Sunday, August 10, 2008

John Edwards the Villain

This morning an American friend called from San Francisco. We hadn't talked for a while so we chit-chatted about his job pushing ethnic studies in 9th grade, Obama, and the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. He is a school teacher and a big-time Sinophile, having spent a year learning Chinese in Beijing and coming back almost every year during summer break.

Invariably, our conversation turned to America and China. He said that he felt increasing negative sentiment on China in the US. China is a growing threat. China has big problems in human rights and Tibet. China doesn’t deserve the Olympics. And China cheats--just look at those female Chinese gymnasts; they can't be not under-aged!

But the US cheats in other areas--Look at Bush and Iraq! Thus argued my friend.

One wrong doesn't justify another, said his friends.

It was impossible for him to discuss China with his American friends, he said. He doesn't understand the vehemence in their attitude, as if they all know China so well that their opinions are susceptible to no persuasion. When he explained the China he knew from personal experience is a lot more complex, his friends accused him of acting like a China expert, again.

"But that's exactly what I'm arguing against," his exasperation rushed over through the cross-Pacific phone connection, "that even after having lived in China and known so many Chinese, I don't dare to claim to know China. How can they be so sure of their convictions? They have never come to China. They don’t know a single Chinese. They just buy the stories fed to them by the media!”

I laughed. I said that so many people seem to know China nowadays. Even long-time expats in Beijing are handing out digests on how to approach and report on China for tourists and journalists visiting for the Games. Yet like my friend, I find China increasingly complex, and rich, and eluding easy characterization, especially after having lived in Hangzhou without any expat for the past few months.

People need a villain to stamp on, I suggested, just like they need a hero to worship; and China is the new big villain to quench this desire.

My pseudo-psychological analysis seemed satisfactory, but not to have alleviated my friend's worries. After hanging up the phone, I went online. The English-language reporting on the Opening Ceremony has been glowing (now it's the turn of the Chinese netizens to trash the event). For a while, the world appeared to have forgotten the issues of Tibet, Uighur and human rights, and accepted China's message of peace and harmony, just as I was entranced by the TV screen on the opening night and moved to tears on several occasions.

Then I read the detailed reporting on John Edwards's salacious affair and the millions of dollars bestowed on that woman and the recent contrite public apology on such a shameful act as well as the insistence of no knowledge on the millions of dollars having been lavished on that woman.

Even a poster boy of a man self-made through hard work and moral righteousness failed to the human weakness. And I believe Edwards is still doing as much as he can to control the damage--including lying.

So we all have a villain inside. Why villainize China so much?

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