June 18th, 2005

The Da Shan Dynasty part 4: Die Wende

Obviously it's a mistake to see the post-war pre-1989 Eastern European countries as one huge homogenous monolith governed by Moscow, but each of the Eastern Bloc states did either collapse or rapidly wither away during the historically brief period from 1989 onwards. The events in each country had certain basic things in common.

1. The economies were in tatters. Call it soviet-style communism, state capitalism or whatever you like, but by the late 1980s it had ruined the economic life of the countries.

2. The Communist Party leadership was ideologically bankrupt. They could no longer claim to be marching towards freedom, equality and prosperity for all. The 40 years of spying on each other and political repression was enough proof for the citizens that they were not really marching in any direction at all.

3. People could see and hear for themselves, on foreign TV stations and on radio drifting in from abroad, that things in neither the west nor their own countries were as the leaders told them they were. Furthermore, they could keep up to date with events in Russia and in their comrade nations, and know that changes were taking place and that their own leaders were starting to panic.

4. In most countries, there was an organised opposition. It may have been in prison or in exile, but it existed and it was clear that its ambition was to take power away from the Party.

5. In a lot of countries, the organised oppostion was led by a very clear figurehead. Probably ten years before, neither the leader of Solidarity Lech Walesa nor the intellectual dissident Vaclav Havel would have imagined that they would one day become President. But as events moved on it must have become clear that the people flooding into the streets and squares saw them as leaders. Hence it is very easy to look back now and see them as Presidents-in-Waiting.

6. According to one account I once heard (repeated here), the KGB had a decisive influence on events. They had allegedly decided to oversee the removal from power of the first generation of Eastern Bloc leaders, and settled on street demonstrations as a means of achieving this. Things subsequently got out of hand - I'd imagine that Vladimir Putin was not well pleased.

Then there was the domino effect, and the most significant factor here must have been the USSR itself. Change in Russia, as we all know, was not led from below but from above. Mikhail Gorbachev was, like De Klerk in apartheid South Africa, an insider who wanted to essentially preserve the system, but realised that it would have to change if it was to survive:

The Party, which I had joined, itself badly needed to be reformed and reoriented toward democracy. And through this, the country could begin to gain some freedom. That came later, but it all started with the desire to do something and show initiative. That was what led many good people to join the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) and the Party.

At a certain point, though, the momentum for fundamental change had built up to such an extent that 'die Wende' was reached. There was no turning back.

So when in August 1991 some Communist Party hardliners briefly kidnapped Gorbachev in an abortive coup attempt, the world saw them for what they really were: desperate old men whose time had passed. Not only were they no longer at the wheel of the ship of state - they had been thrown overboard.

Incidentally, the fact that the ex-head of the KGB is firmly entrenched as leader of the Great Bear tells us a lot, I think, about the difference between overthrowing a totalitarian state through popular uprising, and waiting on the leadership to quietly reform it and their own positions, powers and privileges out of existence.

More on China and Japan

I recently got hold of a copy of 'The Rape of Nanking' by Iris Chang, which I think has brought me closer to an understanding of the mindset of young Chinese people.

Although I've read quite a bit on what the Nazis did, the massacres in Rwanda and in Cambodia and also what took place here during the Cultural Revolution, and am I guess like a lot of people desensitized to accounts of horrific violence, I could not finish the book. The things that she recounts are beyond and beneath my comprehension of what human beings can do to each other. It actually had me in tears at several points, and I can't say that I would 'recommend' reading the book to anyone. Without wanting to sound too trite, perhaps it's no accident that after years of researching what took place the author took her own life.

As I say I've been confronted with terrible violence in books and films throughout my own life, and I couldn't deal with written descriptions of what took place. Imagine, then, how young Chinese schoolchildren feel, confronted again and again with not just words but also images and film footage depicting the most inconceivable tortures and acts of barbarity.

