On one particularly hot day in Urumqi, I decided to head to a small, hole-in-the-wall dumpling house near the center of the city for lunch. I ordered noodle soup and baozi stuffed with pork and veggies. As my food came, an old, half-drunk Han Chinese man sitting at the table next to me struck up a conversation. As he peered out from over his soup, he began recounting his struggles during the Great Leap Forward.
“When I was young, we didn’t have any meat to eat. People would literally take the bone out of my bowl as I tried to eat it. It was a struggle to survive.” As he was talking, he noticed that two young Chinese nearby were snickering at him. They seemed more interested in the most recent fashion craze than learning from their elders—both had crazy, only-in-China dos, as well as jeans with all sorts of bling on them. “You see these kids,” he said, “they don’t give a damn about the past. They don’t understand what Mao did, nor do they really care. They are only focused on the making money.”
Most repressive regimes use the total authority they possess like a hammer—midnight arrests, curfews, executions, and the like. While China also utilizes these methods to a large degree, they tend to wield their power more like a scalpel, carefully calibrated to the offender and the offense.
The key to this proportional response comes from the government’s ability to apply direct and indirect pressure on offenders. They use a variety of enforcement methods to ensure cooperation from the subject.
The concept in China is called ruanjian (“soft prison”), perhaps roughly corresponding to house arrest in English. However, ruanjian is far more nuanced than simple house arrest. It can be as simple as an athletic young man in a crew-cut following you wherever you go and sitting in a car outside your house at night, to full-on imprisonment in a small rural cottage, surrounded by bright floodlights and blaring speakers, with no phones or visitors.
Ten years ago I was sitting in a high school classroom conjugating Japanese verbs when there was a distant boom. Our teacher, Fujita sensei, a retired air force vet, remarked that it sounded like an explosion. We laughed it off and I wondered silently what in northern Virginia was worth bombing. Fifteen minutes later I found out.
Ten years ago, I knew nothing of politics. I knew nothing of the struggle for power and the insatiable human lust for domination and violence. But I knew, from the faces of my teachers, that the world had shifted; that there was no going back to September 10.
In the last decade, regardless of what politicians say in their memorial speeches, Americans have lived, more or less, in the shadow of 9/11. The heightened awareness—some might say fear—of terrorism led to a new government department, two intractable wars, and an ongoing Islamophobia. Words like “international terrorism,” “Islamic fundamentalism,” and “suicide bomber” are now common parlance. Only the death of Osama bin Laden offered some scant comfort to anxious Americans.
The China-Tibet Olympics commotion depresses.
We all knew CCTV was a joke. Now we are disappointed to learn that the BBC has a political agenda as well, joining what Mick Hume of The Times calls the newest Olympic sport—”China bashing.” No Pulitzers for this mess. CNN will win the gold medal in “China bashing” for mislabeling Nepalese crackdown pictures as Chinese (the single most effective Chinese propaganda tool in years—good job CNN!); the BBC will have to settle for the silver for their coverage of the London Olympic relay.
Ignorance and facile thinking lead many to believe that we live in a Manichean world. The Axis of Evil and declarations such as “you’re either with us or against us” are inextricably linked to President Bush. Academics, liberals, and the majority of conservatives have quarreled with this simplistic formulation of international affairs. Many of the people who attack the President for his rhetoric or rail against the “War on Terror” may repeat many of the President’s mistakes when talking about China if they are not careful.