Thursday, 1 May 2008

China and Tibet

There is a very interesting letter by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek in last week's London Review of Books that is worth reading for some insight into both China and Tibet. Firstly, the author questions the traditional media narrative of good guys and bad guys, and also points out that:
"What the images of Chinese soldiers and policemen terrorising Buddhist monks conceal is a much more effective American-style socio-economic transformation: in a decade or two, Tibetans will be reduced to the status of Native Americans in the US. It seems that the Chinese Communists have finally got it: what are secret police, internment camps and the destruction of ancient monuments, compared with the power of unbridled capitalism?"

Of course the mainstream western press can't square these important trends with their own preconceived notions and instead resorts to the narrative of nationalistic mythology tinged with oriental exotica. In the current media group-think, more capitalism-driven economic development must equal more democratization and 'freedom'. So its easier to ignore images of mobs of Tibetan youths smashing Chinese shops and lynching Chinese immigrant workers and instead focus on Chinese policemen beating up Tibetan monks. The first image raises troubling questions about the political economy of development and exploitative capitalism while the second can be nicely slotted into the old story of meditative monks being brutally oppressed by vicious communists.

Mr Zizek ruminates further on our idea that there necessarily is a connection between unfettered capitalism and democracy:
"The Chinese used unencumbered authoritarian state power to control the social costs of the transition to capitalism. The weird combination of capitalism and Communist rule proved not to be a ridiculous paradox, but a blessing. China has developed so fast not in spite of authoritarian Communist rule, but because of it.

There is a further paradox at work here. What if the promised second stage, the democracy that follows the authoritarian vale of tears, never arrives? This, perhaps, is what is so unsettling about China today: the suspicion that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a reminder of our past – of the process of capitalist accumulation which, in Europe, took place from the 16th to the 18th century – but a sign of our future?"

Not an especially cheerful thought.

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