Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

A ‘generation in peril’ in China [Straits Times]


This is a fear I share  as well, the Chinese I have met here in Australia are either very desensitized, or hyper-nationalistic, there are few in between. This is real. The new media is strongly shaping the minds of the Chinese.

I think this is the inevitable future of China at this stage, clashes between tradition and the new are frequent, and in this stage of hyper-flux where we are exposed, sometimes not by choice, to perception shaping media that form our personal narratives. Because the Internet and boundary-free (mostly) connectivity and access to information is still so new, excess is bound to happen before balance is found.

– – –

A ‘generation in peril’ in China
The Internet can spawn independent thinkers or be used to violate the right to free speech or privacy, says don
By Clarissa Oon, Senior Political Correspondent
Source – Straits Times, published July 25, 2010

An Internet cafe in China. Prof Zhu warns of manipulation by online commentators planted by the government. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

China’s young adults are a ‘generation in peril’ and the influence of the Internet could make or break them, one of the country’s leading cultural critics believes.

On the one hand, their cyber-savvy gives them the skills to crack Beijing’s firewalls and access information not found in their history textbooks or in the traditional Chinese media.

This could produce a new wave of independent thinkers and social activists, leading to a more progressive China, Professor Zhu Dake told The Sunday Times.

The catch is that ‘just as you can make use of the Internet, the Internet can turn around and make use of you’, said the outspoken cultural scholar with Shanghai’s Tongji University.

For one thing, less discerning netizens could be manipulated by government-paid ‘commentators’ who, under the cover of pseudonyms, try to steer Internet opinion towards the establishment line.

Fuelled by moralistic or nationalistic fervour, groups of impassionate netizens have also been known to organise offline witchhunts that violate an individual’s right to free speech or privacy.

Here Prof Zhu, 53, cites the sordid ‘Tongxu’ affair of 2006, which was widely reported on by Chinese and international media.

A high-ranking player known as Tongxu on the popular online role-playing game World Of Warcraft, was accused by a fellow gamer of having an affair with his wife. Outraged netizens exposed Tongxu’s real identity as an undergraduate, protested in front of his home and lobbied his university to expel him.

Prof Zhu is critical of such instances where, he says, the freedom offered by the Internet has been abused.

However, he remains hopeful that the new media can be a force for good, such as in 2003 when netizens campaigned successfully against the detention of illegal migrants after a young migrant was beaten to death in Guangzhou for failing to produce his residence permit.

‘As my generation of intellectuals ages, I hope there will be more of such young people who can continue our mission,’ he said. He was in Singapore for a forum organised by Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao, the National University of Singapore’s East Asia Institute and the Ee Hoe Hean Club.

For his incisive take on Chinese popular culture, the Shanghai academic was once named by Hong Kong magazine Phoenix Weekly as one of the 50 most influential Chinese in the world.

Apart from the Internet, he identifies three other trends affecting the post-1980 generation, born after communist China embraced a market economy.

They are: the loss of cultural traditions brought on by the Cultural Revolution and then economic reforms; growing materialism and consumerism; and finally, the higher education boom and consequent slide in education standards.

In general, he sees public confidence at a low, whether towards corruption-plagued local governments, the judiciary, food safety or academia, where charges of plagiarism are not uncommon.

This ‘crisis of credibility’ is ‘a new turning point on China’s cultural road’, he wrote last month in the Chinese news magazine Century Weekly.

Change can only happen if the political system introduces greater public accountability and entrenches the rule of law. Such blunt pronouncements do not endear him to the Shanghai authorities, but he is widely published and quoted outside of the tightly controlled financial hub.

China’s universities are led by government bureaucrats. Liberal, independent-minded scholars like him have found in recent years that the space for academic freedom has shrunk.

‘It has gotten harder to speak up, even over the Internet. It used to take the authorities a week to block sensitive content, now they can react within hours,’ he said.

He has weathered nearly 20 years as an academic by ‘seeing clearly what is off-limits and pushing against the borders, but not crossing the line’.

‘This is the skill of the intellectual in China, we have been getting practice in this for 60 years since the era of Chairman Mao,’ he said.

Born in 1957, he was young enough not to have become one of the fanatical ‘Red Guards’ persecuting their elders during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, but old enough to feel anguish when his father, an intellectual, became a target.

The young man worked in a factory before university entrance exams resumed in 1977. He became a Chinese language lecturer, but found his calling as a literary and film critic in the mid-1980s.

When the political climate grew more repressive after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown on pro-democracy activists, Prof Zhu found himself under investigation for ‘reactionary’ criticisms of Chinese poetry. But the tide began to turn in 1992 when paramount leader Deng Xiaoping spoke of restarting economic reforms.

Amid the political uncertainty, he left China for Australia, where he obtained his PhD in cultural studies from the Sydney University of Technology. Returning to Shanghai in 2001, he has written numerous books on Chinese culture.

One of the ironies about Shanghai is that China’s most outwardly cosmopolitan city is kept on a tight leash because of the government’s fear of any kind of instability in the financial centre.

While artists and designers have traditionally flocked to Shanghai, Prof Zhu bemoans a lack of boldness and creativity that, he says, has found expression in the conservative design of the China pavilion at the ongoing Shanghai Expo.

The hulking red structure, resembling a stack of inverted hats, was described by Expo authorities as architecture that is ‘close to the people’.

‘If you explain it as a symbol of the country’s authority and power, that would be acceptable, but I can see nothing about it that relates to ordinary people’s lives,’ he said.

He thinks a lack of creativity is one reason China has not yet been influential in the global cultural arena. Another reason is its inability to have a genuine dialogue with other cultures, because ‘to be universal, a set of values cannot speak to only a particular race or culture’.

He singled out the recent work of mainstream Chinese film-makers, particularly Zhang Yimou’s 2006 film Curse Of The Golden Flower, which showed imperial intrigue through violence, sexual imagery and opulent sets.

In a 2007 essay, Prof Zhu called the panoply of cleavage from identikit servant girls ‘an allegory which hints that the milk of violence from the emperor, autocrat, nation and hooligan is what is feeding the Chinese blockbuster film’.

While Hollywood films have their exploitative side, he notes that their action films do have humanistic themes, recalling 1982’s Rambo: First Blood, which was a hit in China. To him, Rambo’s violence comes from the character being unjustly hunted down and from being a Vietnam War veteran who cannot shake his past.

‘When we watch Hollywood films, why do we feel moved? Because what they are talking about is not just American values, but intrinsic human drama and values.’

In his book, the day when Chinese values resonate with other cultures will be the day that China becomes a cultural as well as economic powerhouse.

clare@sph.com.sg

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Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Chinese Model, Culture, Domestic Growth, Economics, Education, Environment, Great Firewall, Greater China, Influence, Media, Nationalism, Politics, Population, Social, Soft Power, Straits Times

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