Today I read Murong Xuecun’s speech given in Oslo. The things he described in his speech are clearly happening all around us and I have rarely, if ever, met a Chinese who will dispute much of what he said. In fact, most of the conversations that end up dealing with the woes of China are initiated by Chinese friends. I try not to start a China rant because all anyone really has to ask me is “Why are you here?” and thus ends the rant.
But Chinese don’t have that option. This is their motherland and that fact is at the core of what keeps people in line, no matter how much they complain online or with their friends. The whole society is constantly at work to bring the young and the rebellious back into the fold of acceptable behavior. Every facet of life is controlled by a burden of history that is backed up by proverbs and stories.
The keepers of the proverbs and stories are, usually, the older women (wive’s tales, anyone?). They know what a man should do in order to get a wife; they know how a wife should act at home; they know how to give birth, how to deal with post-partum recovery and they absolutely know how to raise children. The older women are all over the home-lives. How to cook, how to clean, what is proper and what is not.
It’s hard to gauge the level of control this older generation has over the lives of the young. Certain rules are bent and broke and many traditions have fallen by the wayside, but there is one maxim – one philosophy so to say – that survives on into modern life: the belief that certain things are just the way they are and there can be no changing them.
The phrases 不行 (impossible),没办法 (impossible), and in Sichuan 免不了的 (unavoidable) are the proverbs of that philosophy.
That things are changeless actually flies in the face of much of traditional Chinese thought and philosophy. I am leaving familiar waters here, but the language is contextual, the society is relationship- as opposed to rule-based and every utterance of the above three phrases can be (and often is) followed by the impossible suddenly becoming possible.
Yet still older women try and lay a clamp on the next generation with a host of rules and regulations passed down over centuries. There is a desire for conformity in China that I have never experienced anywhere else – not at this level. I have been in countless situations in which the “nail that stuck out” voluntarily pulled his head back in in the face of peer pressure. That isn’t a Chinese phenomenon at all, but the techniques used here to bring about conformity are different than what we may be used to elsewhere and I think it’s important to try and take a look at them.
Because there may be differences, but there will also definitely be similarities and for us non-conformists, it’s vital that we know what we are facing.
The number one rebuttal to any criticism of China from a Chinese person is a question:
“Are you or are you not Chinese?”
And the worst insult a nationalist Chinese can hurl is 汉奸, race traitor. A few others have popped up such as 带路党, accusing critics of “guiding (Americans) through the country” and 西奴, “slave of the west.” In most ultra-nationalist sites, like Utopia or Strong Nation Forum, the West is the enemy and the USA is the Great Satan.
Conformity here appeals at once to the heart of one’s identity. The logic is simple and difficult to attack head-on: If you are Chinese, then you are a nationalist; if you are a critic of China (and Chinese), then you are a traitor. Even if the critic phrases his suggestions softly, claiming that the true patriot would criticize and help to improve his home, the logic stands:
If you are Chinese you can have no criticism of China.
What this does is immediately put the onus on the critic to defend himself. Like Ai Wei Wei in the post I wrote the other day, dissidents are forced to prove that they are Chinese first, before anything they say will be heard.
And these nationalists are not the fringe. They might sound ridiculous and outdated – even praising foreign countries can get you called 汉奸 – but with the “Are you Chinese” card in their hand and the rampant xenophobia that infests all discussions of politics and society here, the fringe has power.
I have found that in one-on-one conversations any line of reasoning is possible, but once the conversations involve a group of Chinese, everyone begins self-censoring. Nobody wants to be accused of being a race traitor. So the same person who told me that China is corrupt will flip-flop in a heartbeat if others (especially strangers) are around.
People here do not know how to react to the accusation, 你是不是中国人？It’s such a visceral attack, most people recoil.
Another common agent of conformity is pragmatism. Many Chinese friends of mine describe themselves (and therefore all Chinese) as being 现实: pragmatic and unable or unwilling to take risks, change, or buck the system in any way because to do so threatens the basics of life.
“Once we are able to eat,” they say. “Then we can consider changing the system to be more free.”
“I don’t have time to worry about politics, I need to get a job, buy a home, save up money and (get ready to die).”
Here is where the parents and aunts and uncles come in and help conformity take hold. Decisions for Chinese young people often involve the whole clan – or at least a substantial part. When the clan gets together to decide on something, rest assured the outcome will be as risk averse as possible. It only makes sense: for the older generation, life was hanging by a thread. For them the key to a good life is hard work, good family values and avoiding troublemaking artists and foreigners.
Now if the foreigner happens to be rich and a bit older …
Things are getting better
The most dangerous and insidious agent of conformity is the “look to a better future.”
Ultranationalists can be defeated with a modicum of experience and education. Their shrill arguments are boring and comical once one has learned a bit of how the world really works.
Pragmatism is the arch foe of all young people and we can expect that no matter what culture, what epoch, the young will rail against the “proper choice” forever and ever amen.
But this last argument can snare anyone. Even the most ardent rebel can be swayed with a calm appeal for patience:
“China is getting richer and stronger every day. People eat good, the bars are full and popping, every consumer good is more or less available. This is Progress and isn’t this what the Party promised us? How can we turn our backs on them now, after they have brought us this far?”
“Remember when you didn’t have socks? Remember the Cultural Revolution? We helped you out of that mess. Stick with us, and we’ll lead you to glory!”
今天的幸福生活来之不易, Today’s good life did not come easy
“And the road to the better life ahead will not be easy either, but if you just tolerate all of the evil in our society today, we promise it will be much better tomorrow.”
How can you argue with that?