‘Social construct’ is a favourite bogeyman of the anti-PC brigade. These daring, freethinking spirits see dangerous relativism lurking behind this widely-accepted social science concept. The problem is that they generally do not understand what a social construct is. They are not alone: even many people dabbling on the more extreme side of ‘social justice’ seem to not fully grasp what it consists of. Social constructivism leads in fact to a rather pessimistic worldview, one with rather conservative expectations of change. Social constructs pinpoint really existing things, and structure and actors work together to keep them in place.
Critical approaches have done great work in social sciences, adding greatly to our collective insight. However, some scholars have taken the useful viewpoint it brings and turned it into a simplistic replacement of all other social science. For these critical theorists, mere deconstruction has replaced all other scholarship. The notion that all knowledge is premised on power has led the most publicly visible parts of Critical Theory down a path of taking apart all that came before without offering anything in return. However, we still live in this world and it does not go away just like that.
For large numbers of peoples in the world, the decline of Europe meant their liberation. On his recent state visit in China, President Macron confidently stated ‘France is back. Europe is back.’ It is good for the European Union to stake out its own place in the world and develop an independent foreign policy. However, when we Europeans build this future, we have to grapple with the fact that, for many in the world, ‘imperial’ Europe does not refer to imagined ‘EUSSR’ horror scenarios the eurosceptics love to conjure up—but to imperial Europe, coloniser of much of the world.
The process of decolonisation is only a recent one, more recent than the horrors of the Second World War. Many African and Asian colonies only got their independence in the 1960s and 1970s. In East Asia, the Sultanate of Brunei became fully sovereign in 1984. Hong Kong lost its Crown Colony status as short ago as 1997. Liberation from European overlordship was often paid for dearly, with incredibly costly wars, both in terms of people killed and physical destruction. The Indonesian Revolution (1945–9), the Algerian War (1954–62), and the Portuguese Colonial War (1961–74) are only a selection. These bloody struggles were merely the closing episode to centuries of oppression, exploitation, and genocide. Europe—unlike settler colonies such as the United States—benefited from the physical remoteness of the violence in that it can keep it separate from its societies, but that ‘colourblindness’ has also desensitised it to the fact that for the formerly colonised the brutalities are all too salient still.
Before its neighbours would allow Germany to play a leading role again in Europe after the atrocities of the Second World War, the country had to follow a long path of atonement. Without the movement in the 1950s and 1960s that forced the Federal Republic to deal honestly with its past, Germany today would not only have been an entirely different country, but its eventual reunification would have been in question. The most powerful symbol of this atonement was the 1970 genuflection by Chancellor Willy Brandt (the Warschauer Kniefall) before the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It mattered tremendously that the leader of West-Germany fell to his knees in the face of millions of death, not just because it symbolised accepting collective guilt, but maybe even more so the fact that it demonstrated a common European understanding of these past deeds as monstrous crimes.
The Holocaust and other nazi aggressions are unequivocally accepted as extreme crimes against humanity, by Germany and by its former victims. This fact reassures those countries, because this shared judgment means that a reformed Germany can be engaged without fearing that it will do the same again. (On a side note, this fact is also why the current Polish meddling with the common narrative is so potentially dangerous.) There does not exist, however, such a common agreement between Europe and its former victims on its past crimes.
During the campaign for the 2017 French presidential elections that ended with him in the Palais de l’Élysée, Emmanuel Macron was ferociously attacked by the centre-right contender after Macron had admitted France that had committed crimes against humanity in Algeria. Opponent François Fillon claimed that France should not be blamed for ‘partager sa culture’, sharing its culture. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson saw no issue with reciting imperial poet Rudyard Kipling while on an official tour of a Buddhist temple in Myanmar, and has in the past suggested the recolonisation of Africa. There is no universal agreement in Europe about the fact that in scale of destruction and intensity of violence colonialism in a certain view went far beyond what the Holocaust has done to Europe. There is certainly not a shared narrative with its former victims.
