Sunday, April 20, 2008



Boycott CNN! Boycott Carrefour! Boycott anyone who boycotts the Olympics!

Boycotts are a blunt instrument, albeit drawn from the trusty democratic toolbox. That boycott fever seems to be the mood on the streets of China these days is a testament to how discontent with domestic problems has been eclipsed by disappointment with the West.

When China is weak, the country is ridiculed, exploited, and poked fun of. When China is strong, the country is ridiculed, exploited and poked fun of. “What do you want from us?” is the question of the moment, to borrow the title of a funny and oddly moving bit of guerilla video by “a silent Chinese”
( about the frustration of being continually looked down upon. It chronicles a century of humiliation at the hands of the West, ironically set to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

China, isolated and ostracized for decades because of its rejection of capitalism and a Western-dominated economic system, at last abandons its homegrown revolutionary system for an open-door, pro-business, pro-trade system, abiding by rules created by others, joining international organizations dominated by others. Chinese doff the dusty Mao jacket and communal economic arrangements to imitate the West.

What is imitation if not a kind of flattery? China’s nouveau riche don the suit and tie, imbibe the MBA and CEO lifetyle, they sip champagne and smoke cigars in five-star hotel lobby and trade tips on golf courses likeWestern businessmen—and they still get no respect. And if the most powerful people in China get no respect, imagine how the ordinary people feel.

Lack of respect is central to the informal eruptions of popular Chinese anger in the street in recent years, whether it be anti-Japan, anti-France or anti-CNN movements. Whether the issue at hand is being portrayed as willing idiots in Japanese textbooks, or being treated with dismissive disdain by the French President or being manipulated by US government backed destabilizers such as the National Endowment for Democracy, Radio Free Asia and the CIA-tinged Free Tibet movement, the resentment is real.

Beijing’s Olympic bid is hard won and ordinary Chinese people have made considerable sacrifices; not just incessant labor and heavy infrastructure investment, but spiritual sacrifices as well. Chinese have been called on by their own leaders, no less than foreign ones, to give-up a traditional way of doing things in favor adopting the norms of a global capitalist system dominated by powerful Western actors. It’s a system in which the rich get richer, as can be seen in America and increasingly in China. No wonder boycotts make businessmen nervous.

How can you keep your head up when you are asked to reject your own way of life but are not fully accepted by the arbitrers of the new rules? Japan felt this way after the heyday of Meiji and Taisho era Westernization; no matter what it did it could never really join the Western club. Angered at Western racism, documented and affirmed by W.E.B DuBois among others, Japan in the Showa era came up with a racist response of its own, The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

It is not because Chinese are arrogant and xenophobic that they resent being misled and misrepresented by CNN and Time; it is because they had the humility and the cosmopolitan savvy in the first place to accept the notion that the Western media was superior to their own that they are now shocked to see how shoddy, jingoistic and biased it can be.

Teaching journalism in China for the US-based Knight Foundation was an eye-opener for me. My appointment to be what was in effect a journalistic missionary included a week-long orientation in Washington, DC at which we were reminded that American journalism was the gold standard, fair and uncorruptible; that’s why the Chinese and other foreigners needed to learn from us.

After spending several subsequent years doing media research in China as an academic, I can safely conclude that it’s not so white and black as US boosters would have it. The Chinese media is not as bad as we think it is, the American media is not as good as we’ve been taught to think.

To offer but one example, the American media misled the US public into a ruinous war in Iraq, and yet is has yet to come clean about conflicts of interest, jingoistic tendencies, and compromised access to power.

Nowadays Amerians are mad at US media, so why shouldn’t Chinese be? When you come to believe in something, or more critically rely on something to make informed choices as a citizen and responsible member of the global community, bad information from the most reputable information providers puts everyone in a quandary. What is one to do? Turn off the TV, cancel the newspaper subscription and go online, reading opinioinated blogs all day?

Deviations from the standard inevitably dismay and disappoint. As we enter this season of boycotts and protests, we learn from the usually reliable New York Times that the Pentagon has been spoon-feeding TV networks with misinformation and spin on Iraq. It might be a good time for all responsible information disseminators --commercial TV, state TV, news agencies and newpapers-- to clean house of paid propagandists and jingoists and get back to the basics of journalism.

Meanwhile, let one hundred boycotts bloom! The boycotts may cause a temporary dip in profits or lose of face, but again, imitation is the highest form of flattery. Chinese protesters have taken note of the Farrows and Free Tibeters and Spielbergs and Sarkozys of the world and they extend the compliment. You boycott us, and we will boycott you.

The author, a visiting fellow at Cornell University and professor of media studies at Doshisha University in Japan, has twenty years of media experience in China including coverage of Tiananmen in 1989 for BBC.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


By Philip J. Cunningham

Like the US, China is a continental power not fully cognizant of how impressive and intimidating she appears in the eyes of others. Given China's sudden growth spurt, global reach and budding supremacy, it is surprising to see how nervous and unsure of herself she is on the eve of the Olympics, widely dubbed a "coming out" party, as if China were a shy teenage girl.

