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Chinese Violence in the Streets of Seoul

Last Saturday, I was heading in to Seoul to meet my friend Jeffery, and I saw some of my students at the train station, headed the same way. They’re nice kids, some Chinese exchange students, and we chatted until it was my stop. One of them asked me if I knew about the Olympic Torch Relay in Seoul the following day, and I confessed that I hadn’t heard.

I’m kind of glad, too, because if I had, I might have anticipated what happened, and gone with a camera. Which would have been smashed to pieces, along with my face, by Chinese hooligans.

I want to be clear: I think Chinese citizens have a right to express their insane, brainwashed point of view. I just don’t think that they have the right to engage in violence to express it. I know, that’s a little much to ask from people who, after all, have been equipped with a duty to defend the Motherland but without any coherent, rational arguments with which to do so.

(Especially when many of the protestors in Seoul were Koreans who were demonstrating not about Tibet, but in favor of Chinese not sending North Korean defectors back to North Korea. Which, you know, is not a ridiculous demand, and certainly doesn’t warrant all out violence.)

When you’re arguing with someone whose point of view is disconnected from reality, at some point they’re going to have to resort of using power to silence you. Maybe they’ll beat you up. Maybe they’ll send you to a prison or re-education camp. Is there much difference between the two? Systemically, yes, but realistically, no.

The Chinese government has complained that CNN has been trying to separate the Chinese people from their government, but I think the riot in Seoul (and similar events elsewhere) reveal the silliness of this claim: in “mushrooming”¹ so much of their population, China has given them no choice to do anything but cling to the government.

Students I like — very nice students — have declared things like, “Taiwan is part of China!” loudly in my classes. (And, discomfitingly, I realize now that I’ve never had both Taiwanese and Chinese students together in any of my classes. Taiwanese and Japanese, yes; Chinese and Japanese, yes; Taiwanese and Chinese, no.)
I’ve found the best way to deal with the more dogmatic Chinese students is to ignore this dogmatism, and treat them like anyone else, while getting them to focus on things, facts, and so on. When they get to know me, and realize I’m not out to bash their country (and that I’m critical of my own), they’re more willing to follow me through the process of critical thinking and questioning of received “truth.”

In doing so, I’ve had some breakthroughs — for me, and for them. One student confessed to me, quietly, that others’ seeming ignorance of the negative side of Mao Zedong was something she neither shared nor sympathized with. Another has been working on an essay about how the politicization of history results in the distortion of history — an issue probably many Chinese students abroad end up confronting, especially when they come to Korea! (Both because of the Sino-Korean historical disputes, but also because they see Korean history’s distortion-through-politicization so much more clearly than the same thing in China… and yet, it is so similar.)

I do separate those students of mine — mild-mannered kids who’ve rarely been anything but gentle and respectful — from the thugs and hooligans who ran wild in the streets of Seoul yesterday, assaulting Tibetans, Koreans, and others for expressing any criticism of China. I know, though, that those students of mine were at the demonstration, and I know that I’m going to have a hard time not bringing up, in classes, the question of whether what happened is ethical, acceptable, or even plain stupid.

After all, if China wants to be depicted without words like “goons” and “thugs,” it needs to send a message to its students, who all too often, when they go abroad, act with disrespect (or even violence) towards people who do not support the Chinese party line. If China wants good press and respect, it could do better than to send automatic text-messages to Chinese students abroad (or in the case of one demonstration in the USA, apparently, paying them) to show up at demonstrations. And if Chinese students are offended by their nation being called thugs and goons, they could do a lot better in not behaving like goons and thugs, as well as restraining their more extreme countrymen when they choose to behave as such.

The idea of sending Chinese students in to quell the pro-Tibetan demonstration in Seoul yesterday was a ridiculously bad miscalculation on China’s part. All it did was draw attention to the frightening, dark side of Chinese imperialism and the mindset that it inculcates in at least some Chinese. More criticism will be the inevitable result, and even if it never gets aired in China, it is a worldwide embarrassment. Throwing stones at peaceful protestors? In the streets of a foreign city? (So that they have to use umbrellas to protect themselves?) What a bloody embarrassment. It’s shameful.

Though another, less-charitable explanation would be that this is precisely how young men without access to available and interested young women act out. China does have that girl-shortage problem, and I doubt that young Korean women are all that eager to date most foreign male Chinese students. All that pent up energy…

Either way, I imagine that many people worldwide will be thinking carefully about whether they actually want to attend the Olympics in China at all. Meanwhile, the violence only makes the Tibetan protesters look even more decent and worthy of support, since, unlike the Chinese students, Tibetans and their supporters weren’t drop-kicking anyone in Seoul. (Or, that’s the impression the media gives. I have a little space open in my mind for the possibility that Korean protesters were also dishing out violence in other spots, though most of the protesters there yesterday were members of NGOs and were, reportedly, demonstrating peacefully.)

What’s bizarre is that the Chinese government accused the West of villifying China when Japanese protestors railed against the torch relay in Nagano, and that the Chinese government accused the Dalai Lama of instigating violence when it was primarily violence by Chinese students in Seoul that happened yesterday. (As discussed in this New York Times writeup of the events.) Then again, this is familiar totalitarian “spin”: deny reality loudly. No wonder North Korea is being so supportive of China: there’s a deep principle of fit between the regimes.

(By the way, in the video above, some of the facts are wrong. The guy in green who was bleeding from the head was a journalist, not a cop, so I’m told.)

I’m sad to hear that only two of these thugs were deported, finally. It’s again a case of police inefficiency, and sadly, the many dangerous Chinese students who didn’t get deported are giving a bad name to the kids I know personally. If there’s anyone who’s in a position to help the Chinese people see the issues more clearly, it’s young Koreans who can use their own history (of being colonized by another Asian society) as an analogy.

But frankly, I don’t hold out much hope as long as there’s a stranglehold on media. Chinese citizens aren’t able to see this public embarrassment that has been wrought by their students abroad, and by their government; the word is, the Chinese media claimed the Torch Relay happened with an aura of harmonious welcome, not to mention peacefully.

UPDATE: Slideshow of images, including much less violent stuff. Interesting.

NPR’s take on the whole thing, with only a small mention of the violence. Probably rightly do, but: 10 to 1 violence doesn’t look all that cool.

1. Keeping them in the dark and feeding them… well, you know the expression now, I hope.

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