A Glimpse at the Divisions Within China Over the Chen Guangcheng Case

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(See update below.) One of the hardest points to absorb or remember from outside China, especially during an emergency like the recent Chen Guangcheng case, is how divided and even chaotic policies on the Chinese side can be. With the image of the big, monolithic, decree-anything-it-wants-and-it-will-happen Chinese superstate so imprinted in the Western media, it can be challenging to make mental room for the tensions and fissures within China.

ClownWeibo.pngHere is a great illustration, widely discussed in the past few hours by the China-watcher crowd. As a fascinating post by David Bandurski of the China Media Project points out, much of the anti-Chen Guangcheng agitprop burden in the past few days has been shunted away from the main national media, like the People's Daily, and onto otherwise respectable regional publications like the Bejing News.

Around midnight China time last night, the Beijing News posted a significant item on its Sina Weibo [aka Chinese Twitter] account, essentially apologizing for the position it had been forced to take. The post showed a sad-eyed little-person clown*, having a smoke, underneath a message saying:

In the still of the deep night, removing that mask of insincerity, we say to our true selves, "I am sorry." Goodnight.

You can see the Beijing News posting, on Weibo and in Chinese, at this site -- as long as it's still there. Moral, in case one is necessary: this is why the wrinkles and tensions of the real, fractious China are so much more compelling than the single-minded all-successful authoritarian economic powerhouse we generally hear and read about.

Bandurski's item is worth reading in toto, for a careful examination of the strains under which China's current "soft power" effort operates. Here's how the full Weibo page looks:

Thumbnail image for Beijing-News-midnight-apology-SM.png


Update: Here is a further detail resonant of larger points about China. Mark Feeney points out by email that this photo actually is a famous one from Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson. I'll save for another time a discourse on the intended and unintended international spread of iconography. You can fill it in for yourself.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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