Sunday, October 2, 2011

China And Me: On Her 62nd birthday

China and me: The beginning

The People's Republic of China was "born" October 1, 1949 and I was born July 1957.

I have been interested in China for some 15 years, coming to her by sheer destiny through  a person that I met on the Internet.

She was a 16 year old girl from Urumqi, Xinjiang and how and why she contacted me through the old Yahoo chat rooms remains a mystery to me, maybe she was attracted to my nom de plume Windwhisper. She had passable written English skills and she contacted me after school and weekends from an Internet chat room. Mainly, I am sure,  for the thrill of speaking to a westerner and to improve her English.

 I asked her to bring her mother the next time to talk to me so I could be assured she knew and approved of her daughter chatting with an older man, albeit one many thousands of miles away. This she did and we went on to develop a friendship that lasts to this day. I followed her travails in boarding school in Beijing, her complaints about Chinese cooking, the SARS and her move back home, her university days, again in Beijing and now her new life in the United States. I have had the pleasure of speaking on the phone to her but unfortunately not of meeting her

Her name is Xierinay and had a screen name “Sweetmoon” and I, knowing nothing really about China, had naturally assumed that she was Han until one day for some reason she said “I am not Chinese you know, I am Uyghur”, before she could elaborate she ran out of Internet time and closed out.

What the hell is an Uyghur? I thought to myself, and how can you live in China and not be Chinese?

Well, to cut a long story short, meeting her and her statement set me on an incredible odyssey of new friendships and seeking knowledge, not only about the Uyghur people, but China generally.

China and me: The Nineties

The '90's were an incredible time for anyone interested in the Uyghurs and China. The breakup of the U.S.S.R. and the setting up of Central Asian Republics, China's response and the Yinning  (Ghulja) massacre of 1997 and general unrest caused international interest in Xinjiang and the Uyghurs.

Human rights issues in China were huge at the time. Tibet, "One Child Policy", the economy and ongoing mine disasters where all big news

Tibet had long been a cause celebre but, like me, the world really knew nothing about China's Xinjiang or the Uyghurs. Unlike today where there are countless numbers of books on the topic, in those days, English language scholarship was incredibly limited with Professor Colin Mackerras of Australia and the then rising Dru Gladney of the U.S. being the important sources. Scholarship was mainly coming out of Russia, Japan and Sweden and English translations were few and far between.

The Internet too was extremely barren. Toledo University, Idaho U.S. ran a website that was the number one independent site for the Uyghur and information about Xinjiang but mostly concerned with history and culture. There were, however, many Uyghur ex pat websites fuelled by rightful indignation over the Yinning and other  incidents and buoyed by the possibility that independence of Xinjiang may have been possible given the events in the former Soviet states. Such names as  Uighur_L, Uyghur American Association,, Uyghur Human Rights Coalition, UNPO and the East Turkistan National Congress (now World Uyghur Congress)

Radio Free Asia (which this week celebrated it's 15th birthday) Epoch Times, NYT and Asia Times Online were the mainstream go to sources for not only Uyghur news but also, obviously, Chinese news generally.

China on the other hand was well serviced on the net. The coming of blogging brought with it hundreds of sites on China. I remember when I started my first blog “UygurWorld” (later to become China Letter {Mk1}) I aspired to be a “Peking Duck” or one of the other great Blogs of the time. With the rise of Facebook, Twitter etc. combined with the loss of the “exotic” aura surrounding China, the art of blogging about China is dying out with few worthy blogs still around.

China and me: The Present

I would like now to make some observations and conclusions on China that I have come to know over these last 15 odd years.

So imperfect was China in those early days of our "relationship" that I could easily write two 1,500 word blog posts daily criticising her over the Uyghurs, Tibet, mine deaths, countless executions, total lack of any adherence to a “Rule of Law”, poverty and any number of human rights breaches. If there had been a Twitter back then I think I would have worn out two keypads a week.

But that is not the case any longer. Whether I have mellowed with age or China has improved remarkably or, a combination of both, I find myself viewing China differently and I find that I approach every issue with a view to looking at it in an as unbiased way as I possibly can, to attempt to see both sides of the story and to put it into a much greater context.

China has fundamentally changed and it has changed not only for the better but at an astonishing rate.

Of course, we are all aware of China's economy and the rapid and ongoing transformation. Some have commented that we are witnessing a change so historically important and so mammoth in proportion that, in future, the Industrial Revolution will pale against  it in it's relative place in history. Of that I have no doubt.

We have also seen incredible strides in all aspects of the average Chinese person's life. Education, poverty reduction, health and medical, work safety, life spans and many more.

As an example, when I first started out I was amazed, saddened and genuinely angered by the state of China's mine safety. Tens of thousands dying yearly. Every day a new report, ten dead here 25 there. I railed against it in my blog posts. No-one seemed to care, the Chinese Government, the international community, no-one. 

Today things have changed remarkably. China has confronted the problem and has achieved incredible results in decreasing the number of deaths and injuries, not only in absolute terms, but, even more importantly, realtively, China's coal output has increased significantly but so has death rate reduction. An amazing result given the greater “context” I alluded to earlier, a context, in this instance, of greed, self interest and corruption, not to mention China's insatiable need for more and more coal. 

But, China, to a great degree and to her credit, has put safety more to the fore despite it's actions impacting on much needed output. In “context” commendable to say the least

We have seen positive, if not perfect, moves forward in human rights, “rule of law”, government transparency and even democracy, albeit with Chinese characteristics. Yes, we have issues ongoing, of that there is no doubt. Religious freedom, censorship, land grabs, persecution of intellectuals and artists, treatment of migrant workers all jump immediately to mind. As does corruption which is rampant and unlikely to be beaten and, of course, extremely serious environmental degradation and the ever present prospects of civil unrest.

The “new tough kid” on the block attitude with regards to international diplomacy and the South China Sea issue does not do China any favours but it is no more than that; a “new kid” flexing some new muscle whilst harbouring deep national insecurities. In the short to medium term China poses no appreciable threat to anyone but herself.

China and the impact of her policies on Tibetan and Uyghur cultural/religious identity and self determination remains a major bug bear. There is no doubt that Chinese policy vis a vis the Uyghurs and Tibetans has positively impacted on their health, life span, infant mortality rates, and education. No one possibly could argue against these markers.

But, on the other hand, for whatever reason, even after two millennia of interaction at many levels China can not, or chooses not (which is probably more to the point) to see that a new bridge, a satellite TV dish or a new toaster does not satisfy the Uyghurs and Tibetans spiritual needs. And I don't mean spiritual only in terms of religion. I mean the spirit at the very core of an individual's or collective's total existence. It is certainly a nebulous consideration but of no little import.

So, China and I have both aged together since she was seven and I was born. We have learnt lessons, we have made right decisions and wrong, we have faltered, sometimes failed, but more times, I believe, have had a modicum of success. At least succeeded within the context of  our raison d'etre. In China's case a context so immense in terms of her history and demographics that few of us can really even pretend to understand. 

She has a long and tortuous path ahead, one that will be beset with immense difficulty and challenges, but, one that I think she just may just be able to handle.