Wednesday, January 04, 2006
China, a semantic problem?
I posted the story Hung Up on Dec 21 about the Beijing cops shutting down a Gay & Lesbian Cultural Festival billed as China’s first. Danwei, a well-known blog on media in China, quoted my blog in their story “Chinese government: It's OK to be gay, just don't make a fuss”. The author of that story noted that the state-owned Beijing Review had just published a front-cover article about the opening up of gay life in China.
In conclusion of the two events, the Danwei article opined that “The message from the government is quite clear: be as gay as you want, just don't try to organize a large group of people to get together and talk about it too loudly.”
The author of the Beijing Review article, who’s a Beijing woman in her 20s, contacted me after visiting Danwei’s site. She explained that the gay festival got shut down the day after her article came out. She was very sympathetic to the gay movement and asked what I thought of Danwei’s perspective.
Regardless of how un-Chinese some of my friends accuse me of, I still have the knee-jerk reaction to Western media’s criticism on China – not another conspiracy theory! (truth be told, I lost interest in conspiracy theories after the ending of the X Files.) I did not believe that the government orchestrated the two events, or it has a clear view on gay life in China. My view of the government is a lot more benign – that it consists of old bureaucrats who do not understand homosexuality, who shut down any public assembly of any size just in case some higher-up ask question and put their jobs in jeopardy; especially in Beijing where there are many many levels of higher-ups and anything public is considered a loud statement from “China”. (Will I get arrested for leaking state secret someday for this?)
When I interviewed Kaiser Kuo, a founding member of the influential rock band Tang Dynasty, for my first documentary, he made a comment that regrettably I couldn’t include in my final cut. He said that many people in the West considered China this monolithic structure with any oppressive order directly from the very top; thus the headlines of “China!” or “the Chinese government!” did so and so. In actuality the picture is a lot more complex, with a lot of chaos, inertia and cultural baggage interpreted as bad intentions.
So I wondered, in light of the Danwei article – are many of the opinions on China or the Chinese government simply semantic confusions? What is China anyway when included in a news headline? Similarly, who represents “the government”?
The closest I ever interact with “the government”, is via Beijing Weekend, a weekly under China’s official English-language newspaper China Daily. I’m writing stories for them (hopefully) regularly. For the first story, I simply reedit my blog posting “Drinking With Chinese Characteristics”. In that posting I started the story by first describing a pimp selling me all sorts of girls in Sanlitun and not flinching when I joked that I wanted boys. I self-censored that part out because Beijing Weekend is a state-owned magazine.
The editor asked me to put it back.
IMHO, I think the media too often regard the “the government” as too one-sided. There are people in “the government” pushing the envelope like my editor and the writer for Beijing Reviews. But there are also those who are conditioned to act in the old authoritarian ways.
On New Year’s day, I went to the underground church (or family church to be more political correct) again and met a dissident intellectual there. He had been put in prison for 4 years for publishing politically incorrect (seriously) books. His opinion on China and the government?
“Nobody knows where China is going. There are simply way too many problems. That’s why many officials are so nervous; they move their assets overseas and send their kids to America to get American passports. You never know if one tiny setback could bring down the whole system. And then there’ll be chaos. The liberal faction in the government wants to reform and modernize the party. Me? I think it’s too late. The party has lost its chance to reform as it has lost its touch with the masses.
“But what is the alternative? Falun Gong maybe. Honestly it’s strong enough to challenge the government now. The government crackdown only speeds up its spread, giving it many more martyrs. If you look at China’s history since the Yuan Dynasty, you’ll see many social changes are brought by religious movements. If Li Hongzhi (founder of Falun Gong) makes a call to arms, there’ll be millions who follow. In fact, the Western media have done Falun Gong a big favor by portraying the government crackdown as human rights abuse while it’s actually a political struggle for power. Now Falun Gong has accumulated many PR and financial assets in the West which made it a lot stronger.”
Now I’m straying too far. We were discussing China. What is China again? Perhaps I’m confused because I’m right in it. Perhaps looking from afar, all of the inconsistencies could be summed up into some consistencies, into some supra-governmental intention or motivation that could be argued about and swayed. In the case of Hung Up, the sum of the reactionary cops and the liberal state-employed journalists could just be what Danwei stated “It's OK to be gay, just don't make a fuss”.
I do hope so. For I remember the days when we didn’t have TV or any other electronics in the house except for a radio which my dad tried to fix but never succeeded; for my dad remembered the days of the Cultural Revolution when different factions used machine guns at each other, and my mom remembered the great famine during the Great Leap Forward; for my grandpa remembered the days when the Japanese were massacring in Nanjing and the Nationalist government had to hide in Chongqing.
Despite all my detest of the government’s rallying cry for a “harmonious society”, despite all my loathing of the Chinese culture’s emphasis on conformity and self-imposed insecurity, I dread the memories and I hope “China” could be understood, discussed with and nudged on.
Before then? I’ll shelf my complaints of life in China for a few days and savor the following from the Beijing Review article:
“ ‘People are busier making money now,’ said Tony Li, owner of Shanghai’s Vogue gay bar. ‘They don’t have time to bother other people, and they are getting more and more information from abroad, so there is a higher degree of tolerance toward gays.’”
Even though there’s no independent judicial system, we don’t have any anti-sodomy law to appeal. Even though there are few open gay people, we don’t have any religious conservatives condemning us to be killed.
From the gay perspective, things are not so bad.