Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Brainwashed Chinese

It's a ridiculous refrain coming from Chinese students as they protest around the world against media bias: Your media lies to you! Tell the truth CNN! Et fucking cetera.

As much as they insist we try to understand them, they could bloody well try and understand us. It's natural to project your own frame of reference onto other people. That's why I walk around in China and say holy shit, that's weird a lot. Of course to them it's not weird.

Well, to us media bias is not weird. We simply know from an early age that all media is biased. Mostly because it's written by that most fallible of creatures, the human. We learn in school that history is a story written by people and that we should read between the lines, compare, do differential diagnoses, etc. The average 4 year old Western kid has more media savvy than a mainland Chinese.

Sure, some people just read one newspaper, or watch just one channel, but that guy is a cranky old coot anyway. I tend to ignore him.

Most other normal people these days have the advantage that the news comes to them. Here in China, with my somewhat limited literacy, I can attest to feeling media-deprived all the time. There's no serendipity. Back home you overhear people in restaurants, you see the paperboy holding up a headline, you see the picture on the media rack at Seven Eleven... whatever. The news gets to you. And it comes from a wild variety of sides, with a wild variety of contradicting biases and we know by the age of 12 that Die Burger talks shit and The Citizen is a bunch of rascists and Vrye Weekblad (RIP) is ueber-cool, and Rapport has naked chicks on the back and the Mail & Guardian is larney and CNN and SKY will do anything to create catchy graphics... et fucking cetera.

But, I recently realised, it's also about timing. The news reaches us more-or-less when it possibly can. When the Twin Towers were hit it was lunchtime in Zaland and I was watching the planes coming in live. I stayed up late to watch the beginning of the first Iraq War. (We kinda knew when it was gonna go down.) Nelson Mandela freed from prison... live. Live. Live!

What a difference that makes, even now, to my perception of the world, and the flow of events in my head.

I watched the torch relays in London and Paris, and even Buenos Aires, live on my computer via direct feed from local TV stations (channeled through CNN.) CNN, you say. Well, they only channeled local stations, so don't worry, there was only local bias. At the same time I could monitor the representation on CCTV and Chinese news websites. The difference was... well... vive le difference! Massive. On CCTV nothing much happened. For London, they showed the first runner get under way and then cut to the Grand Prix. Later that night they showed a "highlights" package that repeated the start of the run, then cut to tourism brochure shots of London scenery. The next day Paris happened and even though I could see in front of my eyes that things were going south rather quickly, the CCTV version again only showed a quick panorama of Paris and the first runner getting on his way.

Of course by that time expat Chinese have been blogging and phoning home like ET with a Blackberry. (Oh, God, forgive my analogies.) So the news had actually reached China, but only the few who cared. Only the few who had a mind to dig it up. And it was eight hours later that CCTV made any mention of things possibly going a little bit rough. Then, of course, the dam wall broke. Sure enough, suddenly China was way informed.

The next day students in my class were visibly confused: why in God's name are they so angry, these evil western splittist running dogs?

For, aye, here the rub: if the news could come to them there would have been no surprise. If they could have known about the Tibetan issue from the start, and could have been kept informed by the serendipitous media machinations of elsewhere, they would have known by now something was going down out there. The disconnect between the blatant bogwater they get fed on a daily basis and the reality out there proved too big for their "harmonised" minds to compute. Result: nazifest.

Now, you'd say something like: duh, you're in China and you can read the news. Well, yeah, duh-sayer, but I can also read ye olde Englishe. There's this myth going about that the Chinese are "disappointed" with CNN and BBC because they've always relied on these sources to be accurate and truthful. What bollox! Who in the ordinary Chinese citizenry EVER watches CNN or BBC? You get it in 5 star hotels if you're lucky. They could go on the web, you say. Well, yes they could, but again: they don't so much read English. Believe me, I teach it.

And then back to the serendipity: I don't suppose most people understand what I have to go through to GET THE NEWS over here. I have to freakin' proxy jump like a crazy person. Sometimes the actual proxies are blocked. Sometimes there's a keyword trap and whatever I type in Google just times it out. Sometimes the bloody proxies get so overloaded by Chinese users they block the whole country for periods of time... from outside China.

Tonight, for example, any page one link deep on the Guardian's website is blocked (in the China section). This is a first: except for a short while around 14 March, the Guardian has remained relatively open. So, idiot netnanny, if I see you're blocking something I WILL FIND IT. I will not sleep. I will resolutely continue my search until I get a new, unblocked proxy, or someone on Yahoo messenger can copy and paste it for me.

