September 2009

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Tony, recently back from a fortnight in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, kindly wrote this post for Six on ethnic tensions in China. He begins with Tibet, but it isn’t hard to see the relevance of his conclusions to the current situation in Xinjiang.


“It is not easy to comment on Tibet. Even after a two-week trip there, I still have quite limited knowledge about the whole area. During the trip, I kept asking myself the same question: ‘how to describe the relationship between the Han Chinese and the Tibetans’. It seems that we are living in two worlds. Though most of the Tibetans I came across were kind and honest, I still felt a little bit uneasy to discuss that sensitive issue with them. However, on the Han Chinese side, I was continuously intrigued by the fact that many of them have stereotypes and prejudices when talking about Tibetans.

Take a story that happened on our train ride for example. During lunch time, several young Chinese visitors were chatting with Tibetan students who were studying in Beijing. The former asked the latter what they could eat on campus. The Tibetan girl replied with laughter, “Everyone we come across tends to think that Tibetans only eat zanba. As a matter of fact, we had the same meals as Han Chinese students do in Beijing.” Then the conversation goes on from college life to Linkin Park, with even more confusing looks on our Chinese visitors’ faces.

Similar scenarios came up during our trip to Shigatse, where we had a chance to visit typical local residences. On the way back, many travelers expressed that the Tibetan living style was primitive and their religious beliefs superstitious. What annoys me slightly was that when Han Chinese travelers were talking to local citizens, they kept asking questions such as how much money they made and, to some extent, judged all things in a sense of material wealth. As a Chinese, I think we have a better understanding than the Americans that Tibet is not a Shangri-la paradise. However, instead of romanticizing Tibet, it seems that many Han Chinese, at least some visitors, lack basic respect for the Tibetan culture and religion.

I am not sure how the Tibetans perceive the Han Chinese or how to define the relations of the two ethnic groups in China. Yet it is certain that for almost every state, such racial problems are taken as a formidable challenge. If we look back to the late 1980s, it is the ethnic problems within the Soviet Union that led the Chinese government to seriously judge its own domestic situation. After the collapse of the USSR, Chinese Party leaders drew the conclusion that nationalism and separation activities would be on the rise around the globe. One of the lessons learned by the ruling officials at that time was that ethnic disunity is fatal to the survival of the party. And the CPC thereafter took all efforts to avoid repeating the same mistakes of the USSR.

It is necessary to acknowledge the vitality of national and ethnic solidarity. But I am afraid such principle has gone too far in contemporary China. Instead of frankly pointing out the tensions between racial groups and the flaws in our ethnic policy, the ruling elites, from time to time, blamed ‘evil external forces’ for crimes. Admittedly, various international actors were partly responsible for the accidents. However, we should not overlook the severe flaws and obvious weaknesses within China’s domestic ethnic relations. Acknowledging these problems and having a transparent investigation of why someone committed an act of violence should not be condemned as unpatriotic. After all, it is a formidable task we have to undertake so as to prevent the situation from worsening.

In a nutshell, since Tibet and other ethnic problems have become the forefront of the Sino-Western conflict, one possible solution to avoid miscalculation is to establish a well-managed channel for China and Western countries, thus letting secret talk become open dialogue. Instead of helplessly looking at the escalation of international conflicts, this should be a cost-effective way to let both sides understand the real situation and help our Western counterparts see what might or might not work in China when tackling its ethnic problems.”


Update: Over at CNReviews, Kai Pan dissects Tony’s post … impressed with his observations but in the end disappointed at his seeming “too preoccupied with how China looks in Westerners’ eyes (China’s “face”)”.

China’s new new youth

For anyone interested, I have a new post on the China Beat, introducing the new generation of young driven Chinese by way of the six characters I follow here. They’ve been called “the stupid generation”. I beg to differ.

With a new academic year looming tomorrow, I’ll take this opportunity to say a big thanks to everyone who has helped Six this last year: first and foremost to Ben, Jack, Leonidas, Marie, Mary, Matilda, Tony and William; also to the sites (especially China Beat, CDT and CNReviews) which have given links; to my brother for his design and technical help; mama and papa for telling people about it even if they don’t want to know; and finally thank you to everyone other than my immediate family who reads Six!

Plenty of blogging to come this year, from Tsinghua campus as well as Beida …

And I’m not talking about that bootleg copy of Adam Smith you bought on an overpass for ten kuai (down from fifty because you’re a guizi). I’m talking contemporary books, often with Western takes on China, translated into Chinese and published officially, on sale in Xinhua bookstores.

The answer is yes, as testified by the publication of this book* by the Oriental Publishing House (dongfang chubanshe) last spring – translated into Chinese by none other than Six contributor Jack. Jack worked on it for most of 2007, while still in full time study – I remember him asking me with great concern that summer if ‘council housing’ meant ‘parliamentary housing’ as he thought it did.

The Downing Street living conditions of Britain’s poorest rectified, Jack’s translation is thorough and faithful. But it’s no surprise, I guess, that the references to the 1989 student protests in the book are nowhere to be found. At the publishing house itself (hammer and sickle flag on the table right next to the communist stars), we were told this is because potential readers might not understand such references, or be offended by them, and therefore not buy the book.

This is of course complete rubbish if presented as the only reason for censorship. It was echoed again when I met up privately with a young Renmin University graduate who works at the publishing house: fear of losing profit was the motivation for cutting those bits out, not fear of political whiplash. She assured me there was no government interference at their editorial round table. She also repeated what her boss had said: that, “by the way”, the presentation of 6/4 in Western books tended to be very “bloodied”.

The publishing house also asked Jack to write a preface for the book. They clearly had in mind that he would distance their company from the ideas which were to follow. To this end, there are liberal reminders in the preface that the book is written “from the perspective of Western culture”, and Jack’s penultimate paragraph tells readers:

Many of the thoughts included in this book, it should be said, are relatively typical of the Western world, reflecting Western scholars’ outlook and their environment, and there are some points of view and statements that we cannot fully agree to. The translation and publishing of this book in China is only so that readers can open the window of understanding to the West, and to have a positive effect on advancing communication between the two sides.**

So the answer to my question is ‘yes’ but a cagey ‘yes’: Chinese translations of Western writings are the book, nothing but the book, but not necessarily the whole book. I gather that only very few Western books are actually banned from publication in China, including Bill Clinton’s My Life. [or that was what the publisher told me at the time, and turns out to be completely wrong, thus exposing my fact-checking nudity]

Still, in an ever opening China, it’s the ‘yes’ that counts and not its myriad qualifications.

*Update*: here’s an email from Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of history at UC Irvine and founding China Beatnik:

I’d amend [your post] a bit to say that almost anything can be published that isn’t specifically about China, with just some tweaks and cuts (and I’ve found it fascinating that for some time, Orwell’s work has been more readily available in China than tended to be in Central and Eastern Europe when under Communist Party rule). But as for books specifically about China, that’s a different matter. It is a hard thing to track, but certain subjects are off-limits, and sometimes it seems, a China specialist author is treated as non-suitable for translation no matter what he or she is writing about…


* which, full disclosure, is written by my father

** originally: 本书蕴含的许多思想应当说在西方世界中是比较典型的,反映了西方学者自有的观角和他们的语境,有些观点和说法也是我们不能全面苟同的,翻译出版本书只是为读者了解西方打开一扇窗,对从方交流能起一定的促进作用。

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