OPINION> Patrick Whiteley
Striving for peace and harmony
By Patrick Whiteley (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-08-17 08:12

A Beijing newspaper was recently critical of its fellow citizens for trying too hard to paint a perfect, unrealistic picture of their country. "We should exhibit the true and natural China to the outside world," the editorial said. "We also have problems, but we should not be afraid for everybody to see them."

It is a sentiment shared by many of my Chinese friends, but they are still very sensitive to barbed criticism about their complex homeland.

"Don't worry, it's nothing personal," I tell them. "Us Westerners, generally speaking, like to complain loudly about pretty much everything.

"You'll get used to it, and after a while, you'll learn to ignore it like we do."

While many in the West struggle to try to understand the Chinese psyche, my Beijing friends are sometimes bewildered by the Western media's never-ending moan about China's differences.

"Foreigners only read that we're all poor, corrupt, polluters, human rights abusers and we have no rights," my 23-year-old Chinese language teacher told me. "I know this because I read these stories on the Internet, which the foreign media says I'm banned from reading," she said laughing.

She stops laughing when I tell her it is common practice for my home newspaper in Australia to run a monkey cartoon of our state leader.

"That is so disrespectful!" she cries. "Why would people want to see their leader like that. How would that help him do his job?"

"We don't take it seriously," I explain. "It's just one newspaper editor's point of view and he thinks it's funny."

My teacher cannot see the humor. "Leaders, teachers and parents should be respected," she says. "But you can still debate an issue without being so rude."

A senior Chinese editor told me he would not dare be critical about the government during his university days in the late 1960s. "You might not be arrested but you'd be heavily criticized," he said. But times are changing, thanks to the world wide web.

"Today you can go online and people will be criticizing former and even current leaders," he says. "This was unheard of five years ago. But in these chat rooms there are people also supporting these leaders too. There is healthy debate."

Another example of recent online debate revolved around a man who burst into a Shanghai police station and stabbed six police officers to death. People were asking: "What drives a man to do this? He must have hated the police so much. What did they do to him?"

The issue of police abusing their authority was discussed at great length.

In the West, debate on a subject like this would be a lot more simplistic. Right-wing media commentators would demand the man be lynched from the nearest tree. The left-wingers would argue his action was a symptom of a failing society.

A raging debate would ensue and under the banner of free speech and the rights of the almighty individual, everybody would be invited to join the melee.

The issue becomes irrelevant after a while because it is all about heated conflict.

When I first came to China two years ago, I kept hearing the mantra of "harmonious society" and it never failed to amuse. I started working on Australian newspapers more than 20 years ago, and thrived on social conflict. Controversy sold newspapers and everybody was fair game except my newspaper owner, of course.

But the senior Chinese editor told me that if everybody in China emphasized their individual freedom without restraint and without considering the impact it may have on others, there would be chaos.

And he said the Chinese people have had enough of chaos. They now wanted to enjoy peace and strive for harmony. And they wanted to do it their own way.

How can you argue against that? Isn't that what everyone wants.

E-mail: patwhiteley@yahoo.com

(China Daily 08/17/2008 page10)