Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Chinese Democracy

This past week, death sentences were given to five Uighurs accused of "extreme religious activities and advocat[ing] holy war and establish[ing] a terrorist training base" in the western Xinjiang province. Whether or not these charges are valid - the People's Republic of China claims they were found with explosives, grenades, and 'suicide bombs' - PRC policy regarding the Turkic-speaking Muslims in the so-called "Eastern Turkmenistan" is flying remarkably low on the media radar. With forced relocation programs and a slew of other policies that seem intent on eradicating the Uighur people, the government has been hiding behind the same War on Terror rhetoric that Russia used to crack down in Chechnya and the surrounding regions. "Free East Turkestan" hasn't replaced "Free Tibet" as the bumper sticker of choice yet, but give it a year or two.

This is a frightening situation no matter how you slice it - either they really are violent, Islamic separatists and there's about to be another state created to sponsor for global terror, or the PRC is using shelter found in American foreign policy rhetoric to carry out egregious violations of human rights all too reminiscent of those seen in the Great Leap Forward and Tibet. But the media isn't concerning itself with this. Rather, it's picked up on boats and basketball.

The former, wherein the PRC surfaces a 160 ft Song Class diesel-electric sub in the midst of US Naval exercises in the East China Sea, came "as big a shock as the Russians launching Sputnik." Considering it was our space gizmos, naval superiority, and huge stockpile of nuclear weapons that were letting us sleep easy as the PRC started to modernize its military, this latest incident, along with the anti-satellite technology demonstrated in January, means we're back to the Cold War-era strategy of praying to the God of Mutually Assured Destruction.

There are any of number reasons why this incident is so troubling - starting perhaps with the fact that the US government had no idea that the Chinese military could do this. Maybe more unsettling, however, is the brazen reveal. Not only does this say that the PRC feels secure enough in their naval power and technology to shadow American military exercises, but they don't care if we know that they've been doing it. It would be bad enough for the PRC to stand up and say that they're fixing their deck, that we don't know what's in that deck, and that they're willing to show us some tricks they can do with it while we're holding what seem to be live fire exercises, but this comes less than a week after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went to China to "help strengthen understanding and trust between the two militaries." Yeah, trust.

Two days prior, China made headlines with another showdown: the China NBA Derby, as the showdown between Yao Ming's Houston Rockets and Yi Jianlian's Milwaukee Bucks has come to be called. PhDribble is the place to start here: the close reading of the People's Daily article is spot on, but it leaves open the question of the broader significance of all the conclusions. The game parties are intriguing as a redefinition of the public and private spheres in the PRC, but perhaps more interesting is that they are the creations of internet based fan clubs. Stop to consider for a moment a country where freedoms are curtailed with regularity, and where civil society organizations like churches and trade unions can't exist without state sponsorship, but where teenagers can organize through new media to cheer on a game taking place across the globe.

That there can be such pro-western, collectively organized events that bleed loyalty to individuals before teams is not remarkable in the sense that it should be anathema to Communism - such ideological strictures as would have precluded this have long been replaced by state run capitalism - but in how it exemplifies the bizarre limbo that the PRC is in today.

No longer followers of the One True Path toward international socialist revolution, the government has been trying to create the illusion of openness as it uses its very visible, very heavy hand to guide the country's military and economic modernization. Where the USSR might not have been able to tolerate these groups (my admittedly brief internet research has yet to determine if sports clubs in the USSR had non-state fan clubs), China has preempted the question. Rather than outright banning association, the PRC has circumscribed the role it can play. Perhaps by allowing people the right to gather for basketball games, it can avoid the people pressing to gather for democracy.

Still, the clubs may yet present a challenge for the PRC. Not only does the means of organization itself create a training ground for would-be activists, but the exercise of autonomy within the system may breed demands for more spaces to act freely. This is to say nothing of the ramifications of cheering for players in the international game of individual glory. And of course, it is still an American league.

The people of the PRC have their eyes on American basketball. The government of the PRC has their eyes on America's place as the global leader. Meanwhile, America writ large has their eyes somewhere else entirely. Most definitely not on Xinjiang province, and, with two wars in progress, generally not on the PRC at all. Those two wars, however, are revealing an America no longer as strong as it used to be. It doesn't matter whether the wars have rendered us drastically less able to materially project power globally, or whether it has just made the world believe that we have lost the ability, or even whether it only exposed a pre existing decline in American military strength, the fact remains that the world is changing. But perhaps there doesn't need to be a readjustment of the global balance of power quite yet - we can probably wait until the playoffs are over.

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