But that's me: I get obsessed with knowing what happened. It's an illness. It must be, since not even my non-Chinese friends over here share the same drive. If I don't leave every stone unturned I wouldn't get at the news. It's a constant game of cat and mouse button. (God help me.)

The average, well-educated, well-informed Chinese guy or gal out there is never going to go through this much trouble. If you add up the hoops you have to jump through, the high levels of motivation required, the ability to comfortably understand long pieces of written English AND the fact that I get hints of specific happenings that I want to search for... then the obstacles are just too many.

Factor into that the overwhelmingly biased mass of Chinese media out there, that would direct attention to specific areas to begin with, and the only conclusion I can come to is that the Chinese are incurably brainwashed to a psychotic degree.

And the only reason they think we are brainwashed too is because they can't step outside of their own shoes. They have no experience with anything different. In fact, their culture... yes, I'll say it: their 5000 old culture is an albatross around their collective necks; an unstoppable weight of inertia propelling them blindly into the future. I think Mao Zedong himself said that. [citation needed]

I am constantly wrestling with the question of my right to criticise another culture. I've been told I don't have that right. I've just been wondering who exactly grants rights. If I don't have the right, then nobody has. Therefore, and here's the clever bit, everyone has. But of course no one decides who has which rights. I am simply taking this one for myself. I'm looking in on the Chinese culture and I can see its naughty bits, even if they can't. And I'll tell them about it until they kick me out of their piece of Earth. Fair enough?

Especially now that their naughty bits are sending weapons to my piece of Earth.

Bo Yang died yesterday. He's worthy of a look-see. Taiwanese writer, best known for The Ugly Chinaman, in which he kinda does what I did here, only better cause he's actually Chinese and has the right. They're also making this book into a graphic novel, in Taiwan. Can't wait.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

We are fighting for China

I just read a story in China Daily where they quote a German sinologist, Dr. Ingo Nentwig, who did research in Tibet. He says there is no cultural genocide happening in Tibet.

"The Tibetan culture flourishes and prospers in China," including "language, literature, study of oral literature, everyday life and traditional architecture," he said.

Have we framed this issue so badly? Was there a cultural genocide happening in Northern Ireland under British control? Was there genocide under Apartheid? (Hold that thought... there's a PS) Is there genocide in Zimbabwe? Was there genocide in East Germany, or the Soviet Union? Is that really why we want the CCP to improve their human rights record in Tibet and China?

Is this about genocide?

Firstly, on genocide:

1948 United Nations Genocide Convention
Article 2

[G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such;

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

(Poole, S. Unspeak, ABACUS, 2006)

The convention is concerned with preventing genocide, hence the "in whole or in part". In the case of Tibet, (a) and (b) have definitely happened. (c) is arguable. (d) and (e) are rumours at best. That's two out of "any" five. That would meet the international criteria for genocide.

I found an interview in German with Ingo Nentwig. My German is both rusty and rustic, but here's an excerpt:

Was mich in den letzten Wochen sehr bewegt hat, ist die Unverhältnismäßigkeit in der medialen Darstellung. Kein seriöser Mensch bestreitet, dass es in China Menschenrechtsverletzungen gibt. Niemand bestreitet, dass auch die Tibet-Politik Chinas verbesserungswürdig ist, und zwar in großem Maße. Aber wenn ich mir die Lage in Tibet realistisch anschaue, die Mythen der Exiltibeter beiseite schiebe und die Lage mit der Situation in anderen Ländern vergleiche - schauen wir doch einfach nur mal ganz wahllos über die Grenze nach Indien. Ich würde wagen zu sagen, dass Indien jeden Monat in Kaschmir mehr Menschenrechtsverletzungen begeht als China in den letzten zehn Jahren in Tibet. Sie brauchen nur in die Zeitung zu schauen, wie unterschiedlich die Darstellung ist. Das rechtfertigt natürlich nichts von dem, was in China passiert, und ich kritisiere das scharf. Aber die Verhältnismäßigkeit ist in der medialen Darstellung überhaupt nicht mehr gegeben. Da kann ich dann auch die chinesische Regierung verstehen, dass sie sich unfair behandelt fühlt, weil der Westen auf ihr in einem Ausmaß rumhackt, das sie wirklich nicht verdient hat.

In short (correct me if I'm wrong) he says:

Paraquotes: "No serious person would deny there are human rights abuses in China, and that China's Tibet-policy could be better... but one only has to look across the border, to India, and Kashmir specifically, where there were probably more human rights problems in the last month than in Tibet in the last ten years."

