Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Every Knee Shall Bow and Every Tongue Confess the Name of Nike

Today I'm reading China in Ten Words (Pantheon, 2011) by Yu Hua. Born in 1960, Yu grew up during the Cultural Revolution in conditions of moderate poverty (which means he was hungry most of the time, but not hungry enough to die of it), though both his parents were medical doctors. In these essays, he contrasts his memories of China's recent past with its drastically changed present, but he's not interested in oversimplifying the present either. After I'd started reading the book, I looked again at the blurbs on the back cover, especially this one from Orville Schell, a longtime writer on East Asia.
In this era of the China Boom, when Communist Party officials are so inclined to erase the travails of their country's past from public consciousness, Yu Hua's insistence on remembering comes as an almost shocking intrusion into a willful state of amnesia. His earthy, even ribald, meditations on growing up in small-town China during Mao's Cultural Revolution remind us of just how twisted China's progress into the present has been and how precariously balanced its success story actually still is.
Ah, the State of Amnesia! It ought to be admitted to the Union officially, it's so essential to our nationhood. For any American to dwell on another nation's will to amnesia is disingenuous. Schell has his own history as a critic of US policy in East Asia, especially Vietnam, but from this paragraph it sounds like he's been reabsorbed into the American elite that spawned him. There's nothing exactly false in what he wrote, though; it's just a wee bit one-sided. Advocates of capitalist "reforms" in the US don't want to think about the human cost of China's "progress into the present" either -- well, the Right is concerned about the plight of Christians there, it's true, and the Liberal-Left is very concerned about dangerous child toys we import from China. But the human cost to most Chinese? Not so much.

For example, in "Disparity" Yu recounts this story, which he heard from his "friend Cui Yongyuan, an anchorman on China Central Television," who,
In May 2006, ... began to retrace the route of the Red Army’s Long March, along with his film crew and twenty-six other people from different walks of life. It took them 250 days to travel the 3,800 miles …

By the summer of that year, just when the soccer World Cup finals were taking place in Germany, Cui’s miniature Long March expedition arrived at an impoverished area in China’s southwest, and there he had a sudden inspiration to organize a soccer match for the local primary school children. Even if it was a far cry from the passions of Berlin, he thought, at least it would create a little ripple of World Cup excitement in this backward hinterland county.

He immediately encountered two problems. The first was that no soccer ball could be found in the stores of the county town, so he had to send two fellow Long Marchers off in a car to a bigger city to buy one. The second was that the local primary school children not only had never seen a soccer match; they had never even heard that such a game existed [155-6].
From the context that Yu provides, it's clear that never having heard of soccer is the least of these children's disadvantages. Cui's cluelessness would, I feel sure, be echoed by most Americans on learning that these children had never heard of the Superbowl. Someone would probably start a charity to bring that and other similar blessings of civilization to these poor unfortunates.

Yu knows better, though. A bit later in the same essay he talks about poverty in China. He says that around a hundred million Chinese earn no more than 800 yuan (US $125.99) per year, and tells this story:

When I pointed this out at a talk in Vancouver in 2009, a Chinese student rose to his feet. “Money is not the sole criterion for judging happiness,” he objected. This remark made me shudder, for it is not just a single student’s view; a substantial number of people in China today would take a similar line. Surrounded by images of China’s growing prosperity, they have not the slightest inclination to concern themselves with the hundred million who still struggle in unimaginable poverty. That is the real tragedy: poverty and hunger are not as shocking as willful indifference to them. As I told the Chinese student, the issue is not how we judge happiness but how we address a widespread social problem. “If you are someone with an annual income of only 800 yuan, you will earn a lot of respect for saying what you did,” I replied. “But you’re not.”
China isn't a Christian country, but it has traditions of concern for the poor, however inadequately they were carried out in practice. Communism took them further, however badly Mao's regime carried them out in practice. Capitalism has no such tradition, and Yu's story reminded me that when I see right-wing Christians on Facebook call for putting Christ back into Christmas and God back into America, they never talk about poverty, in the US or elsewhere. (The closest I've seen anyone come to it was in the immediate aftermath of last year's earthquake in Haiti, when one Christian Facebook friend complained that though people go to bed hungry in the US, "we have a benefit for the people of Haiti on 12 stations." But she didn't want universal healthcare, because it would help "illegal immigrants.") All that matters to them is that there be a Christmas tree in the White House, that no one says "Happy Holidays", that everyone says "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, and that we support our troops -- until they come home, at which point who cares? None of these concerns can be found anywhere in the New Testament, but one theme that runs through both testaments is care of the poor. "Sell all you have and give to the poor" is one of those teachings of Jesus like "There are those who make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven" -- all very well in his day, no doubt, but no longer relevant in ours.

