"To be a friend of China means lots of pain along with joy," Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, noted in a recent email. "It is like being the friend of any complicated person."
For a decade or more, Waters has been working hard to keep China from becoming demonized as a new USSR in the American popular imagination. In 2002, he wrote,
This is a moment of special opportunity. We are going to need all the sensitivity, curiosity, brains and restraint that the admirable Professor Lacombe shows in Steven Spielberg's movie, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," as he helps the earthlings approach the aliens from the UFO. We need to cultivate new China specialists, including scholars who will guide us from their "Mainland" birthplace. Despite politically-motivated sabre-rattling on both sides of the Pacific, we have no cold war. Yet. It is time to make connections.
Waters was prescient. In 2005, The Atlantic Monthly published a fear-mongering cover story titled "How We Would Fight China."
It's not that Waters wants to give China a pass on Tibet, Darfur, the poisonous foods and medicines, exploitation in factories and deaths in mines, pollution in Beijing, the heavy hand of state censorship, and so forth. But should liberals and leftists in the west demonize China? Isn't that exactly what right-wing hawks want us to do?
Recently, as pro-Tibet activists have protested in cities that hosted the Olympic torch relay, anti-China sentiment in America and Europe has spiked. "Everything related to the games, as French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent threat to boycott the Olympics opening ceremony shows, has now become an opportunity for moral grandstanding, an opportunity to portray China as everything we in the West are not," notes Tim Black at the online magazine Spiked.
Instead of moral grandstanding, Waters claims, we should learn from Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who made a speech to an audience at Peking University, on April 9, in which he prefaced remarks about Tibet by encouraging China to join the rest of humanity as "a responsible global stakeholder," and described himself as China's zhengyou -- that is, a true friend who dares to disagree [i.e., with Chinese official and mainstream opinion on matters of international concern].
WBUR's "On Point" was a zhengyou last week. Former Ideas editor Wen Stephenson, now senior producer at "On Point," wrote to alert me that Tom Ashbrook and two producers were broadcasting from Shanghai. Listen to those shows -- about the Olympics, "Young China," "China's New Politics," "China's Environmental Crisis," "Dissent: China's third rail," and more -- here.
Words Without Borders, the online magazine for international literature, is also a zhengyou. Their April issue is titled "Olympic Voices from China." As the world looks to Beijing and the 2008 Olympics, the editors note in the most recent WWB newsletter,
we present a national women's team of writers to guide us through the richly sedimented and often contradictory layers of the current Chinese psyche. Against the background of contemporary China -- where modern business harks back to historical trade, economic growth introduces the painful reality of layoffs, the Cantonese dialect asserts itself against Mandarin, and an argument for the one-child policy takes a peculiarly feminist twist -- characters run from social and cultural pressure, fight to support extended families, and dive into unrequited love. Huang Yongmei, Liu Sola, Sheng Keyi, Wang Anyi, Wang Ping, Ye Mi, and Zhao Ying introduce us to the humor, pathos, and great complexity that is China today.
Then there's the environmentalist angle to consider. Writing in the New York Times this past Sunday, Michael Pollan asked,
Let's say I ... turn my life upside-down, start biking to work, plant a big garden, turn down the thermostat so low I need the Jimmy Carter signature cardigan, forsake the clothes dryer for a laundry line across the yard, trade in the station wagon for a hybrid, get off the beef, go completely local. I could theoretically do all that, but what would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelganger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who's positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I'm struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?
Over at Slate today, actor and activist Edward Norton has an answer. Norton is the host of the National Geographic TV series Strange Days on Planet Earth, and he answered questions from Washington Post readers about the changes to the earth's eco-systems and what to do about them:
Boston, Mass.: In light of the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, there has been significant media attention on China recently. Accelerated growth combined with a large population is causing growing concerns amongst environmentalists throughout the world. How can we respectfully reconcile China's right to develop with the need for environmental controls? How can we convince the Chinese that we are not against them, but instead that the nature of their development bears a direct effect on the health of the world.
Edward Norton: My father founded the Nature Conservancy's program in China, which is one of the most ambitious conservation management programs ever undertaken in terms of scale. He spent 7 years living and working in China and I supported his work and spent a lot of time over there. I think most people in the West would be surprised at how many people in China are focused on these exact questions and very concerned about them and working hard to advocate for sensible solutions. One significant positive shift is that the government has definitely started paying close attention to the warnings of its own scientists and stopped politicizing any science that was 'bad news'. In certain areas China actually seems capable of leapfrogging some of our own worst mistakes but in other areas, energy production especially, they are creating an infrastructure that will pollute horribly.
OK, it's not an answer to the question, "Why should I bother living a green lifestyle when the Chinese are about to become the world's worst polluters?" But demonizing the Chinese shouldn't be an excuse for Americans to do nothing about the environment, and Norton's answer is helpful.
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