I came across this story a couple days ago, and found it mildly amusing, but eventually decided it was worth sharing here because it’s indicative of the larger trend. First of all, here are the basics for those that haven’t already read the article:
Citing “strong resentment from the local Chinese community,” the Chinese government has asked the city of Corvallis to force a Taiwanese-American businessman to remove a mural advocating independence for Taiwan and Tibet from his downtown building.
But city leaders say the mural violates no laws and its political message is protected under the U.S. Constitution.
Taiwanese artist Chao Tsung-song painted the 10-foot-by-100-foot mural last month on the side of the old Corvallis MicroTechnology building at Southwest Fourth Street and Jefferson Avenue. The work was commissioned by property owner David Lin, who is renovating the space for a restaurant and has rechristened the building Tibet House.
In vivid colors, the painting depicts riot police beating Tibetan demonstrators, Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule and images of Taiwan as a bulwark of freedom.
In a letter dated Aug. 8, the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco formally complained to Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning about the mural’s content and asked for her help in having it removed.
“There is only one China in the world,” the letter reads in part, “and both Tibet and Taiwan are parts of China.”
Now, I can’t be too sure about the quality of the reporting here, because the article refers to Tibet as a “country” and as a “breakaway province” (it most certainly is neither, though some might like it to be). But I’m guessing the basic facts of the case here are true.
Let’s think about this from the perspective of the local Chinese consulate general. A business owner in your area of the US has put up a mural that you find offensive. If this were China, of course, you could have it taken down, and maybe have the guy beaten or tossed in jail for a little while to teach him a lesson. But you don’t have those powers in the US, so your only real options are to ignore it or make a big stink about it. Why in hell would you ever choose the latter?
If you ignore it, the only people who ever hear about it are the people who happen to visit or drive by that building, most of whom probably aren’t even going to understand its meaning. If you make a big stink about it, on the other hand, you turn it into a news story. What’s more, you turn it into a news story that the local government has an active interest in promoting because it makes them look awesome. ‘We stood up to pressure from the Chinese government and defended the first Amendment rights of an American business owner’ — what US government official wouldn’t want that story on the front page of every newspaper? That is exactly why what could have been a tiny non-story is now being discussed on this blog and elsewhere despite the fact that I don’t even know where Corvallis is.
The other question is what the hell did Chinese consular officials think they were going to gain from sending that letter? Surely Chinese diplomats are given at least some basic training in US laws, so they ought to know the local government wasn’t even going to consider taking the mural down. And while I understand this is probably the sort of thing that has to be done from time to time to please the overseers back in China, I can’t imagine anyone in China would have heard of this mural either of the Chinese consulate general hadn’t broadcast it to the world by formally making a complaint about it.
The complaint makes the Chinese government look petty and weak even as it draws attention to two issues the Chinese government doesn’t want anyone talking about. The publicity helps ensure that more Americans are going to come down on what the Chinese government would consider to be the “wrong” side. Sure, consular officials may have scored some points with their buddies at home, but they did so by putting yet another scratch in China’s already-battered international reputation and by setting the country back even further on its increasingly unrealistic-looking quest to wield some kind of measurable cultural power outside its borders.