(Of course, China Daily didn't report this part of his opinion.)

I don't doubt he's right. But this brings me to the title of my post: clearly Dr. Nentwig didn't intend to support the Chinese government's propaganda about Tibet. He's just as forthcoming in his criticism of the Chinese government, as his criticism of our media-influenced views of Tibet. This seems to me a normal sequence of events in the Western polemics. We over-react, get all hot-headed about some issue, jump to conclusions, get all biased, and then, after a few weeks, we calm down and the liberal press starts bringing out comment pieces and in-depth analyses where we start talking to ourselves, discussing where we went wrong and why and generally compromising on some middle ground between left and right.

This is a discourse the "west" has with itself. It isn't perfect, and we usually end up getting it wrong again, but we do it anyway and eventually we reach a position of self-critical awareness. (We still get it wrong though, but we talk about it, is my point.) We don't just keep on insisting we are always right forever.

Unfortunately China (I mean the goons and thugs in the government, of course) know this and pounce on this. I don't doubt they're scouring the web for pro-China Westerners as we speak. (So to speak.) This week they've come up with Dr. Nentwig, who, because he's a decent fellow, felt culturally compelled to do an interview with China Daily, but ended up being abused by them to offer legitimacy to their cause.

Last week it was Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail in Canada, who woke up to find himself a hero in China. In that case the China Daily simply manufactured what they needed.

In Dr. Nentwig's case, he just handed it to them. Well-meaning, I'm sure, but missing the point by a lightyear.

The point, you might ask, is what exactly? It is this: why are the Tibetans so angry?

Here's how China Daily ends his interview:

Nentwig criticized some Western media for only reporting the voices of the former ruling class, namely, representatives of the old theocracy, the clerical and feudal aristocrats, who lost their power and can "no longer exploit the people at will," while ignoring the voices of the ordinary Tibetan people who "have a totally different story to tell."

Absolutely. Couldn't have said it better myself. I think we should go into Tibet right now and ask the ordinary Tibetans what story they want to tell. I'm packing my bags right now. Oh, right. Damn. Can't get into Tibet. Forgot about that.

PS. According to the Genocide Convention I'd say there was a genocide in South Africa.

Monday, 21 April 2008

The End... in case you haven't noticed

It might be worthwhile to mention that this blog ceased to exist from a publishing point-of-view... approximately one year ago. It has not ceased to exist, however. It will probably float around in the digital nothingness, there but not there, until the day that day when that cluster on that server in the google farm decides it's time to prematurely go, and blows its silicon bits out.

Because it can.

Those will be the days...

Until then, it seems there might still be life out there. Welcome back Cerebus.

Chinese Language Acquisition and Intellectual Development

Kids who grow up in a country with a phonetic alphabet can sit in a restaurant, or a mall, or a kindergarten, or in front of the TV, and will be expossed to the written language constantly. At some point they would become aware that these little lines represent words. How that happens can surely vary: perhaps someone simply tells them. From that point on, I'm sure, kids would often try their hand at it. Seeing a sign, like a STOP sign, they'd ask their parents what it meant. Dad would say "stop", and the kid would remember the little snakey thing. Next day they might be in a restaurant and the kid might see a picture of a sandwich, and the word "sandwich" and knowing the word they might be able to correctly guess that the snakey thing makes a ssss-sound.

Seems all very straightforward. The kid would feel pleased with herself and try it out in different settings, sometimes getting it wrong, but, more often than not, getting it right. After all, we only have around 26 of these little squiggles to memorize and then we're all set. Some phonetic alphabets have more, some less, but on the whole they tend to be less than fifty: manageable even for "pygmy chimpanzees" (more accurately bonobos) who can be trained to recognize far more hand symbols than fifty.

My guess is that this little kid gets some kind of positive feedback every time she solves one of these puzzles. Her world becomes more understandable and she gains confidence in her own powers of reasoning. She becomes empowered. We all went through this, presumably, unless you're listening to this with a screenreader, in which case you've had it slightly harder than the rest of us, so more power to you.

I could certainly read and write before I went to school, and I can not remember ever having been taught to do it. (I do remember having to write out cursive letters because my handwriting was, and is to this day, a bit like a donkey doing surgery with an axe.) I don't think we should underestimate this little feat of mental deduction we went through during the most formative of our intellectual years. As far as I can remember, psychologists and pediatricians feel very strongly about the first four years of life, although the latter might have to do so by definition.

