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

By James Fallows

(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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/05/a-glimpse-at-the-divisions-within-china-over-the-chen-guangcheng-case/256772/