Of course, they generally do not know what happened in their own country's recent past, and those who do are encouraged not to reflect on what their leaders have done or are up to. The only political feeling they are permitted is hatred of the Japanese. And young people like to get angry, as it says here, in one of the most incisive commentaries I've come across in years:

Chairman Mao knew it: it enabled him to launch the Cultural Revolution. As part of their post-adolescent struggle for identity, young students yearn for freedom. If they are not allowed to express their opinions, they have to finesse it, and pretend - somehow - that they identify whole-heartedly with the nation, and that such an identification has been arrived at with their consent and with a complete understanding of right and wrong. In a country where one is not permitted to express dissent, the only way to maintain one's integrity is to pretend that one's patriotism is freely chosen, and based on truth. And so, our patriot-rebels do not want to hear about the various apologies made by Japan over the years, because they have invested so much in the belief that their anger is rational and based on Japan's refusal to apologize. (from Running Dog)

Maybe in the future the contradiction will become more apparent to them, and they will begin to see this incredibly cruel and bloody episode of their country's history in the wider context of other murderous periods in China's past, and realise that absolute power leads to absolute horror. For the moment, the attitude someone talked about on an English teachers' message board is probably the best that can be hoped for:

I asked my Teaching Assistant what she thought about this issue the other night. She answered (rather predictably) that she hated what Japan DID. When I asked her if she would try and be friends with a Japanese person if they came here to teach, she said yes. By the end of the conversation, we'd established that she hated what the Japanese did, but that it happened a few generations ago, and that an individual Japanese person could be quite nice. Rather reasonable, really.

On Spitting and Staring

The great Irish satirical rebel Ding Dong Denny O'Reilly had many songs in his repetoire about the struggle to free his beloved Ireland from the hated British. One of them was called 'Spit on the Brits', and during his raucous concerts he would encourage the audience to participate by coughing their guts up before joining in with the chorus, which went as follows:

We'd spit on the Brits
Spit on the Brits
And we'd shower them in a lovely sea of green,
We'd spit on the Brits,
Spit on the Brits
And then they'd blow us all to smithereens

In the West spitting is usually interpreted as an act of aggression; if you're standing at the bus stop and someone loudly spits on the floor, it's natural to move away. Not because you think that they might spit on you, but because someone who displays such an obvious lack of respect for social convention and basic hygiene might be either dangerous or diseased or both.

The Chinese habit of regularly clearing their lungs in public is therefore an affront to Western sensibilities. Ironically, the Chinese, as Paul Theroux points out, are not among the world's great spitters, because for all the fanfare that precedes the act of expectoration, the end result tends to just dribble out of their mouths and on to the pavement. It's quite distinct from the kind of pinpoint projectile spitting familiar from John Wayne movies.

Another classic complaint amongst Western visitors to China is the staring. Often, for a Chinese peasant, seeing a foreigner is akin to us finding Chief Running Bear in full costume directing traffic. However, for us staring, however harmless the intention of the starer, is also easy to interpret as a hostile act. It seems to say: I'm here, you're there, and I've just decided I don't like you.

It has been said that the Chinese would benefit enormously from the introduction of Spitting and Staring as events in the 2008 Olympics. I don't think that's either accurate or fair. Not accurate, partly for the reasons mentioned above, and not fair because all nations have bad habits. The Americans, for example, would do very well if there was an event for invading other countries and forcing them to release a statement announcing that they are now democracies, while the gleeful minions of the World Bank and the IMF run around cackling and grabbing anything that isn't nailed down. The English would sweep the board in any event which rewarded moving of their own volition to other countries and then spending all their time writing very very long sentences complaining about everything around them, while never forgetting to include the odd self-deprecating remark to mitigate their bigotry and anticipate criticism. Ho hum.

Where the Chinese could put their habits to good use is in the intimidation of opponents in other sports. It would be off-putting to a swimmer if the person in the next lane coughed up a big greenie straight into the pool right before they all dived in. And if your opponent in tennis spent the entire time between sets with their chair turned round so they could stare straight at you if might well put you off your serve.

One of the other potential uses of staring, spitting and other generally anti-social behaviour is in the field of International Relations. A logical and non-violent way of resolving the territorial disputes of the world is in the same way that cats do - if Saddam Hussein had had the foresight to piss all over Kuwait in 1990, the Americans would have been understandably less keen to go in and remove him. Similarly, as Ding Dong Denny O'Reilly suggested, if when Mao Zedong had sent all those young Chinese soldiers to North Korea in 1950 armed only with the simple order to stand on the border and spit, maybe one million lives could have been saved.

It's easy to stand on the border of one country and spit into another. However, for long-range warfare nuclear weapons, although immoral, are probably more effective. Next week I'm off to England, hopefully out of range of the Chinese spitting brigades. It will be interesting to see, though, if in 2008 the Olympic pools will be fitted with those spit buckets they have at each end of the lanes here. Whether or not they do, I have a feeling that the Chinese will do very well indeed in all the swimming events.