate” and argued that it was unnecessary to arbitrarily link the Party with every episode of that war, even if its role in it should not be denied. They even suggested last minute modifications to the film if it contained undue elevation of Mao.

The campaign against historical nihilism and the anxiety about its undone both betray a sense of insecurity. The Party is deeply disturbed by the risk of losing its righteous place in history. It might have a point though, as its war-time record, like its currency now, is being depreciated not only by domestic liberals but also international observers. The Economist, in a recent editorial, just gave the credit of resisting the Japanese invasion completely to the Kuomintang.

The Chinese theater of World War II was messy and intricate. At any given point, the Kuomintang, the Communists, the Kuomintang traitors and the Japanese were all fighting each other. The Soviet Union was involved from the very early stage, supporting the Kuomintang government (not the Communists) for a substantial period of the eight-year war. When the Pacific War broke out, the United States upped its ante in China by subjecting its China-Burma-India theater commander, General Stilwell, under Chiang Kai-shek as his chief of staff. In this intertwined situation, any attempt to claim full credit for the victory against Japan would be challenging if not outright impossible. The Kuomintang enjoys an advantage in this race as it was the “legitimate” government at the time of the war. That’s why it was Chiang Kai-shek who appeared in Cairo, and the reason why most of the international aid of that time (including that from the Soviet Union) went to Kuomintang during the war. And truth be told that as the government, Kuomintang organized the country’s major defense against the Japanese, and its soldiers suffered epic sacrifices.

But nominal legitimacy can only get you so far. As a corrupt, crude and incompetent dictatorship, the Kuomintang regime was not without its fierce criticizers for its humiliating military defeats, its startling mismanagement of the economy, and the brutal ways it treated its own people. The horrifying conscription programs that brought as much death and fear as the war itself was widely noted even by biographers sympathetic of Chiang. The tragic famine of 1942, in Henan province, became a whole chapter in Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby’s influential book about that war (both were Time magazine’s China correspondents at that time), which showed to the American public the cold-blooded indifference  of the Kuomintang government to the unbelievable suffering of the Chinese peasants. The book was written in 1946, when there was already widespread disillusion and discontent with the Kuomintang regime among US elites. But White and Jacoby’s account of the famine, which was based on first-hand personal experience, should still be read as an overall reflection of Kuomintang’s stage of decay at that time.

Within this context, where the Kuomintang’s real legitimacy was being contested, the Chinese Communists advanced their argument that they played a pivotal role in the fight against Japan. For one thing, their status as a partner against the Japanese invader was formally recognized by their 1937 “United Front” agreement with the Kuomintang, whereby they agreed to subject the Red Army under governmental line of command. That “partnership” proved to be fragile and unstable. Skirmishes (some of them quite bloody) between Kuomintang and Communist forces abounded in the years between 1937 and 1940, after which a new agreement had to be drawn which demarcated where both parties should operate (but mainly for the Communists). After that the Communists, and the millions of Chinese people living in the areas north of the Yellow River, were basically left on their own to bear the weight of Japanese savagery in that part of China. And in those years the Communists were the only protection that the people of North China could have. White and Jacoby estimated that at the peak of Japanese activity, forty percent of the Japanese military force in China was battling Communists. The estimation could have been influenced by both Communist and Kuomintang propaganda, but it is probably fair to say that Communist resistance to the Japanese invasion was not as trivial as some would perceive.

It is clear that the “nihilist” challenge that the Party faces today is partly fueled by dissatisfaction of its current rule. It is both a backfire of its own propaganda overkill (things such as the Cairo Declaration blunder) and an over-correction by romanticizing the China under Kuomintang’s reign. Lately, the “ROC Fever” (“ROC” stands for the Republic of China as opposed to the People’s Republic), which refers to a general nostalgia of the pre-communist China in some circles of the Chinese society, has become a cultural phenomenon. Part of it can also be attributed to the complete re-invention of the Kuomintang in Taiwan after the 1980s. Today’s Kuomintang is no longer the collection of reactionary warlords and capitalists that Chiang Kai-shek presided over 70 years ago. It has turned into a modern political party firmly committed to basic democratic values. One author even went so far as suggesting that the Kuomintang’s record in Taiwan proved Chiang to be the ultimate winner over Mao for his more superior political philosophy of Confucianism (“Mao won the battle, Chiang won the war.”) A relatively more positive light over today’s Kuomintang reinforces the feeling that the Communists “stole” the fruit of the WWII. In such an environment, the Party finds itself mired in an endless battle to defend once well-recognized historical “positions”.