And yet despite the strengths so obvious to others, there is something distinctly naïve, insecure and adolescent, if not specifically girlish, about China's behavior in recent months; at once showy and unsure of her beauty, at once prone to narcissistic grooming and feeling soiled inside, at once full of herself and devoid of self-confidence.

China's not an adolescent country by any standard historical reckoning, but the emerging civil society of ordinary Chinese citizens is young and tender. China's aspirations as a "normal" country in a world long-dominated by Western norms of trade, banking and diplomacy, including membership in WTO and other popular Western clubs, puts it well into its teens, but not much older than that.

China is clearly an up and coming power, a presence to be reckoned with, and yet its booming growth is not deep-rooted, coming, as it does, on the heels of decades of trauma and isolation, imposed on the people both from without and within. China, after a century and a half of dismemberment and humiliation, remains peculiarly vulnerable to a sense of being violated. If there's the soul of a teenage girl lurking in there, she's got some extremely powerful bodyguards, but the insecurity persists.

Bolstered by initial signs of acceptance and a tentative popularity despite the undue bullying that any new kid from a different school on the wrong side of the tracks in school might experience, China has made a tentative stepping out into international society. She has grudgingly earned respect from officials in the corridors of power in the West, but old prejudices linger and she is subject to being taunted, shunned and bullied on the street.

One reason the new kid on the block is both respected and resented to a far greater degree than others is performance against expectation; she excels in almost any endeavor she puts her mind to, shaking up the old order, undermining the status quo, racking up points for habitual losers and the downtrodden.

She's smart, gets reasonably high grades, does well in sports and is not at all bad-looking. She has her admirers and her detractors. To those who want things to go back to the way they were before she had the temerity to move into the advanced class, she's the problem.

She's got her weak spots; her easily wounded pride, her short temper, her brittle confidence, and her detractors sense this.

Like a shy, insecure girl with a traumatized past, unsure of her own beauty, nervous, emerging China doesn't take the prom for granted, but wants a prom night perfect down to every last detail, to show herself, if not the others, how far she's come, to give her something to hold on to, to cherish and remember forever.

And that's where the incessant taunting and bullying by boycotters --jealous detractors, opportunists and implacable foes-- gets outright scary.

Remember the bloody prom scene in Carrie? Stephen King's horror classic is disconcerting and haunting in a lingering way because of its solid psychological underpinnings. In the film version, Sissy Spacek embodies with unnerving skill the role of a shaky young woman emerging from trauma, facing the future with a nervous smile.

Carrie is trying hard to escape her past, willing to deny her own not inconsiderable powers in order to be accepted, wanting so bad to be like the others, to be liked, that she, who is capable of so much more, craves the most mundane of accomplishments, of going to the prom, of being included, only to be set up for a fall.

The humiliation that unfolds in what was to be her moment of glory is excruciating to watch.

And then she breaks down and things start to unravel. She can't stop herself, even though it pains her, even though she knows it is wrong.

Holier-than-thou human rightists who clearly find it easier to pick on China rather than tend to more egregious violations in their own backyard contribute to the enmity. Unthinking nationalists, rag-tag hooligans and agit-prop activists who are looking to spoil China's shared moment of glory by disrupting the Olympics, whether it be in the name of asserting Western values, Darfur, Dharmasala or just for the hell of it, may find the wrath of the Chinese people, once riled up, unruly and liable to spiral out of control.

And then what?

What good can the gratuitous and unthinking humiliation of a trauma-racked nation of 1.3 billion people possibly serve?

The antic cheerleading of demonstrations seen in recent weeks, when not outright rude or violent, has the one-sided nature of school spirit, being true to one’s school at the expense of others. In trying to bring attention to one set of problems without thinking through the consequences of attention-grabbing shocks, racist chants and media stunts, a whole new set of problems is set into motion.

Racially-tinged currents of rejection, betrayal and resentment are surging to the fore in a new, yet wholly unnecessary, confrontation between East and West.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008


by Philip J. Cunningham

The time has come, the Dalai Lama said, to think of stepping down.

Traditionally, the last and most daunting task for a Buddhist monk intent on extinguishing all desire is to let go of the last desire, the desire to succeed in one’s long spiritual quest.

In his many years of wandering in exile, the Dalai Lama has come to be at home in the world; he has led a life both charmed and charming, but his lifework has eluded him. Is he resigned to his fate? Fated to resign?

He has become a reasonably universal voice of reconciliation, winning the acclaim of Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, only to fail at the thing he wants more than anything else, --to go home to a just peace.

It is his success itself that thwarts him now. His success as a thorn in China’s side for half a century makes it hard for him to go home.

If and when he does step down, Chinese and Tibetans will lose an incomparable bridge to the past. Only then will Beijing authorities come to realize they erred in not cutting a deal with the man who was their last, best chance for a negotiated outcome.

Given the vast gulf of time that isolates the Dalai from his homeland, he is a refugee from another era.

It is hard for a refugee to be truly independent. The Dalai Lama has relied for decades on the support of foreign governments in New Delhi and Washington, each with their own separate and ever-evolving China agenda.

