The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story today (via CDT) about this years Nobel Literature Prize winner Herta Müller. Müller, apparently, is of the opinion that the West should “be tougher on China”. She said (quoting from the news story, which quotes her):
Human rights in China have been cast aside for too long and that the persecution of dissidents “has nothing to do with democracy.”
“As far as China is concerned, who claims to be on the road to democracy — it’s not even half, not even a quarter, not even a tenth true.”
The 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, a rampage of violence and radical communism led by Mao Zedong’s youthful Red Guards, and the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square are still taboo in China, she said, adding that the West should be less tolerant of this.
“If there were less acceptance in the West, then the rulers in China would have to think a little bit about how to change,” Mueller said.
She emphasized that what she called the current approach of diplomacy and friendliness would not help China on the road to democracy. “Quite the reverse is true,” she said.
Forgive me for being a bit baffled by the whole thing. Certainly, she’s right in saying that China isn’t yet a real democracy, nor is China’s treatment of dissidents in any way acceptable. That said, I can’t help but wonder why the San Francisco Chronicle is publishing an article dedicated to the opinion of someone who, as far as I can tell, has no knowledge of or expertise on China whatsoever.
She did grow up in Communist Romania (and all Communist countries are the same, after all!), but she doesn’t seem to have ever lived in, visited, or formally studied China. That might explain why she things the Cultural Revolution is “taboo” in China despite the fact that, for example, searching Chinese search engine Baidu for “Cultural Revolution” in Chinese results in 23 million results. By comparison, if you search Google for “Cultural Revolution” in Chinese [~3 million results], then search it again in English [~6 million results] and add the resultant numbers together, Google only provides about 9 million results. Then, of course, there’s the entire body of literature that was born from the ashes of the C.R., commonly called Scar Literature, which openly deals with the terrible things that happened during the Cultural Revolution and the “scars” it left on Chinese society. Whoops! Guess it’s either not that taboo or the censors are doing a really, really horrible job…
Of course, what she’s saying isn’t entirely wrong, and that’s the problem. Mixing lies with the truth (whether intentional or not) spreads misinformation. If you knew nothing about China, and then read in the San Francisco Chronicle that a Nobel Prize winner says the Cultural Revolution is taboo in China, would you have any reason to disbelieve it? No, you wouldn’t. After all, she says that Tiananmen 1989 is a taboo topic in China, too, and that’s undeniably true.
Another way to put it might be that Müller, or perhaps the Chronicle, is guilty of making some faulty analogies. The Cultural Revolution may be a taboo topic of conversation in China in the same way that one’s personal finances are a taboo topic of conversation in the West — it isn’t something one routinely brings up at the dinner table. Tiananmen, on the other hand, isn’t so much a taboo conversation topic as a banned conversation topic due to restricted access to information about it.
It isn’t my intention to fault Herta Müller or the Chronicle here. She’s entitled to express her opinions (although one would think a literary person such as herself might have read some Scar Literature), and it’s an interesting (if random) thing to say, so one can’t blame the Chronicle for printing it. It does point to what I think is a larger problem with the Western media on all kinds of topics (including but not limited to China): they love to report the opinions of famous/”relevant” people, even if those people have no idea what they’re talking about. What they never seem to add, though, is the disclaimer: this person has no special knowledge of the topic they’re speaking on.
What do you think? Valid point or are we just tilting at windmills again?