At another points of the political spectrum, blame is laid at the feet of the poor for having too many children, a familiar theme from a century ago. China was the culprit then, and there was more fuss in the US about the prospect of a billion Chinese than there ever was about a billion Hindus, though I think India got there first. And probably there are more human beings than we can support; the trouble is that there's very little serious attempt to support them. Instead we get distractions, like China's capitalist "reforms." As Raymond Williams wrote in "Socialism and Ecology," twenty or thirty years ago, it's an error that even the great socialist theorists couldn't seem to avoid:
Because of course these attitudes of mastering and conquering had from beginning been associated not just with mastering the earth, or natural substances, or making water do what you wanted, but with pushing other people around, with going wherever there were things which you wanted, and subjugating and conquering. That’s where the metaphors of conquest and mastery came from. They were a classic rationale of imperialism in just that expanding phase. They were from the whole internal ethic of an expanding capitalism: to master nature, to conquer it, to shift it around to do what you want with it. Engels went along with that and then suddenly remembered where the metaphor came from and said, quite correctly: we shall never understand this if we fail to remember that we are ourselves part of nature, and that what is involved in this mastery and conquest is going to going to have its effects on us; we can’t just arrive and depart as a foreign conqueror. But then he shifted back, under the influence of this very strong nineteenth-century triumphalism about nature, and took up the metaphors again. And still today we read these triumphalist arguments about production. They are a bit less confident now, but if you read the typical case for socialism, as it became standard between the wars in the dominant tendency, it is all in terms of mastering nature, setting new human horizons, creating plenty as the answer to poverty...

It has always been a running argument within the Labour Party, especially since 1945, whether we’re going to get equality, and what are usually referred to as ‘the things we all want’ – schools and hospitals are usually the first to be named – when we’ve got the economy right, when we’ve produced enough, enlarged the national cake and so on; or whether equality and the priority of human needs require, as their first and necessary condition, fundamental changes in our social and economic institutions and relationships. I think we now have to see that argument as settled. The usual ‘national cake’ position, the soft political option, can be seen to rest on a basic fallacy, which the United States has demonstrated to the world – and no society is ever going to be relatively richer in gross indiscriminate production than that one – that by getting to a certain level of production you solve the problems of poverty and inequality. Tell them that in the slums, the inner cities, of rich America! All socialists are then forced to recognize that we have to intervene on quite a different basis. We have to say, as Tawney said sixty years ago, that no society is too poor to afford a right order of life. And no society is so rich that it can afford to dispense with a right order, or hope to get it merely by becoming rich. This is in my view the central socialist position. We can never accept so-called solutions to our social and economic problems which are based on the usual crash programmes of indiscriminate production, after which we shall get ‘the things we all want’. By the ways in which we produce, and the ways in which we organize production and its priorities – including, most notably, the inherent capitalist priority of profit – we create social relations which then determine how we distribute the production and how people actually live [reprinted in Resources of Hope (Verso, 1989), 214, 222].
Reading Hua's account, I remembered something the American historian Stephen F. Cohen wrote about Russia in the 1990s, in his Failed Crusade (Norton, 2000):

Many American correspondents clearly did not like "doom and gloom" stories about unpaid wages and pensions, malnutrition, and decaying provinces, where, a Russian journalist tells us, "desperation touches everyone." (Newsweek's correspondent advised the poor to continue living on bread: "They could do worse.") ... American journalists found instead preferable "metaphors for Russia's metamorphosis" -- usually in the tiny segment of Moscow society that had prospered, from financial oligarchs to yuppies spawned by the temporary proliferation of Western enterprises.

Thus, for a Washington Post columnist who had recently been a correspondent, an especially successful insider beneficiary of state assets was a progressive "baby billionaire" and, for the Wall Street Journal, a "Russian Bill Gates." For many others, like a New York Times editorial writer and also former Moscow correspondent, "One of the best seats for observing the new Russia is on the terrace outside the cavernous McDonald's [that] serves as a mecca for affluent young Muscovites. They arrive in Jeep Cherokees and Toyota Land Cruisers, cell phones in hand." In the New Russia at that time, the average monthly wage, when actually paid, was about sixty dollars, and falling [16-17].
It's more or less the same for American media covering American people: the rich and fabulous are the real America, the other ninety-nine percent or so don't count and barely exist. So why not take the same approach when covering China or the former Soviet Union?

Yu Hua doesn't care to forget the rest of the population, so he won't let you, or his Chinese readers, forget them either. But then he's not one of China's New Class of rich people, though the New York Times claims that, because his novels have sold well, he "has gone on to receive an ample share of the fruits of capitalism" (Yu alludes to this interview in China in Ten Words). He benefited from the cultural openings of the 1980s to become a writer, but he also benefited from Chinese political and economic egalitarianism:
In China during the 1980s, a doctor wasn’t any richer than a worker. The doctors then were all poor bastards. They were given fixed wages by the government. So I gave up being a dentist to work at a cultural center without suffering any stress either emotionally or economically. On the contrary, I felt so happy I nearly woke up smiling. I turned from being a poor bastard who worked his ass off every day into a poor bastard who had a jolly good time every day. I was still a poor bastard, but a poor bastard in the cultural center who had every minute to himself.
And Yu has no illusions about capitalism any more than he did about communism. He told the Times interviewer, "These young nationalists have no sense of ambivalence, no idea of life’s ambiguities. But when times are hard, their attitude will change, become more mature, and because capitalism in this form cannot go on in China, it has to end, those hard times will come soon." For most Chinese, they never went away.