Smells Like Old Spirit

China! Have no idea how to write it down without rambling … but something deeply troubles me and there is no easy way around or out of it. It troubles me a lot, it creates a huge challenge and also brings a certain sense of helplessness.

In the West, we are very worried about the rise of authoritarianism in many places around the world, including in our midst. But there is another large elephant in the room – what about about the dilemma and conundrum of our dealings with the Communist government in China? The system and power which reminds the Chinese people who is in charge and plans to stay in charge and tells the rest of the world “Stay out of it if you want our business”. And, oh, we want and need that business.

If you are an American reading my blog, this has nothing to do with the current trade wars between the US and China because you may have noticed that the human rights, liberty and democracy question is not even on the table. All we hear is talk of money and superpower competition. If you are an Asian, you have your own strong opinions which I am familiar with after having lived in Southeast Asia for many years. It is always difficult to be the smaller and weaker neighbor next to a regional hegemony and world superpower. Just ask the people in Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, etc…

Remember Francis Fukuyama and his famous (or by now infamous?) 1989 thesis of The End of History? Well, this “end” is turning into the “same old, same old”. My personal strong emotions and reflections come from the fact that I still remember my childhood and the life in the USSR – a totally oppressive and repressive system – and for those  who know what it smells, tastes and feels like, there is a strong aversion to these kinds of manifestations of power, manipulation, abuse and denial of freedom.

I also remember the propaganda and how hard the Soviet regime tried to manufacture a pretty image of a happy society. especially to the outside world. And I sense such a familiar spirit when I think of China  and when I watch how carefully and masterfully it manufactures and lobbies its image around the world  as the most “peace loving, truthful, pragmatic, benevolent, long-term thinking, secure, wealth producing and well-wishing” government. There are too many cracks in this facade.

And through those cracks, if we care to know and look carefully, we know that all is not what it seems. But these days we have to look hard because we don’t hear these stories in our media. Every once in a while there may be an article about the oppression of ethnic Uighur, a primarily Muslim group in Xinjiang province. We can read the reports about “re-education” camps and massive abuses of human rights. Or we can read the stories about the escalating crackdown on personal religious freedom and religious groups . In case it has completely escaped your attention, read this article by the Washington Post.

It has nothing to do with my personal Chinese friends whom I love and cherish. It has nothing to do with the amazing culture, history, cuisine, hard work, entrepreneurship and simply amazing people and the beautiful country of China. I have been privileged to visit it and have my claim of having walked on the Great Wall. And I certainly hope to return because there is so much more to see and to learn.

But what about those things that the Chinese government does not want the rest of the world to see? Working very hard to keep this poster image and somehow succeeding. What about the proponents of the ‘liberalism’ theory of international relations which proposes that the Western liberal values will get planted and automatically bring fruit in places like China through closer ties, trade and co-operation? Is it really working out??? I wish it was. I am no expert on Chinese politics but from what I can hear, read and sense, instead of the liberal values gaining momentum, the system is cracking down and making another hard effort to convince the Chinese people and the rest of the world that exchanging your freedom, including your faith convictions, for some kind of national security, financial gain and state control is a perfectly good way for the future.

Last night I went to hear a lecture by an American historian Stephen Kotkin and few things he said triggered this post because it reminded why many things in our Western approach to Chinese “capitalist” communism does not sit well with me. The most important question is always the personal one – even if my government will not criticize and speak out against these massive human rights abuses, I do have a voice. Small and insignificant but a voice.

After the lecture I had two short conversations and one person used the example of a woodpecker – how it keeps pecking and pecking and pecking until the branch or even the whole tree is hollow enough to come down. I would like to borrow this metaphor. So, while churches are getting closed down, people jailed for all kinds of political, ideological and religious reasons and minority ethnic groups being “Sinicized” in China, we need to keep pecking and pecking… that it is not OK and that we refuse to accept it as the new ‘normal’.

 

Growing up in the Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors

Often people ask me what was it like to grow up in Soviet Union? What kind of childhood I had and how did it compare to the way they imagined it. They want to know the story behind the story.

Winston Churchill coined the phrase “Iron Wall”. Of course, there was a literal wall in Berlin and largely our borders were impenetrable but mostly it was an invisible but powerful barrier of different kind. Not physical, but ideological one. Like looking at each other through the Looking Glass where the reality appears very different. If not the reality itself, then certainly the definition and meaning of things.

Even children’s stories revealed this. In the USSR, we often had our own versions of famous Western novels. I am sure that some critics would argue but to me one of those ‘revised copies’ was a Soviet fairy tale called “Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors” by Vitali Gubarev which was also made into a popular children’s movie. A Soviet answer to “Through the Looking-Glass” by Lewis Carroll

The plot of each story is different but the main idea remains the same – reality is distorted on the other side. In Lewis Carroll’s story, the main character Alice experienced weird and illogical and confusing things in the strange chess world of power inside the looking glass. But the heroes of the Soviet story, Olya and her mirror image Yalo, were not confused. They saw things clearly. They discovered a world of evil and exploitation and greed and they overcame all the challenges because they came from the “best country in the world” and they were brave little “pioneers”. (Pioneers – a communist youth organization in the USSR. We wore red scarfs which symbolized the Soviet flag)

The evil powers were three plotting characters who wanted to overthrow the king. Their names were spelled backwards (actually in the kingdom everyone’s name was spelled backwards) but they were Kite, Snake and Toad. I saw the movie many times and I quickly figured out that they must be the Western capitalists, imperialists and exploiters.

In the story, Olya and Yalo saved a boy named Friend. He was what you would call a political prisoner because he was imprisoned and sentenced to death for refusing to make the crooked mirrors. The mirrors are everywhere and they show you thin if you are fat, young if you are old, smart if you are stupid and so on. So, the whole kingdom is based on lies and people are turned into either hypocrites or slaves.

I loved the story and I enjoyed the movie. I wanted to be a brave little pioneer like these girls and I wanted to rid the world of all evil and greed and lies.

Then as I was getting older, I started to realize that our own country was full of crooked mirrors and people were making them (think media, education, official history, even literature and art) and people were made to accept the distorted ‘truth’. You did not dare to disagree and those who did… well, they were silenced, sidelined or exiled.

One day the Looking Glass came crashing down. The longer the distance of time the more I start to feel – did I live in a movie? Was it real?

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Photos from the movie “Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors” (USSR)