In a speech on the Dutch history in what since 1945 is Indonesia, the Dutch Prime Minister stressed the need for a common history before one can move forward. A similar motive underlies flagging attempts to write an ‘East Asian’ history textbook with Chinese, Japanese, and South Korea involvement. However, passively waiting for such agreement to spontaneously arise will not do. The Warschauer Kniefall is an example of how grand gestures can contribute to a closer understanding. Perhaps former European colonisers should start considering symbolic ways to move towards recognition of the perspective of the colonised. Until then, these countries should not be surprised if the West’s Rest is not jumping for joy at the thought of a European revival.
Europe can proudly proclaim to be back on the world stage, but currently it would do so unaware that to others this would sooner bring back nightmares than cause jubilation.
With legislation introduced in Australia’s parliament which Prime Minister Turnbull has explicitly said is meant to counter Chinese interference, the efforts of Beijing to shape the world have been brought to the fore like they haven’t in quite some time. Across the Western world, governments and companies are realising that behind Chinese acquisitions and investment might be a conscious influence-building agenda that transcends economic rationale. The accusations that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) depends on projects that are economically not viable seem less important now. Sri Lanka’s inability to pay back loans led to it handing control over the Chinese-built Hambantota port to Beijing. The power China has over Venezuela and Zimbabwe has been in the press as well.
However, the creeping global influence of the regime in Beijing should not lead us in the West to condemn ‘the Chinese’ en bloc. The West has a long history of ‘Yellow Peril’ narratives and while addressing the very serious issue of Communist Party of China (CPC) abusing the openness of Western countries we should take care to distinguish between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and ‘the Chinese’. Already, reports by Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) about the danger of Chinese infiltration has led to some unease in the Chinese community in Australia. Not all ethnic Chinese are a threat. Reporting should take care to reflect this.
This might be even more necessary because often the first target of PRC overseas operations are overseas Chinese communities. Every PRC embassy has an officer for Overseas Chinese Affairs (华侨事务 huáqiáo shìwù, shortened to 侨务 qiáowù) who concerns themself with bringing the local Chinese community in line with the CPC. This includes ensuring joyful flag-wavers whenever Chairman Xi Jinping or another Chinese leader makes a foreign visit, but also organising angry nationalists to, for example, shout over pro-Tibet demonstrations and allegedly to beat up demonstrators. It moreover includes overseeing Chinese Scholar and Student Associations (CSSAs) that keep tabs on Chinese students and impel them to inform on each other. Often, the poorer students are encouraged with financial rewards to do so. Lastly, it tries to keep the local business community in line.
Chinese embassies have this power because of the enormous economic importance of China, especially to Chinese business communities that distinguish themselves based on their ties to the PRC. Perhaps it were these business interests that made ethnic Chinese businessmen in Kuala Lumpur in 2015 happy to welcome the PRC ambassador to tour Petaling Street after Malay riots. Recently, the Chinese ambassador even accompanied an MP of opposition party DAP on house visits. Ambassador Huang’s remarks about anti-Chinese racism and separate remarks declaring the safety of ethnic Chinese a national interests of the PRC only fuel racists in UMNO who still see the ethnic Chinese as foreigners under foreign tutelage.
The year 2016 saw the PRC’s claim of ownership over ethnic Chinese wherever they live in the world also hit Singapore. Various issues—including the remaining military links of the Republic with Taiwan and its pro-international law stance in the South China Sea—had been grating Beijing for a while, and it was probably this older unhappiness that caused such an outburst that year. Talking to people at Peking University, I got the impression that the root of this cause is the supposed ‘Westernisation’ of the Singaporeans, who are losing their Chineseness—no matter that the ancestors of ~25% never had any ‘Chineseness’ to begin with. When Lee Kuan Yew passed away in March 2015, on the Chinese internet several nationalists saw it fit to call him a 汉奸 (hànjiān), traitor of the Chinese race, for selling out ‘his’ Chinese to the West.
