Rashōmon Comes to Hong Kong: 3 Ways of Viewing the Latest News

By James Fallows

Yes, yes, I am aware that Rashōmon is a Japanese reference, and we're talking about events in China. But bear with me—at the moment it's a convenient shorthand for the contradictory possibilities, and the unknowable underlying reality, of events that are important but not fully understood. If you'd prefer, you could think of this as Heisenberg Comes to Hong Kong.

Two days ago I mentioned some of the downbeat political and economic news out of China, mainly involving challenges for the economy and the continued tightening of political controls under the hoped-for reform leader Xi Jinping. Now three representative reactions from readers in and around China:

1) “Stop being such a downer.” From a reader based in the U.S. who often does business in China:

Please don't do this if you can help it. For years, you were the guy bringing out ideas. Now, not so much.

I know how many bad stories there are. My family provides them. I see them. There are plenty of folks to point out the obvious.

It is only stories that everyone knows. You're reinforcing ideas already in peoples heads.

There's no lack of forecasters predicting doom for China. It's the story Westerners like best.

There are better and more interesting stories.

The stories that get written are the ones already in Westerners heads. Everything is viewed thru the Western lens. No one is writing from a Chinese view. I understand why. It's anathema. One would be outcast.

Folks think it's a billion people yearning to be free. It's more like a billion people wanting clean air, an apartment, a retirement home that's not a shithole, fashionable clothes. 

But those are stories that run counter to Western canon on China. 

I recently did a trip across Hubei and Hunan that was (sort of) like your trip across the US. The overall vibe was positive. It's a different picture of China than folks in the US get.

Poster for the Kurosawa film
version of Rashōmon from 1950. 

2) “The reality is downcast right now, and you might as well say so.” From a foreigner who has lived in China for the past 10+ years and has been involved in the music business there:

I've spent more time in Hong Kong of late, as my wife and I are planning to return to the US after many years in China, and we're organizing our affairs in Hong Kong as an intermediate on our way back to the US.

The situation for music became so dismal in China that I finally decided to give up the endeavor altogether. Our last several live shows were tampered with in a very heavy-handed way by the gov't: we were forbidden from performing certain songs at the last minute and not permitted to substitute others for them, our show times were moved around at the last minute, and our appearances even spliced out of videos of the events. I concluded that it was no use trying to fight these (invisible) forces, and we decided that it would be best for us to move back to the US and focus on a future there.

It's a sad day. I remember the overwhelming sense of optimism among my Chinese friends when I first moved to China [more than ten years ago]. The sense then was that the genuine opening up of China was inevitable, and everyone (I'm speaking of my Chinese friends and colleagues and not expats) had the sense that the heavy hand that had been upon them for so long was finally lifting.

Now my sense is that optimism is all but gone. The strident nationalism is no substitute; it brings a certain angry determination but almost none of the spontaneous optimism that was so evident a decade ago. I feel so sorry for China's artists and scientists, who are not only very talented, but who will suffer both in career and in reputation because of forces in the country that are beyond their control

On the bright side, things are looking up for the US, and my (uninformed) guess is that roughly speaking as China spirals into more and more economic peril because of its dubious policy choices, it will be much to the benefit of the US economy, as people from China and elsewhere flock toward the West generally and the US in particular in search of the optimism that they can no longer find in China.

The pre-Walter White Heisenberg

3) “Things are good and bad at the same time.” From someone formerly of Hong Kong, now in the U.S.:

As an ex-Hongkonger, I am of course as disappointed and frustrated as many are at Beijing's decision not to allow direct election of our Chief Executive. However, being a determined optimist, I see this as a cup half-full.

First , let's remember that the British government has never allowed any sort of elections for the CEO (Governor) of Hong Kong, or India, or any of its former colonies (including the United States) in its long and shameful history of colonialism either, as every Chinese mainlander will tirelessly remind you. So no one can deny that indirect election as now proposed is definitely a step forward.

Second, I propose we should view the CEO of Hongkong not as equivalent to the US President, but as a US Supreme Court Justice, who is also nominated by the party in power and not elected by the people. What this means is that as long as the CEO candidates nominated by China maintain their independence after the elections, we are in good shape.

Hongkongers need to find an Earl Warren, who seemed to toe the party line before nomination but who turned out to be a defender of civil rights. Whether such a candidate can be found is a test of the moral integrity and courage of Hongkong's elites. Whether Beijing will acquiesce in his/her subsequent independence will be a test of its good faith. But as things stand right now, a bad outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

All these accounts are true. After the jump, a quote from China Airborne on the necessity and difficulty of accepting such contradictions.  


From the first chapter of China Airborne:

The plainest fact about modern China for most people on the scene often seems the hardest to grasp from afar. That is simply how varied, diverse, contradictory, and quickly changing conditions within the country are.

Any large country is diverse and contradictory, but China’s variations are of a scale demanding special note. What is true in one province is false in the next. What was the exception last week is the rule today. A policy that is applied strictly in Beijing may be ignored or completely unknown in Kunming or Changsha. Millions of Chinese people are now very rich, and hundreds of millions are still very poor. Their country is a success and a failure, an opportunity and a threat, an inspiring model to the world and a nightmarish cautionary example. It is tightly controlled and it is out of control; it is futuristic and it is backward; its system is both robust and shaky....

Such observations may sound banal—China, land of contrasts!—but I have come to think that really absorbing them is one of the greatest challenges for the outside world in reckoning with China and its rise. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/09/rash-mon-comes-to-hong-kong-3-ways-of-viewing-the-latest-news/379511/