By Ross Terrill, an associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center and the author of The New Chinese Empire: And What it Means for the United States (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 22/08/07):
In China, language has long been a test of political orthodoxy. In Mao Zedong’s era, to confuse evil “bourgeois” with virtuous “proletarian” was to face a prison cell. Write the Chinese character for a leader’s name at a wrong angle and you were a class enemy. Now, as Beijing begins the final year of its preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games, a mistake with an English word is taboo.
Some lapses are harmless. “Don’t Bother” as a privacy request on a hotel door, for example, or “Chop the Strange Fish” on a restaurant menu. Others could lead to minor trouble. “Please take advantage of the chambermaids,” says a resort brochure.
The penalty for “Chinglish” is usually humiliation, not incarceration. Still, citizens are asked to snitch, Mao-era style, on people who shame China with their shaky English. An outfit called the Beijing Speaks Foreign Languages Program issues prefabricated foreign phrases to workers who cannot converse in any foreign tongue. The Olympics have become one more tool in the authoritarian state’s box of tricks.
Yes, curbing Chinglish — along with current efforts to eliminate spitting, littering and pushing to enter a bus or train — shows the better side of authoritarianism. Clean streets are agreeable, and Beijing’s may now be better than New York’s. The city’s Spiritual Civilization Office has begun a monthly “Learn to Queue Day,” surely welcome to all who have been victims of the scramble to board a Chinese bus. It reminds one that China could have a government far worse than it has now.
Yet behind the attack on Chinglish lies an Orwellian impulse to remake the truth. Banished from Beijing for the Olympics will be not only fractured English, but disabled people, Falun Gong practitioners, dark-skinned villagers newly arrived in the city, AIDS activists and other “troublemakers” who smudge the canvas of socialist harmony.
This summer, around the time of the 18th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, the government honed house arrest as a device to smoothly eliminate dissidents. Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan, a young couple who often speak up for rights granted in China’s Constitution, and who were already veterans of hundreds of days of house arrest, were again locked up just minutes before they were to fly to Europe to show their documentary film “Prisoner of Freedom City,” which depicts the gap between fact and fiction in the political life of Beijing.
Fictions will abound for the month of August 2008. On all fronts the party-state will pull the rabbit of harmony from the hat of cacophony — “What do you mean by dissidents?” Scientists have been told to produce a quota of “blue days” with a clear sky, perpetuating a Chinese Communist tradition of defying natural as well as human barriers to its self-appointed destiny. Mao vowed to plant rice in the dry north of China as well as the lush south, to prove the power of socialism. “We shall make the sun and moon change places,” he cried. None of this occurred.
Likewise, in 2001, arguing before the world to get the Olympic Games, the vice president of Beijing’s bid committee said, “By allowing Beijing to host the Games, you will help the development of human rights.” Yet the opposite danger looms: Games preparation has spurred repression.
Every day, government censors send news organizations a list of forbidden topics and guidelines for covering acceptable ones. The price for ignoring the list: dismissal of an editor or closure of the publication. Last spring, government supervisors even instructed the TV producers of “Happy Boys Voice,” a Chinese version of “American Idol,” to eliminate “weirdness, vulgarity and low taste.” No wonder Dai Qing, a journalist who was imprisoned after Tiananmen in 1989, says the only thing she believes in China’s press is the weather report.
Truth and power are both headquartered in the Communist party-state. “Truth” (socialism sparkles, people adore the party) is not only enforced by the party-state but created by it. Stamp out Chinglish; ban “unhealthy thinking”; just keep the picture pretty — or else.
Some Americans overlook Beijing’s manipulations because our culture and politics go their separate ways. The upheavals of the 1960s pulled American culture to the left, yet Richard Nixon took the White House in 1968. Today, university faculties are on the left in many states where Republicans dominate politics. Americans display an invigorating inconsistency that is beyond the imagination of the Chinese, both Communists and dissidents.
Alas, few Americans visiting Beijing next August will realize that the drinking water from the faucets of their five-star hotels is unavailable to 99 percent of the city’s residents. In fact, this city’s water is not safe to drink; the water for the athletes and tourists will be piped in from neighboring Hebei Province.
Next year’s Olympics are far more important for China than the Los Angeles Games of 1984 were for the United States or Sydney’s 2000 Games were for Australia. A regime may be at stake. With Marxism largely evaporated and Leninism fraying at the edges, the Chinese Communist Party’s fate hinges on 10 percent annual economic growth and visions of national glory.
For years, the party hopes, it will be able to flaunt photographs of Tibetan farmers cheering at a Chinese gold medal in table tennis, videos of Muslims in Xinjiang Province fainting with joy as the women’s high jump goes to China by half an inch over Japan, and documentaries in which Beijing taxi drivers speak in perfect English to tourists from New York.
The Games will likely be well run and successful, and that should not disappoint Westerners. Politicizing the Olympics in any fashion is shortsighted. Boycotting Beijing’s 2008 show over Darfur would not usher in a humane Chinese foreign policy toward Africa. Disrupting it because of China’s Orwellian fictions would not free the political prisoners.
The Chinese state, for better and for worse, knows exactly what it’s doing, in Africa and at home. Still, a brilliant Olympic Games will be no more of a clue to the future of Chinese Communist rule than the spectacular 1936 Berlin Games were a sign of Nazism’s longevity. Correct language, like a gold medal, is desirable in itself. But neither guarantees glory for a state that pursues them for political ends (ask the Soviet Union). Sport should just be sport. The democracies should insist on that and leave political manipulation to the dictatorships.