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June 9, 2008

The US and China:
Unsettling Similarities


by Sascha Matuszak

Well, it looks like giving China some face will have little to no impact on the way things are done in this country. If anything, it will give the Party the confidence to continue harassing parents, journalists, and dissidents of all kinds in the name of social cohesion.

Most local foreigners were skeptical when the first wave of praise passed over China for its handling of the quake. Even now, when German Red Cross volunteers gush over the dedication of the volunteers, the efficiency of the relief process, and the selflessness of their Sichuanese counterparts, it seems strange.

Is this the China that I have come to know and love? Open and selfless? Efficient and just? Yes and no.

The hysterical youngsters that unleashed a wave of patriotic protests around the world, shocking the West with their fury, are the same youngsters who arrived in Sichuan in droves to help the victims of the quake rebuild their lives and homes. The Chinese journalists who were the first into the quake zone, reporting throughout the night, are the same reporters that bow down when a directive arrives from the government ordering them to shut up about those tents that were funneled somewhere else, about the dead children and their protesting parents, about anything that might possibly reflect badly on the Party.

The Germans lavish praise on the doctors of Shanghai's prestigious Hua Shan hospital, and they deserve it. I have been throughout the quake zone, from Hanwang to Dujiangyan up to Beichuan, and I have seen determined soldiers and police from all over the country sleeping in tents along with the refugees. I have seen volunteers asking for directions to the middle of a disaster zone, carrying nothing but a couple bottles of water and a red scarf to denote their status as unaffiliated volunteers.

In Mianyang, victims of the quake are shipped off to factories in Guangdong and Shandong Provinces that have offered thousands of jobs to those who have lost everything. Teachers volunteer in makeshift tents wherever there is room, and if there is no room, the kids are shipped to schools in Jinan, Qingdao, or Chongqing.

At the same time, this wave leaves dry spots in its wake: the villagers, farmers, children, and workers of the small, insignificant towns reaching up from the poverty of China's suburbs to snatch crumbs from the tables of the middle class. The Old Hundred Names the commoners are the real China.

What the Western media decries the injustice and corruption of the government is the small minority of this nation that unfortunately wields unassailable power. The local officials, far from the capital, loot the farmers and uneducated laborers for everything they can, drive in caravans of black cars with red license plates, and honk madly for everyone to dive out of the way. We all know the sound of that particular CCP honk: loud and obnoxious, rude and indifferent. These are the people the Chinese must fight against, the "local snakes" who encourage gangsterism and sneaky deals in the shadows while the people hold pictures of their children up begging for some sign that the government is what they have been led to believe it is: the father of the people.

I recently read an essay by Peter Hessler written in 1999 about Tibet through Chinese eyes. Hessler describes the complexities of the Tibetan situation, which involves not just evil officials and righteous monks, but broke migrants and uneducated nomads, heroic teachers and students struggling to find out who they are.

I wrote last month that a wave of patriotism might lead to an invitation for the Dalai Lama to come to Beijing, and all would be rosy in the Garden of China. One man wrote back saying I was delusional for even contemplating that the CCP would do something so enlightened.

I admit it's a long shot. The Party is clamping down hard here in Sichuan, spitting out crude propaganda like always. But there are cracks in the wall. Chinese bloggers and their counterparts on the ground are aware that lying, cheating bastards lead them. Now is not the time, they say; we are still developing. Wait till we are rich and powerful, then we will throw the bastards out.

Perhaps. But the hopelessness inside of me grows when I read the papers and see Obama and Clinton haggling over pieces of the pie, Bush spreading more ridiculous lies, and McCain spinning a web of deceit in a desperate bid to gain power.

It grows darker when I think about the CCP, leader of the next superpower, as some would have it, still unable to show the slightest inclination toward justice and fairness. Their fear is palpable, and it stinks. They crush dissent, censor all media, and blame everything that goes wrong in this country on foreigners, the Falun Gong, or separatists anything to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.

The anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Massacre came and went with nary a peep, save this impassioned plea by Ma Jian. The kids today have no clue about their older brothers and uncles who died. This year is this generation's June 4, their crowning moment, the year when they went toe-to-toe with the international critics of their homeland and then went on a crusade to rebuild Sichuan.

For this generation of idealists, the pictures of the dead children will be a just reminder of the good they did for their country and the massive outpouring of love and good deeds that followed. Justice isn't a part of this dream. Why mar the memories of heroic acts done together with the specter of bad construction and the 10,000-15,000 children and teachers who died because of it? Why fight against the all-powerful Party, when life is so good?

We have the Olympics coming up, and we'll win the most gold medals, they say. We are strong, and you Westerners will have to shut up sooner or later. Corrupt officials are part of the package, others say, resigned to a system that they were born into. This is China.

From the outside looking in, the Party looks crude, fearful, and brutal. From within, they are the glue that binds everything. Are the Chinese so different from Americans, who view their government as indispensable, while the rest of the world is baffled at how stupid we can be?

This is 2008, not 1989. The victims of Tiananmen and the Sichuan quake children and students are part of the collective sacrifice many Chinese feel must be made to attain that which they hold so dear: power and glory.

Aren't all too many Americans willing to sacrifice our dignity and freedoms for the very same thing?

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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