SCMP Tuesday, April 17, 2001

China's face-saving ploy smacks of 'Ah Q-ism'


Westerners who have encounters with China's public security police know that a well-written letter of self criticism and an apology are the keys to getting out of hot water.
In 1997, while working for The New York Times, my bureau chief and I were detained by the Chinese police on our way to Tibet. During our detention, they confiscated our car, our computers and our photo equipment to search for possible evidence of what they called our "wrongdoing".
The secret police gave us a pen and some paper to write a letter which they wanted to say that we were wrong in conducting interviews in Tibet without the permission of the Chinese authorities and that we were sorry. We were also asked to promise not to do it again. At first, we refused, because we didn't do anything wrong. However, when the detention dragged on, we struck a compromise. We drafted a letter saying that we were sorry that we didn't get a permit to travel, but we felt it our right to write about the lives of people in Tibet. With the "confession" letter authenticated by our finger prints, we were released. But our car and equipment were not returned to us, nor did the police ever give back our satellite phone.
Later on, I found out that many of my friends who had lived in China shared similar experiences of forced confessions and apology letters when they did anything that offended the authorities. When I asked a Chinese scholar why mainland authorities are obsessed with a letter of apology or self criticism, he told me that by forcing the detainee to apologise, the authorities can justify their accusations about the person even though he has not done anything wrong.
While this experience was a purely personal one, the Chinese Government used similar tactics during its standoff with the United States over the spy-plane incident. By demanding a letter of apology, the Chinese leadership hopes to shift the blame on to the US for causing the accident. After the Bush administration delivered a compromise letter, expressing regret over the loss of the Chinese pilot, the Chinese media put a creative spin on the outcome, interpreting the letter as a form of apology.
Beijing seemed prepared to risk a great deal to save face - for short-term gains on matters of honour. By extracting an apology, China can show it has forced the world's most powerful nation to bow to its demands. After floundering for more than a century under corrupt feudalism and foreign domination, China finally feels it can stand up to a foreign superpower.
China's obsession wtih face-saving during the recent crisis is reminiscent of the famous novel by Lu Xun, The True Story of Ah Q, about a village boy who lived in a slap-happy world of self deception. Years of humiliation taught him to save face at all costs, and to pretend he had won a spiritual victory. It allowed him to assume an air of superiority in the face of manifest defeat. For many years, Ah Q has been considered the personification of one of the negative traits of the Chinese national character.
Ah Q's obsessive insecurity reduced him to a man with no morality or allegiance to any principle besides saving face. The character's amoral opportunism repeatedly lands him in hot water and tight spots, but thanks to his own idiosyncratic logic, he is able to twist things around so that - in his own mind at any rate - he wriggles out of trouble and ends up the winner.
China's performance during the mid-air collision crisis is Ah Q-ism at its best. In particular, the detention of the crew members - at a time when the true cause of the accident had not even been established - in exchange for a face-saving apology. This unreasonable act has seen China alienate many of its friends in Washington and other Western countries simply for the sake of a short-term gain in matters of honour.
China is on its way towards becoming a world economic and military power, one whose strength and influence are already far greater than those of any other country in the Pacific region, except the US. However, China should get over the insecurity caused by historic grievances and thwarted grandeur. When a nation aggressively pursues saving face to the exclusion of all else, the risk is that - to friends and allies - there ultimately may be nothing else left to save.
Wen Huang is a Chicago-based writer and former staff member of The New York Times Beijing bureau.