Increasingly, as the CPC turns to traditional culture as its source of legitimacy, Beijing has to present itself as the guardian of Chinese civilisation. In a speech to overseas Chinese I have looked at earlier, Chairman Xi Jinping implied that their Chinese heritage ought to lead ethnic Chinese to staunchly support the ‘motherland’ and with that of course the Party. In Chinatowns across the world, Chinese businessmen with links to the PRC take over papers and Chinese schools. A granny who has read her local Chinese-language news for decades suddenly finds her trusty source of news following the Party line, no matter that she herself might actually have fled from that Party. Chinese community organisations abroad are reminded by the local qiáowù official where their business interests lie and need not much further instruction.
The danger of ‘infiltration’ is then much more serious and much further along already for ethnic Chinese communities across the world. This has real-life consequences, especially when ethnic Chinese find themselves in PRC (or Hong Kong) jurisdiction. Australian
citizen permanent resident, professor Feng Chongyi, discovered this as he was barred from leaving the PRC, but we can also see this in much more severe punishment for ethnic Chinese businessmen who find themselves in trouble with the law as compared to other businesspeople with foreign nationalities.
That we have to deal with this issue is clear. As the CPC refines its methods, we will see more stories like the current Australian saga pop up. However, it is essential that we do not chalk this off to interference by ‘the Chinese’. It is true that Beijing seeks to mobilise overseas Chinese communities—in the case of Australia the PRC embassy in Canberra shockingly threatened the government to instruct the Chinese community to vote against the Australian Labor Party—but by talking about the Chinese as one monolith we only give the PRC the ownership it wants. What we need to do is recognise the experiences of ethnic Chinese around the world, since they have battled with this issue for much longer.
The Century of National Humiliation narrative that shapes Chinese nationalism bemoans the loss of Chinese dominance. This is said to have not only lead to the lamentable loss of geographical bodies, but also to the humiliating loss of human bodies. Rejuvenation or restoration (复兴 fùxīng), the core of Chinese ambition, would in the eyes of nationalists include restoration of Chinese control over ‘Chinese’ bodies. Other countries thus have to spend more attention to protect those among their citizens who happen to be of ethnic Chinese descent. This requires distinction between the country and the civilisation.
Later this afternoon I leave for the People’s Republic to start my first of two semesters at Peking University, close to Beijing’s beautiful Summer Palace in the northwest. While I like to kid that I look forward most of all to the food, I will also enjoy the opportunity to study and learn about China. But coming to China from Europe, where you cannot help but be exposed to all sorts of stereotypes, assumptions, and truisms, it might be healthy to reflect a bit on how exactly I will study there before I leave.
Today an issue played regarding a September publication in fashion magazine Elle that listed ‘North Korean Chic’ as a top fashion trend for this autumn. Small as this slight may seem, it is a good example of trivialisation that happens with regard to the North Korean issue. Look at those silly North Koreans in their retro uniforms and their retro concentration camps!
One problem is the lack of realisation that what is going on there is seriously horrific. We are talking about a country where in the past few years up to 100,000 inmates have disappeared from the concentration camps, many of which presumably starved when the new regime redirected scarce food resources to prop up its support base. Regardless of the accuracy of that number—earlier reports talked about 20,000—it is still an incredibly crime that merits global attention on its own. Jokes about the outfits of North Koreas Army, essentially ten years of forced corvée labour for the men, is not fitting.
However, of course is has not only got to do with a lack of knowledge, but also with defining a group so much as the Other, that empathy is reduced. Only that can explain the fact that things like the grueling, child-abusing Arirang Mass Games are filed under entertainment. Stories about sex scandals and executions are passed on like Snowden files at a journalist get-together, only for their entertaining value. We have to stop seeing North Korean lives as worth less worry and care than those of people we can culturally and physically relate to more easily.
I believe that the above justifies that even such small issues such as the Elle gaffe should be addressed, proportionally of course. A few angry responses to Elle Magazine have already sorted some effect: the magazine has removed the reference and expressed regret. This is a good way to address this issue and I encourage every reader of news media to do the same.
Is your news source of choice oversimplifying the situation, trivialising suffering or just being plain racist? Send a letter and show the editors that you care!