George Orwell once famously said that “He who controls the past controls the future; He who controls the present controls the past.” A present with treacherous deep currents is making the past ever more slippery for the Party to hold on to. Much of the pain has been self-inflicted. In an article published last year, a PLA Major General explicitly criticizes past party propaganda about the Sino-Japanese War:

“In the past, our account of the War was often shaped by immediate political needs, which led to biases and exaggeration. Because of our post-war hostility towards the United States, and in order to highlight the power of ‘people’s war’, American victory in the Pacific was downplayed, while land mines and tunnels were depicted as the major weapons defeating the Japanese. After the Reform and Opening, mainland China proactively upheld Kuomintang’s role in the War. However, in the process some media outlets went too far by exaggerating the overall importance of the China theater in World War II. Even if this could somehow elevate the public’s spirit and pride, in the long run this would create distrust in such propaganda in general.”

So the real enemy is not so much “historical nihilism” but rather historical cynicism. Indeed, the victor CAN write history if he chooses to. But now he’s concerned that nobody gives a damn about what he has written.

“Pakis-tie”: How Could Domestic Perception Undermine China’s Silk Road Initiative

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Discussions about China’s foreign aid program used to be dominated by a “foreign aid vs. domestic poverty” frame. The criticism that China prioritizes the “face” of its sovereign over the welfare of its poverty stricken people often dogs media reports about China’s largesse overseas. This line of questioning was so strong that top officials in charge of China’s foreign aid used to complain about the public’s bitter intransigence on this issue. The Chinese Political Compass, an online survey of Chinese netizens’ ideological leaning, also includes it as one of the 50 typical issues that polarize internet debates in China.

It is therefore noteworthy that such debates are largely absent around China’s high profile “One Belt, One Road” strategy formally unveiled this year, a grand plan to revive the ancient Silk Road connecting China’s prosperous east coast with Europe, with overland routes that go through Central Asia/South Asia (“the Silk Road Economic Belt”), and maritime routes that go through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean (“the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”). More specifically, President Xi Jinping’s recent delivery of a 46 billion USD aid package to Pakistan, a key country for the materialization of the strategy, almost completely dodged such questioning domestically. What happened?

It’s not that the criticism disappeared entirely. But even the occasional grumble is quickly shushed away by netizens who consider themselves more literate in economics. To be fair, the original criticism was indeed based on the public’s misconception about China’s large foreign exchange reserves. Many (mistakenly) believe that such an “asset” can be readily dispensed domestically to support much needed developments in the country’s poor landlocked regions.

But the ebb of this once intense debate cannot be easily explained away by a somewhat magic elevation of economic literacy levels in the population. Other factors are probably in play here, and one of them might just be how this administration chooses to frame the “One Belt, One Road” strategy in a fundamentally different manner.

Ever since President Xi first proposed the initiative during his tour of Central Asia and Southeast Asia in late 2013, it has been framed in terms of a grand visionary strategy. The intentional invocation of the Silk Road brings about an image of a world that is radically different from its current state, where large areas of Eurasia are haunted by poverty, religious fundamentalism and war. In that ancient world, the need for trade between Europe and China created prosperous trade hubs along a challenging route going across mountains and deserts. The trade of goods facilitated the exchange among cultures and civilizations, ushering in an era of great progress and creativity.

The framing of the initiative in such grand, visionary terms effectively transcends the somewhat petty debate about “who should the government give money to” and elevates the whole discussion to rumination about “China’s position in the world.” It has the effect of bypassing online demographics who are unable (or simply do not care) to engage in such a conversation. (Particularly noteworthy is that the liberal voices on the internet have been almost entirely silent on this issue so far.) And those who choose to engage, mostly elite media outlets and “geopolitical junkies”, have been very much focused on interpreting the grand strategic intentions behind the initiative, further reinforcing the narrative of a “brilliant geopolitical maneuver”.

