THE PLANK NOVEMBER 10, 2008
Perry Link is a China
specialist and Chancellorial
Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University
of California at Riverside.
During the campaign season that just concluded, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachman kicked
up a storm with a comment that Barack Obama "may have anti-American views"--causing
such a backlash that she won her previously safe seat by only a few points. The
popular outcry against her made good sense: Half a century ago, our country had
a House Committee on Un-American
Activities and an outrageous bully in the Senate who was hunting for
un-Americans. Citizens remember, and the fact that "anti-American" has now
become an offensive word in our political debate is progress.
I fear, though, that Americans
remain insufficiently aware of how privileged they are to live in a society
where such progress can be made. In China,
the term "anti-China" is far more common than "anti-American" is in the U.S.,
and no one is criticized for using it. Quite the opposite: The press is ordered
to use it, school textbooks use it, and the populace is encouraged to follow
suit. It is a term of abuse, and it applies to anyone whom the government takes
to be an adversary. The Dalai Lama is "anti-China;" courageous Chinese
dissidents are "anti-China;" the European Parliament, when it gives its
Sakharov Prize to the "anti-China" activist Hu Jia, is also "anti-China." Far
from embarrassing, all of these usages are "correct"--"anti-China" is a term
that Chinese patriots are supposed to use with confidence and pride. It issues
not from the speeches of middling figures like Michele Bachman, who are up for
re-election, but from the highest rulers in the land, who are not replaceable.
And it is expressed without Bachman's cushion words such as "Obama ‘may' have
anti-American ‘views'," but with iron-wrought phrases like "unrepentant
Chris Matthews was able to skewer Bachman on national TV and contribute
to the price that she had to pay for her offensive comment. If a Chinese
journalist were to try to challenge the "anti-China" term in a similar way, it
would be the journalist, not the interviewee, who would suffer punishment. And
that punishment, should the journalist remain "unrepentant," would be much
heavier than something like losing votes in an election.
How, one might ask, can a Chinese person himself or herself be
"anti-China"? This is possible because "anti-China" does not mean opposition to
the language, culture, history, or traditions of the nation. It simply means
"anti-Communist Party"--and not even "anti" the whole party, but just "enemy of
the ruling elite."
People inside China
have no choice but to accept this distortion of language. People outside do
have a choice, but we often fail to exercise it. For example, our country's
small contingent of "China
policy managers" (officials and academics who have kept relations with China's rulers "on track" ever since Jimmy
Carter) routinely use the word "China"
to refer only to the views, attitudes, and "sensitivities" of the Chinese
political-economic super-elite with whom they directly deal. The policy
managers speak of "Chinese" sensitivities toward Falungong as if Falungong
believers were not themselves Chinese; of "Chinese" views on Tibet, as if
forgetting that the Chinese government itself claims that Tibetans, too, are
Chinese; and of U.S. congressional critics of the Chinese government not as
bashers of authoritarianism but as "China" bashers.
This verbal erasure of the vast and varied populace that rests beneath
China's elite is--and let me be careful with my words here--not un-American or
anti-American, but certainly out of step with some of the best and deepest
American values, like empathy for the common man, rooting for the underdog, and
calling a spade a spade.