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April 29, 2008

The Sword Is Blunted


by Sascha Matuszak

The developed nations of the West are still trying to figure out ways to deal with the new China. On the eve of China's biggest coming-out party, the world is not the gracious guest admiring the balustrades. Instead, the world's media are pointing at the servant in the backyard and frowning at the dirt on the windows. Far from influencing the host, accusations and criticism have only brought the whole family out in defense of the ancestral home.

The new China has been the topic of countless pages predicting everything from world domination to catastrophic failure. The West looks on in bewilderment as neither comes to be and – most baffling of all – the young, educated Chinese it hoped would raise a fist for Tibet have decided to bring that fist down upon the heads of anti-China elements the world over. What to do with this anachronism, a huge, modern nation-state smack dab in the middle of the "post-nationalist" New World Order?

We in the West expect China to make a Great Leap Forward from Communist dictatorship to placid European philanthropist, eschewing all modes of governance in between. However, this new China is a state like any other, with disgruntled minorities, passionate youth, desperate workers, and glitzy businessmen. There is no fundamental difference between China and any other nation. It is this reality that the West is grappling with: the mundane fact that China will survive and carry on with its own development no matter what happens.

When the protests in Tibet and the resulting media storm failed to bring about substantial introspection – in fact the exact opposite – the West then focused on its last straw: the double-edged sword of Chinese nationalism, double-edged in that patriotic youth conspiring over the Internet to boycott Carrefour may also one day conspire over the Internet to overthrow the Communist Party.

Allow me to dispel these wild hopes and dreams. Short of winning a nuclear war with China, Tibet will never be independent and will most likely never enjoy the "true autonomy" the Dalai Lama has been working toward all his life. The youth of China will not overthrow their government. China is not going to fall apart under a barrage of news reports.

Since Deng Xiaoping came to power, the Chinese have been growing more and more optimistic. With each year comes another improvement in the standard of living: first it was TVs, now it's new cars, plush apartments, and organic produce. As optimism is confirmed each year, confidence takes over.

It is not nationalism that holds China together as much as a shared vision of the future that is continually reinforced by economic, social, and political advances. To question this vision is to risk being branded a traitor. Granted, this may not be what modern Western nations would call a stable and free environment, but that has more to do with where we are today as a society than with China's failings. Those who remember WWII in the U.S. may understand what it is to be Chinese today. Those who remember the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s may also understand.

Westerners latch on to the cause of the day and consider our work as human beings done when we scream "Free Tibet!" into the wind. Perhaps jealousy fuels the focus the West has placed on China: not petty jealousy of material comforts – we have those – but the deep, gnawing envy of those who have no vision.

It is a deep irony that China is accused of lacking spirituality, a belief system that binds the nation together. There is no religion that holds sway over the Chinese people, and there is no belief in "democracy and universal values." There is a belief in China, an archaic and – to those of us in post-nation-state countries –incomprehensible and backward faith in the abstract notion of "Us, Ourselves."

Although the pro-China demonstrations are the work of a small minority in China – the educated, urbanized youth – the vision is held by all, from the struggling taxi driver to the peasant to the big boss. It is the right of every Chinese to criticize the government over mahjong and tea. But dig a little under any Chinese exterior and you will discover a bottomless well of love and pride in China – the history, culture, language, food, women, and the land itself.

I remember growing up in Germany and hearing my classmates tell me they were not proud to be born in Germany, but they could do nothing about it. Fate had decreed their birthplace to be Germany, in the middle of Europe. It was a statement of belief not in the nation-state of Germany, but in the universal value of humanity.

Coming from the U.S., I was astounded. In the States, we pledge allegiance to the flag every morning, everybody knows the national anthem, and the flag waves everywhere. I think it would amaze Americans to know how much in common we have with the new China – from politicized education systems to state-controlled media. CCTV and CNN speak with the same voice, in different languages.

The "problem" with a universalist outlook is that it is not conducive to confrontation and does not encourage individual success as much as communal understanding and cooperation. The cries of "Free Tibet," "Save Darfur," and "Help the miners of Hubei" are no different than the cries of "Unite!" that shook the socialist town halls of northern Minnesota in the last century. Universalism is the communism of the 21st century, perhaps destined to meet the same end.

Another irony: Socialism with Chinese characteristics is supposed to be one step down the road toward a socialist utopia – as the Chinese Communist Party would have us believe – but the truth is that China is just now becoming a nation-state like the European nations of the 20th century.

Twenty-first-century universalism does not stand a chance in a head-on confrontation with 21st-century-nationalism. If we are to truly engage China and bring this new powerhouse into the global family, confrontation is the worst tactic. It will result in war with a generation of nationalist youth, something we in the West have not dealt with since Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

The strength of universalist beliefs in human rights and individual freedom is that they are contagious. Allow China to grow organically with as little interference as possible, and you will see the hysterically patriotic youth of today become the world-traveling philanthropists of tomorrow.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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