Even though it manages to avoid an annoying line of domestic criticism, the rolling out of the strategy still faces other “public opinion traps” that are manifested by how Xi’s latest Pakistan visit has been received domestically. One of the traps is the sino-centric perspective that views the world as organized concentrically around China. As soon as China and Pakistan announced their relationship to be an “All Weather Strategic Partnership”, domestic commentators gleefully began to rank countries based on their relationship with China, with Pakistan at the unquestionable top (center) and Japan at the pitiful bottom (periphery). The word “Pakis-tie” (巴铁, “tie” as the Chinese pinyin for “iron”) starts to replace “Pakistan” even in the reporting by official media, an apparent reference to the President’s description of the relationship between the two countries as “iron brothers”. Reports from the People’s Daily website about Pakistani friendship towards China (e.g. primary school children calling the Chinese President by his nickname, Pakistani twitter flooded by China-loving contents) went to such a length that some claims became utterly dubious (e.g. the existence of a crime called “sabotaging Pak-China friendship” in Pakistan). Prominent online outlets explain to its audience why an “All Weather Strategic Partnership” is superior to partnerships that China forms with other countries: e.g. a mere “constructive strategic partnership” with the U.S., and a “strategic mutual benefit” relationship with Japan (not even a partner). Such a hierarchical ranking of nations based on their “friendliness” with China may easily be associated with the ancient tributary system where “barbarian” states were ranked based on their level of subjugation to the central kingdom. Actually, certain China observers proactively bring up the tributary system as a reference point.

The temptation to read China’s strategic intention in purely zero-sum terms may also prove problematic. The establishment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a key component of the Silk Road Economic Belt. It connects Kashgar in western China with the Pakistani port city of Gwadar on the coast of the Arabian Sea. Many Chinese commentators and media tend to emphasize its geopolitical benefit of allowing China to bypass the Strait of Malacca, which is currently China’s main maritime pathway to resources in the Middle East. But this so-called strategic benefit is largely based on a scenario wherein the the Strait is blockaded by a hostile military force (aka. the United States). This reading has provoked a rebuttal arguing that if such a scenario does occur (which amounts to a declaration of war against China), then maintaining a Pakistani port on the Arabian Sea will not give China much strategic advantage given the port’s own vulnerability. Another zero-sum reading of the initiative focuses on the rivalry between India and China, seeing India as an important chess piece of the United States’ strategic pivoting towards Asia. By investing in its “iron brotherhood” with Pakistan, China is basically vying with India (and United States) for political influence in South Asia. But this line of argument also readily overlooks the the potential for a China-Bangladesh-India corridor under the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative.

The delicacy in China’s vision for a “community of shared destiny” in Asia is that while setting decisively against the U.S approach, it also painstakingly tries to transcend it. As laid out in Xi’s speech at the Boao Asian Forum this March, almost all the key elements of this vision are pitched against their perceived U.S. “counterpoints”. For instance, it emphasizes “an Asian way of respecting each other’s comfort level” (code for “I won’t throw Human Rights issues right at your face”), the respect for each country’s “social systems of its own choice” (code for ” I won’t impose ‘universal values’ on you.”), the upholding of multilateral consultation (as opposed to unilateral interventions) and a basis for security that ensures “security for all” (instead of “a security based on other’s insecurity”). Most importantly, all the initiatives under this vision, be it the “One Belt, One Road” or the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, are supposed to be non-exclusive. The risk is: such a delicacy can easily get lost in a familiar “turf war” narrative wherein China is simply grabbing its sphere of influence from what originally belongs to the U.S.

Many political elites in China firmly rejects the comparison of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative with the Marshall Plan, with all its Cold War connotations. Some of them have already started to worry about domestic “misinterpretations” that may only intensify outside suspicion of Chinese intentions, a precursor to hostility and rejection. Based on what has been triggered by Xi’s Pakistan visit, such a concern is not completely baseless.