Flashlights in the Dark

I have to admit, I haven’t read a single story about foreign journalists with China visa problems. I found them all to smack of the same droll, insular, looping urgency of first world problems. If all of the reporters were white, I would just say “privilege” and dip my face back into the Stream and test my spirit against the achievements and tragedies of my contemporaries.

But then Chris Taylor came to my rescue.

I’ll add here that I have been thinking about the whole visa issue for a while now, but from the angle of self-censorship. I believe Peter Goff coined the term “going pink” when I described the necessary numbness of working within the belly of the Communist Party Beast. In the belly, we made choices under surveillance. Every atom in the wall watched us, every expression that left our lips came under the instant gaze of the leaders. Would they approve? Would they disapprove? I felt the blanket that every Chinese gathers around himself, slowly envelop me, during my months in the Chengdu Propaganda Bureau. I felt my eyes and thoughts begin to swirl, as if Kaa were around every corner, hiding in my login portal, slithering across my WP dashboard.

Freedom to me now is a drop of acid in a desert of desks and white shirts.

Chris dropped it in this #longread mostly because he gives first world privilege that sliding buttcheek attention it deserves, in this context, and moves on to the real issues. The real pain and suffering. Issues like, “will I ever see my parents again?” something a first worlder may acknowledge with a slight grimace of sympathy. A nod to the pain that traditionalists still feel. But go pink and think about filial piety. Pronounce “filial piety” … it’s something we know very little of and that’s just how it is with us first worlders. For better or for worse, we have broken our chains to family.

But for China’s dissidents, without China visas for decades, seeing mom and dad one last time, even if from behind bars, is a matter of life and death.

Mooney et al can get jobs covering the Middle East. Exiled ex-China reporters can stay in NYC for a few weeks waiting for their chair to arrive in Cairo, talking in pained voices about all they left behind in China. And that’s valid and painful. Mooney and others may have made their careers in China. Made many friends in China. They probably have unfinished business here. Self-censoring for a while, or even the thought of it, may have put a small dent in their souls.

But let’s not get it twisted. Visas for white people is not the issue here. Step back from the horror of a few compromised thoughts, a few articles you may have thought better to not publish, a few conversations you had to cut off with knowing looks. Step back from the greatest story on earth right now (?)

And instead, step into a world in which China can push people around like the US has been pushing people around. Step into a world in which China acts with international impunity – not because the home front has given the government a mandate to bring “freedom” (or “socialism with Chinese characteristics”) to the world, however misguided and twisted that may be at the time, or become over time –  but because every Chinese who has not wrapped himself up in the blanket of resignation is either dead, in prison, or living the rest of their soon to be short ass lives in agonizing pain.

It takes so much courage and bravery to face a monolith like the government. Because visceral arguments isolate you so quickly from your peers, and you end up staring into the Oculus alone and shivering. And when you die, there are at the most a few semi-viral posts about how much you were unable to achieve, because no one followed you, and you died too quickly and too young. Perhaps a yearly vigil. Dissidents in China will not emerge from jail to victorious marches, because victorious marches in China are the realm of farce and oppression.

We are closing our eyes to this truth. The thin blanket doesn’t keep us warm at all, it just lowers our expectations even further, until we accept wearing stocking caps in our own homes.

In China there can be no Mandela, because there is no line that separates one person from another. Don’t mention ethnic lines, please. Tibetans and Uighers are under siege, but even if they were to mount something of a rebellion, the entire Han nation would take out their own fury and despair on the accepted goats. In China there can only be boots and necks. There can only be those that scurry into the crowd and those that hope to one day see their parents again, for a fleeting second before they die.

But then why, I ask myself, is this tyrannical, evil group of leaders so terrified?

Perhaps now, at the end of this Stream of thoughts, I am coming to the importance of white privilege. The reason why Tippi can speak for Africa, but an African girl cannot. The reason why dissidents run to the American Embassy and lob Molotovs from Europe, instead of Tiananmen Square.

China is a black hole of suffering for anyone who opposes tyranny, and only foreigners have the privilege to not get stomped into a bloody pulp, or forgotten in a 2X2 cell. It is our responsibility to keep the light shining down. If we leave, or give up, or censor ourselves, then Chinese with an ounce of bravery will moan in despair as the boots come crashing down harder than anyone ever imagined they could, this deep into humanity’s future. And the cowards in this country, every last one of the billion of em, will step aside and pray that the ogres pacing the lines won’t choose them as the brutal reminder of what happened to the “brave ones.”

China needs us. We keep the flashlight on after dark.

4 thoughts on “Flashlights in the Dark

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. Great post man. And, as you hinted, applicable to a much wider swath of the world than just China.

    Incidentally, the flashlight in the dark analogy was one of the first lessons I was taught in journalism school, and one of the few I remember still, nearly 15 years on.

  3. Yeah i never learned that, just kinda spilled out as I went, but I am sure it was a reference lurking in my head somewhere …

    thanks for the love

  4. The 2013 visa restriction in July was one of the main reasons I couldn’t become a journalist in China, so it’s not entirely a white-people’s problem…. But I agree it’s def a first-worlder problem.

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