A good friend of mine, someone I’ve known and grown to love in the last four years has committed herself to a relationship with someone I don’t really care for at all. I know she’s not stupid. I know that she knows that he doesn’t treat his kids very well. That he is dictatorial, censorious, and hungry for power. I know that she knows he’s desperately short of natural resources. That he has a habit of burying history. That he is a little indiscriminate in his choice of bedfellows. So, what do I do?
Blowing in the wind
For three years now, I’ve been reading the labels on everything I buy. Apart from the tools of my trade – my laptop, my printer, and my mobile – practically nothing else I’ve bought in the last three years has been made in China. And I’ve saved millions of forints because it’s nigh on impossible to find anything these days that isn’t made in China. One day, we will wake up and find we have no choice left at all. Feel free to laugh. Others have. I’m sure that China hasn’t even noticed what I’m doing. It’s not as if my few forints are going to affect its balance of trade. I might not be achieving anything other than peace of mind, but that, to me, is priceless.
Keeping troublemakers at bay
China’s history of human rights abuse is well known, particularly with regard to Tibet. Just last month, documented, registered Tibetans were ‘summoned’ to the Hungarian immigration office (BÁH) and kept there until after midnight in case they felt the need to take to the streets to express their concerns at the visit of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Am I the only one who is deeply upset by this complete disregard for the basic right of freedom of assembly? So the government had Hungary’s interests at heart and was apparently driven to such actions to protect the interests of the state. But just as my pathetic boycott of Chinese products is, and always will be, completely ineffective, did the government really believe that China would have hurried back home without putting pen to paper twelve times had there been a demonstration or three? And if so, what does that say about the rather precarious nature of this relationship? When one party is desperately afraid of upsetting the other, surely things will never quite be equal? My friend, my friend, just what are you letting yourself in for?
Arresting a harmonious society
While publishing colleagues assure me that China’s censors are still wielding their black markers on paper texts, the recent popularity of the Internet is creating a host of new problems. In a thought-provoking article for the International Herald Tribune magazine recently, author Yu Hua talks about the phenomenon of May 35th. For the rest of the world, the date does not exist, but in China, May 35th really means June 4, 1989. When people want to talk about the unmentionable Tiananmen Square ‘incident’, they refer to it as May 35th. So long is the list of words blacklisted from the Internet, that May 35th has come to describe a style of writing. To circumvent the censors, Internet users have developed a code of sorts. For example, with the Chinese government so anxious to promote a ‘harmonious society’, being ‘harmonized’ is code for getting shut down or arrested. Of course the government knows what’s going on – they’re aware of the barbed meaning but were they to ban it, they would, in effect, be banning the harmonious society they are so earnestly advocating. As Yu Hua put it: Harmony has been hijacked by the public. Hungary, my friend, you know this and yet you persist.
Burying history in a corner
The New York Times recently reported that the newly renovated National History Museum, which occupies a space of some 185 000 square meters, contains just a single photograph and three lines of text dealing with the Cultural Revolution that tore China apart from 1966 to 1976 and resulted in millions of deaths. And even this is hidden away in a back corner. How many more skeletons has my friend’s new partner buried in a back closet?
Yes, I know that China’s recent surge to dominance could well be just the world getting back on kilter. Yes, I know that for 1800 of the last 2000 years, China and India were the two largest economies in the world. And yes, I know that China has pulled billions out of poverty and the heavy weight of censure is being visibly relaxed. Yet I still worry that this new partnership is more a matter of pragmatism than principle. And if so, what does that say about my friend?
First published in the Budapest Times 22 July 2011