So now lets spare a thought for the child who grows up in a world without a phonetic alphabet. Imagine walking the streets, or paging through comics, or watching TV, and imagine all of these media completely devoid of any signage that a healthy young brain could puzzle over and connect into one big sequence of sounds that make up a word. Welcome to China.

You go to a restaurant and see a new character and there is one way, and one way only, to figure out what it means: ask someone. You see a picture of a sandwich, and three squiggles meaning "three", "famous" and "government". (三明治) Good luck with that. You have to ask. You read a comic book, and find a new word: you have to ask. You meet a new friend and she introduces herself, but the sounds mean nothing: you have to ask what pictures they are. You. Have. To. Ask.

Of course, you'd have to be brain-dead to NOT pick up a few characters along the wayside: but those are easy, frequent ones. They would number less than fifty. I know I can recognise around 800 characters, because that's what my Chinese book promises: two volumes with 400 characters each. Do you think I can read even one sentence in a newspaper? Well, I'd be really lucky. It would have to something like: What's your name? Or, which way to the nearest bank, my good man? Newspapers are hardly that polite, not to mention sympathetic of Chinese learners. To comfortably read a newspaper you'd need, apparently, around 3000 characters. That's all very well, and doesn't sound like so many, but of course they combine to form new words, and the Chinese don't use spaces between words! This means that I can often read a whole sentence, i.e. make the sounds but can't figure out, for the life of me, what the heck it means.

I never did take learning Chinese seriously, so it's my own fault. I've been here about seven years, and very early on I decided my life simply isn't long enough to learn Chinese. Don't get me wrong: many other foreigners pick it up quite nicely, but they try very hard. It's doable, but at too high a cost for me, personally.

But my concern here is this: Chinese kids have to learn it. They have to learn how to read it and write it. And they have to memorize about 8000 characters to be considered normal. What is the cost for them?

What happens in their brains when they figure out, smart kids that they are, that there is no way in hell they can just try to figure out the meaning or pronunciation of a character? What do they think when they ALWAYS have to ask? Don't their brains reach a point where the feedback loop goes something like: why think about it? Why try? Why use your brain? You know it's useless. Just ask someone. That's the only way. (Might even explain Confucianism, if you take it to extremes.)

Unfortunately I see the symptoms of this in my classes, and many English teachers would confirm: the kids hate taking intellectual chances. It's not that "losing face" bollox that everyone always goes on about. If they cared about losing face they wouldn't spit so loudly, or have so many arguments in the streets or walk around singing aloud to themselves. No. They just don't seem to want to think. And if you listen to the stories about Chinese state schools then you could understand why: spoonfeeding. They literally have to memorize whole books. Just memorize. There's no call for their own opinion.

And I don't, now, think it's all about culture. I feel there's something in their language acquisition that pre-empts all this. They never learn that they can engage with the world around them in a meaningful way -- make it their own, think about it, puzzle about it, ask questions about it, wonder about it. And the little urge that's left after reaching about age 6 gets stifled the hell out of them at school. That's why so many of them can do the pen-twirling trick: that's what 12 hours of school a day would do to you.

The language is to blame. Historians of the future will prove me right. Unless we all have to adopt the Chinese script, in which case historians of the future will also prove me right.

I even have a solution. Very simple. I don't think the Roman alphabet is well suited for Chinese, so, no, Pinyin is not the way to go. They have all these characters, so they can use them: but only use the ones they need. That is: count the number of discreet syllables you can make in Chinese and choose the easiest characters, from the existing ones, for them. The number happens to be around 1580. That includes all the tones, and the neutral tone, for every single Chinese initial and final combination. It's still a lot, but it's a darn sight less than 8000.

Then, to make the usage consistent, they only need to leave spaces between words, and underline names.

It means they will have to start reading phonetically, and they will also need to write phonetically and ditch the millions of crazy homonyms that have proliferated exactly because of the use of characters as a writing system.

Chinese people will say it's impossible. They will say there are simply too many words that sound the same and that can only be distinguished because they have different characters. To them I say bullshit. If that was the case, how do Chinese people speak to each other on the telephone? How could they be comprehensible without constant subtitles? No, that simply doesn't wash. Of course writers will have to be more careful, but isn't it a good thing to force out a little of the ambiguity in the language? And if there's really such confusion over different characters, it would simply mean they have to create new words, just like everyone else. That'll get the creative juices flowing.

You might gasp in amazement and awe at my incredible arrogance in holding an opinion on a language I couldn't even master. Well, gasp away. There it is: that's my theory, and until you shoot down my theory it might console you to know I have absolutely no influence anywhere in the world, so ... there.

Reading acquisition links:

Chinese Pinyin: