Sunday, June 27, 2010

We're in no position to lecture China on democracy

I DON'T KNOW Tibetan history chapter and verse, but I know cultural arrogance when I see it, and Russel Norman put on an interesting display of it when he pestered the visiting Chinese vice-president.

Rather than being snide about how the Chinese people wouldn't see this embarrassing scene in their news coverage, as some reporters were, we should be thankful, because he looked like such a dork.

We're deluded if we think Chinese viewers would be impressed with that graceless demonstration of freedom of speech, and rise as one to demand the novelty. They would surely have been struck, as I was, by the contrast between the composure of the leader of one of the world's great nations (theirs) compared with a sandy-haired git in a beige(!) suit (ours) mouthing off like a hysterical schoolboy somewhere in the remote Pacific. It takes a hell of a lot more intelligence and political skill to be a Xi Jinping in China than a Green MP in New Zealand – and better manners as well. That was obvious.

There's a level on which it's inherently embarrassing to see any European wagging their finger at a Chinese leader: our common history in their country is not a proud one, and is not forgotten there. I've seen colonial-era film footage of the signs in parks in China reading, "No Dogs or Chinese Allowed" – and this was less than a century ago. We knew better than the Chinese then, too, even in their own country. Perhaps it's something to do with our beigeness.

This was at a time when we still treated Chinese immigrants as a special case, when we dreaded the "yellow peril", and had recently had a prime minister, Richard Seddon, who used such racism as a political platform.

Our great-grandparents voted for him, and even erected the odd pigeon poo-bedecked statue in his memory. That Norman's display was on the steps of parliament, near where Seddon stands on a plinth in all his glory, was unpleasantly apt.

Thanks to this attitude of ours, from 1896 until 1944, Chinese immigrants had to pay a poll tax of 100 pounds – a heck of a lot of money – to be allowed to come here, and couldn't bring their families. In 1908 they were deprived of the right to be naturalised, an insult which remained legal until 1951. All in all, it's a history that's shaky ground to preach from, even if we've apologised for it, to a country with a history and civilisation going back thousands of years.

I was reminded, watching Norman's antics, of a display I saw in Shanghai a while back, showing the city's history. Our Chinese guides urged our media group on, but some of us stayed to watch it through, and saw how Europeans were depicted. Let me put it this way: a sandy-haired fellow in a beige suit would have blended in perfectly with the deadpan account of how the city was formerly divided between European powers whose venal attitude left much to be desired. By what right did we do this, and why weren't we preaching democracy then?
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I don't imagine Xi will care one way or the other about Norman's display of bad manners, and I sure don't expect he cares what you or I think about anything, least of all Tibet. He's quite busy running one of the most populous countries in the world, with its own problems and perspective on history, including how it looks on Tibet. We may disagree, but so what? We won't be changing anything.

Sure, we don't like the colonisation, as it appears to us, by the Chinese there. We have the luxury of that perspective, as heirs to the British wholesale colonisation of vast tracts of the planet, justified by confidence in our inherent cultural superiority, and the drive for trade. That's how we got here, not because Maori invited us.

As a descendant of blacksmiths, shoemakers and agricultural labourers from Europe, I'm not ungrateful.

But surely we charged into this country much as the Chinese have done into Tibet, and with as much consideration for Maori and their beliefs and practices as the Chinese show to the Tibetans.

My missionary ancestors were pretty keen to eradicate Maori religious practices, too, albeit with the most benevolent of intentions.

Time has a way of turning beliefs on their heads, of making wrongs right and rights wrong, as we, of all people, ought to know. So instead of brandishing other countries' flags and fighting other nations' battles, we might try being less smug about our own.

By ROSEMARY MCLEOD - Sunday Star Times
Last updated 05:00 27/06/2010

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