Man riding a bicycle carrying supplies in China. Photo by Marie-Claire Holmes.
On Monday, I began publishing a series of photographs chronicling everyday life in China. As the country is currently in the spotlight as Olympics host, I think it's good to put a more human face on the distorted image we in the West see from afar.
It is evident from comments about the first part of the series, that a lot of anger is directed against China. I, too, have wondered what the International Olympic Committee was thinking when they awarded the games to China - not so much because of China's abysmal human rights record, but because of the country's poor air quality and pollution levels.
The environmental consequences of China's growth are considerable. Some 26 percent of the water in China's largest rivers is so polluted, the rivers "have lost the capacity for basic ecological function," according to Pan Yue, deputy head of China's State Environmental Protection Agency. Yue was quoted in a July 24, 2007 Financial Times article by Jamil Aderlini and Mure Dickie.
I have written before on these pages that I do not believe sports and politics should mix. If we stop awarding Olympic games to countries because of their record of human rights abuses, there would be few countries left in the running - including my own country the United States, with its Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay abuses, among others.
I think it is usually a mistake to paint the government and the people with the same brush. The Chinese people are not the same as the Chinese government - just as the American people are not the same as the incompetent Bush administration. (But in the latter case, the people elected him, you might argue. Yes, many people voted for George Bush, but I would suggest that most were ill-informed or simply sleep-walking. And after eight years of calamity and disaster, many Bush supporters now regret their vote).
In contrast, the Chinese people have had little choice about their government. For centuries, they have suffered harsh conditions of daily life, with limited rights and freedoms. While they now enjoy more rights to work, own property, start businesses and - to a limited extent - worship as they please, government control remains firm. Freedom of the press, including the Internet, is an ongoing battle in China.
The Chinese government's untenable positions, not only about the human rights of its own people, but those of Tibet are simply wrong. The government has far to go, before meeting standards advocated by human rights groups like Amnesty International.
"The greatest problem China faces going forward is not that its government is incurably evil; it is the risk that its government will lose the ability to hold things together - a problem that encompasses, but goes well beyond spiraling decentralization," notes Fareed Zakaria in his book The Post-American World. "China's pace of change is exposing the weaknesses of its Communist Party and state bureaucracy. For several years, the government's monopoly on power allowed it to make massive reforms quickly. It could direct people and resources where needed. But one product of its decisions is economic, social and political turmoil and the insular and hierarchical structure of the party makes it less competent to navigate these waters."
Made in China
I personally am appalled at how so many Western manufacturers have abrogated the quality of too many goods by sending them to China for production. But it's the Western manufacturers who decide to accept the materials of inferior quality, because they are cheaper. It's their fault the goods available on department store shelves are not what they once were, in terms of quality. The Chinese simply follow the companies' orders, when producing goods.
For instance, Nine West once produced stylish shoes of good quality for reasonable prices. Most of their designs were manufactured in Brazil. Those shoes looked nice and proved durable; I still have a few pairs that I wear from time to time. But these days, if you take a look at Nine West shoes, you'll notice the majority are made in China, of cheap, inferior materials. The owners of that company have decided to sacrifice quality to quantity, while keeping their prices fairly steady. I find that unacceptable, so I no longer buy Nine West shoes.
Of course Nine West is only one of thousands of companies who've made similar decisions to continue competing in a volatile global marketplace. It's up to us as consumers to refuse to buy these inferior products. It's also up to us to view every person as an individual with his or her own beliefs, rather than assign blame to ordinary citizens for a government's wrong-headed actions.
This is the third in a series of pieces about China.