Just before going offline, which I more or less still am, I talked about the many and mysterious ways in which Chinese officialdom is doing its best to screw up the Beijing Olympics. There is a minor risk to the Games as an athletic contest, since officials waited until the very last minute to deal with hyper-polluted air (ie, air still getting worse as of the time I left Beijing six days ago). There is a major possibility that the event will be a general embarrassment to China, because of the crude and increasing efforts to "control" every aspect of their presentation -- which in practice means scrutinizing reporters more carefully, making it harder for foreigners of any sort to get into the country, etc. Detail in original post.
In introducing the point I said something sincere -- really, it will be better for everyone if the Chinese public feels good about the games -- and something a little less direct. Namely that I was a "Friend of the Chinese People." In light of many alarmed and huffy emails that have piled up, mainly from people unfamiliar with China, I apparently need to spell out the intended wryness:
- For any foreigner who has operated here, "Friend of China" is a very familiar and loaded agitprop term. John Pomfret of the Washington Post elaborates on its connotations here. When Chinese government officials apply it, they really mean something like "stooge" -- an outsider who will go along with whatever they say or do. This is why Kevin Rudd, the Mandarin-speaking new Prime Minister of Australia, was careful in a major speech in Beijing to call himself a "true friend" of China, using the Chinese term zhengyou, versus pengyou for friend in the ordinary sense. The implication of "true friend" is someone who cares enough to tell unpleasant truths and point out possible errors. Ie, the kind of friend that China, America, and every other entity and person needs.
- In saying I was a "Friend of the Chinese People," I meant to pay mocking respect to the official parlance but say something different. In specific, this was a reference (and link) to a preceding post about dealing with ordinary people in China. Despite my many aggravations with Chinese policies and practices, despite my wonderment at the self-defeating idiocy of the government's approach to the Olympics, my experience with the varied and teeming humanity of China has been surprisingly positive. When it comes to their own country, Americans have no trouble with the concept that someone could dislike its governmental policies but still like the culture and folkways and individual people. Lots of times, that's how I feel about America myself! The same distinction is, if anything, more important to remember about China, precisely because its individual people are less familiar to most members of the outside world.
So, if you're warming up for an email or blog post about the self-censorship involved in someone professing to be a "Friend of China," save it for someone who actually uses that term! I am happy to be counted as a pengyou of many individuals within China, but as a zhengyou of many institutions here. We criticize because we care! (Note to the wry-impaired: preceding sentence should not be taken 100% at face value.)