UPDATE: The nice folks over at 译者 have seen fit to translate this into Chinese. Check it out!
Warning: If you don’t like bitter rants, you may want to stop reading this after the first couple paragraphs. And if you don’t like sarcasm, you probably should never have come to this site in the first place.
Well, if you were wondering whether or not the “new masters” at the Beijing News (新京报) were going to exert control over the paper, wonder no longer. Behold:
You may already have heard about the tourist from Luoyang who came to see Beijing and got sent home and beaten because he was mistaken for a petitioner (keep in mind, it is not illegal to come to Beijing and petition the government anyway).
The image above is of said petitioner, passed out in the street after being beaten by police. The top photo was posted by Southern Metropolis Daily (as you can see by the watermark), one of the relatively independent newspapers in the Southern Media Group. The bottom one was posted to Weibo by — you guessed it! — the Beijing News.
Facepalm. Now, mix that with the revelation that national security police
detained harassed and threatened a reporter for “revealing state secrets” because he reported on a former official’s sex dungeon murders. That’s right. The fact that a former firefighter was keeping six KTV hostesses in a sex dungeon — well, until he killed at least one of them, possibly two — that’s a “state secret.”
Of course, what they actually meant by “revealing state secrets” is ‘causing the local police force to lose face’. You may be wondering how trying to conceal sex slavery, kidnapping, and double homicide isn’t somehow a bigger loss of face. By all accounts the criminal here was not some high-level official…anyway, we’re getting sidetracked.
In both instances, the issue is face. Of course, in these cases, the “face-saving” effort was completely botched, but the principle is the same. Truth doesn’t enter into the equation, it’s all about polishing that turd and hoping someone — anyone — is fooled.
Time and time again, Chinese officials use this approach to take a real problem, an embarrassment, or, in some cases, nothing at all and turn it into a disaster (or a bigger disaster). Off the top of my head, here are a few examples:
- The “Jasmine Revolution Protests” — Protests “organized” by a handful of overseas Chinese no one had ever heard of attracted almost no one save a few curious onlookers and a bunch of bemused journalists. Bemused, at least, until the cops showed up and started pushing people around trying to shut down a protest that wasn’t actually happening. They eventually locked up half ((Yes, I’m being hyperbolic. It’s a rhetorical strategy; shut up.)) of Beijing’s intelligentsia — none of whom had any connection to the calls for protest, of course ((If they have, we’ve seen no evidence of it)) — and beat up a couple Western journalists just to ensure what would have been the year’s biggest non-story would become a smoldering embarrassment that managed to garner international criticism even when half the Arab world was on fire.
- The Wenzhou Train Crash — The crash was a disaster in and of itself, and one that was getting more embarrassing for China as each new detail emerged. But somehow, officials managed to make a horrible situation even worse by bungling rescue efforts, burying train cars, and then playing down these mistakes in what has got to be the most inept press conference in world history. When people started criticizing them, they tried to cover that up by deleting posts, then tried to un-cover-up the cover-up by letting people speak freely for a while, then went back to covering-up by deleting posts when it seemed things were getting out of hand. In doing so, they took what was a disaster for the nation’s high speed rail and turned it into a disaster for the nation, but most especially, for themselves and their own legitimacy.
- The Sichuan Earthquake — Another disaster, this one was made worse by the fact that when people attempted to investigate the cause of collapsed buildings — or even just collect the names of the dead — they were harried, bullied, and harassed at every turn. This, of course, served to convince everyone the government was hiding something and by the time they finally released their own list of names, most people had already made up their minds about what had happened. As a result, the original story (gov’t built shoddy buildings, kids died as a result) — which was already pretty bad — got worse: gov’t built shoddy buildings, kids died as a result, gov’t tried to hide this even though it was plainly evident, gov’t probably now rebuilding things with same shoddy practices.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. Whatever the situation, it can — and often will — be made worse by official attempts to save face.
Saving face is a universal desire — after all, who wants to look bad? — but given that “face” is essentially pure vanity with another name, some people are remarkably shameless about it here.
China is, as its “defenders” will point out to you endlessly, a developing country. Despite the shiny facades in Shanghai and Beijing ((not that you can see the shiny facades in Beijing for all the pollution…)), anyone who’s been to the countryside knows that this is still a third world country in many respects. I certainly don’t envy the people charged with running it.
But I have no sympathy or forgiveness for their perpetual desire to hide the truth — from the rest of the world ((a.k.a. that one country called 外国 where everyone eats 西餐 and has really cute babies.)) and from their own people and (probably) even themselves.
The story, of course, is that this is all in the name of national stability. If the people were allowed to see that man with his pants ripped, things could go bad. So they’ll get part of the truth — a watered down, photoshopped Truth Substitute (TM) that tastes almost like the real thing. See? Stability!
But even a little lie is still a lie. And though I’m still young, I’m old enough at least to have learned that the lie that stabilizes things in the short term (“No, I didn’t put that ding in your car!”) can be destabilizing and downright destructive in the long term. Especially when, day after day, you’re adding little lies on top of yesterday’s lies in an attempt to maintain the facade (“No really, I can’t even drive stick!”). Sooner or later, the whole thing is going to crumble.
The train crash, shoddy building practices, etc. — it’s very obvious that Chinese leaders, most of them anyway, are playing the short term game, so it’s no surprise they don’t care what their truth-massaging might lead to down the road. But for their sake, and for ours, I hope someone up there realizes this before they make whatever the next disaster is worse, too. Or, god forbid, the whole tower of lies comes crashing down on top of them.
That might seem like poetic justice. But of course, if the tower does collapse, it’s the people under them who will ultimately get crushed.