The dream of victorious return has been frustrated decade after decade, denied by history. Like the anti-Castro Cubans exiled in Miami, Tibetans in Dharmasala have become creatures of their adopted homeland, cut off from the island of their obsession.

The Dalai Lama’s recent intense frustration at the violent turn of events in Lhasa make this pain palpable. Normally calm and becalming, he was beside himself with agitation, and spoke of resigning.

Better for him to be a man of no status than the exalted leader of a movement gone bad.

When the Dalai Lama first came of age, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai handled him gingerly, wining and dining him in grand style in Beijing, offering a leisurely grace period for reform. Such hospitality was not necessarily deceptive or antagonistic; it was standard operating procedure in United Front politics. But Chinese pre-occupation with inviolate sovereignty meant that a high degree of autonomy for Tibet was never really on the table.

When he fled Tibet, the Dalai Lama burned bridges, perhaps permanently, especially after going on the CIA payroll at a time when the US sought to wage psychological warfare in tandem with covert destabilizing of China along its borders from 1959-1972.

In the West, the Dalai Lama may be seen as the ultimate man of peace, but in China he is still seen through the lens of mistakes he made in his militant youth.

Given the tireless preaching of non-violence and conciliation to anyone and everyone willing to listen, the Dalai Lama seems to seek atonement, if not a complete repudiation of his prior involvement with the CIA and Cold War scheming.

Preaching the middle way made the transformation possible, inaugurating the hugely successful second act in his variegated life. So effective has his staying on message as a paragon of non-violence that he has won respect for his political goal, autonomy under Chinese sovereignty, nearly everywhere but in China where his words of reconciliation continue to fall on deaf ears.

The legendary charm that the Dalai Lama used to woo and wow politicians in India and the United States is so potent that many Westerners, taking cues from Hollywood, which celebrates the underdog and is deeply hungry for anything resembling spiritual advice put him in the same league as Gandhi and Mandela if not Brad Pitt and Richard Gere.

With an image like that, one can do no wrong, and indeed, in the most recent flare-up, reservoirs of good will flowed in favor of the Tibetans, even though they rioted in the streets attacking Han Chinese.

Whatever happens in Tibet gets distorted by narrative frames reminiscent of Cold War thinking. It is reflexive thinking for foreign observers to share with the Tibetans an antipathy for anything to do with communism, and reflexive for religious-minded observers share a revulsion of Beijing’s soul-less atheism. But perhaps most important of all, there is widespread resentment, however peevish or unfair, of a rising China.

The underlying key to the Dalai Lama’s appeal is rooted in Western perceptions and misperceptions about Buddhism. Given similar grievances, it’s hard to imagine the religious leader of a persecuted Muslim minority group, let’s say in Indian Kashmir, south Thailand or south Philippines, enjoying anything near the same degree of almost unquestioned Western support.

Buddhism in the abstract enjoys a popularity that goes far beyond local variations of the Mahayana and Theravada creed in Asia. There is a popular, albeit somewhat inaccurate, "let-it-be" perception of Buddhism in the Western media that serves to conjure up support in distant quarters.

Buddhism generally puts emphasis on the voluntary and individualistic search for spirituality in sharp contrast to the proselytizing faiths. Buddhism, stripped of regional superstition and local color, and Tibetan Buddhism is nothing if not regional and colorful, offers a quiet, quasi-scientific quest for enlightenment through deep reflection. Thus Buddhism, in part due to the intrinsic wisdom of the faith, can travel in a way that the rather more doctrinaire, book-bound and bureaucratic religions such as Christianity or Islam would find hard to follow.

Even the decidedly unWestern and scientifically unprovable belief in reincarnation, the font of the Dalai Lama’s authority, has broad subconscious appeal. Who wouldn’t like to be reborn if such a thing were possible?

The people of Tibet can’t prove the Dalai Lama was reborn to serve them but they don’t question it, culturally programmed as they are to the stark hierarchies inherent in worshiping of a god-like leader, something which made Tibet unusually compliant under Mao.

The violent street riots that recently took place in Lhasa, foreign-choreographed or not, incorrectly reported or not, have nonetheless altered the status quo in Tibet beyond recognition. The Dalai Lama has taken collateral fire, hit with strident Communist Party invective of the sort not seen since Maoist years, all but obliterating the opportunity for peaceful settlement.

As global pressure comes to bear on the proud yet thin-skinned Chinese leadership, recently so clumsy in their response, betraying a telling lack of self-confidence, it could yield good and bad results, anticipated and inadvertent. Already the combination of one-sided state reporting and the penchant in China to see the motherland as victim under foreign attack threatens to produce a backlash in which a billion Chinese are rallied to hate Tibet and construe any foreign intervention as perfidy.

Yet, to take a subversively humble and conciliatory stance even now, especially now, after all the ill will that has welled up, would be the ultimate in Buddhist self-negation; it still remains a potent, if distant, possibility.

If the Dalai Lama does indeed resign, as he recently hinted, there is always the hope that by gently letting go at the very moment when others would cling and claw with all their might, he may reach the state of equanimity necessary to achieving spiritual immortality.

If so, the enlightened example of his last years in this particular incarnation may eventually illuminate the way to a just peace.