China, movies, politics

Ha Ha Ha America

It is sometimes immature and sometimes inappropriate but mostly pretty funny. “Ha Ha Ha America” is an intentionally mistranslated short documentary that is gaining popularity due to its brevity, its humor, and its availability on the internets. The narration is, I think, not translated at all, but simply affected so as to read like a mistranslation. Created by Jon Daniel Ligon, whom I believe lives in San Francisco and works at his own advertising firm (and is apparently a University of Michigan alumnus if that matters to you—maybe you knew him, it’s a small campus), the film highlights Bush’s foreign policy failures in light of a China ascendant.

While one might be tempted to highlight the irony of a communist country using the tools of capitalism against us, as this film does, I’d caution the legitimacy of the term “communist” in describing to China. In May 2005, I interviewed a climatologist named Stephen Schneider about the junk science used by global warming skeptics. He made this comment:

You know, “Fox News Fair and Balanced” is like painless dentistry and bargain antiques, or democratic peoples’ republics—if it’s in the title, it’s because it’s not true, but anyhow… (ba dum bum)

Which upon reflection is a stretch for me to bring up, since he is technically referring to the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of North Korea, while it’s the Peoples’ Republic of China. But the point is that China is not truly communist, and whether it is of or for its people is questionable.

It might more accurately be described as a fascist state. A couple of years ago, the New York Times columnist and former China correspondent Nicholas Kristoff, wrote in the New York Review of Books that China today is more fascist than communist. Part of his reasoning: fascist states do better, economically, than communist states. He pointed to the bustling economy of Franco’s Spain or South Korea under its decades of homegrown military dictatorship, in contrast to states like the Soviet Union, with its long lines for bread or milk that may not even be on the shelves.

The green architect Bill McDonough once told me:

The surprising thing is that China, structurally, looks exactly like a U.S. corporation, which does beg the question, “Are corporations totalitarian regimes?”

He continued:

The point being the administration, the executive branch, says, “Let’s do something,” and people start moving. I think in the case of China it will definitely be government-sponsored initiatives based on what’s considered the public will.

Which I find interesting, because he says China is acting based on the “public will,” implying that its citizens have some say in how policies are formulated–which I hope is true. (An aside: China has adopted McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” philosophy as its own national policy. Which is a good move on its part–better now than when it’s absolutely, gravely necessary, which is when the U.S. will do it. So he’s been hired to design seven cities in China from the ground up. At its current rate of construction, McDonough tells me, China will run out of all its coal just to make bricks. This country is growing beyond all comprehension: more than 200 cities with more than 1 million people each; and “this year alone,” writes David Barboza in the New York Times, “Shanghai will complete towers with more space for living and working than there is in all the office buildings in New York City.” The Chinese translate McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” catch-phrase as “virtuous cycles.”)

So we have people calling China “communist,” “fascist,” and “totalitarian.” It is probably a combination of each of those. Which is why it is disappointing, if not disturbing, to learn that the local power brokers in San Francisco’s Chinatown have drifted to Beijing’s side after years of Chinese nationalist (read: Taiwan) support. Says an anonymous source, “five years ago, you saw Nationalist flags all over Chinatown. Today, it’s all communist China. They are the new power source.” The issue is floating in the background as a small controversy has ensued over whether followers of Falun Gong, a persecuted sect in China, will be allowed to march in San Francisco’s legendarily large Lunar New Year parade.

Seventeen years ago, during the Tiananmen Square protests–which was a burgeoning democracy movement that ended in massacre–those same power brokers were probably distancing themselves from the “all powerful leaders…in hiding somewhere within the bowels of the Great Hall of the People,” as Pico Iyer puts it in a Time magazine profile of the Unknown Rebel. I think most people my age (I was 9 at the time) and older remember the photos of that unknown rebel. It is among the most powerful images ever recorded: the harried man, carrying a bag (Iyer speculates that he’s carrying his groceries) standing in front of a line of tanks. He manages to hold them at bay for some time, confounding the soldiers inside–soldiers who were part of the same military that killed hundreds of innocent Chinese and fired at a nearby hotel housing foreign journalists. He climbs on the tank, speaks to the driver. When he returns to street-level, he’s pulled back into the crowd and, presumably, back into anonymity—although it is hardly reassuring that, when asked by a journalist what happened to that man, Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin replied, “I think not killed.”

Fortunately, if you don’t know what I’m talking about you can just Google “Tiananmen”. And if you happen to live outside of China, you’ll actually see the pictures…

…as the SF Chronicle shows us in the above graphic, following the lead of Representative Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who mentioned trying the search at google.cn at a hearing yesterday of the House’s Human Rights Caucus. (Also part of the caucus is Bay Area Democrat Tom Lantos, who has an interesting biography: a Holocaust survivor and member of the anti-Nazi Hungarian underground and anti-Communist student movement.)

The image in the Google graphic homes in on the photo taken by the talented Stuart Franklin for Magnum. You should take a closer look to get a real sense of what’s happening (a nod to Simon World for the info). If you like, you can also see the Jeff Widener photo for AP on Wikipedia.

It is a heartbreaking, exhilarating moment, and one that inspires a sort of pride in the species. Here is someone exercising the courage of his convictions—whether those are a sense of democracy or just a sense of decency (he’s believed to have said to the tank driver, “Why are you here? My city is in chaos because of you.”).

Incidentally, Tiananmen was a real career-maker for the American journalists on the scene. Stuart Franklin won a World Press Award for his shot; Jeff Widener was nominated for a Spot Photography Pulitzer. Nicholas Kristoff won a Pulitzer for his NYT coverage of the protests with his wife Sheryl WuDunn (though success may have been in the cards for that guy once he left the cherry farm). Recently-injured ABC anchor Bob Woodruff was inspired to move from corporate law to journalism after his experience in Beijing during Tiananmen. And also on the scene was John Pomfret, who, as I understand it from a mutual friend, may now be sort of persona non grata in that country because he is too good a reporter (he’s now the Washington Post’s Los Angeles Bureau chief). With all the talk of China’s ascendancy, Pomfret says we should take it with a grain of salt for reasons of economics, military, environment, population, and geography. All we hear about is the economic craze of urban China, rather than the 900 million rural Chinese leading crushing existences and being left behind. And McDonough’s point about coal is just one example of the myriad ways China is driving its environment–and ours–to breakdown. It may not become the superpower we think it will be.

Which makes sense. It probably is rather difficult to make “progress” or “leap forward” or whatever and take 1.5 billion people with you. Or is it 1.2 billion?

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