Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Passing on

It's a strange coincidence that two such prominent political figures should succumb to mortality in quick succession.

And I find it rather unfortunate that the exaggerated geo-political prominence of North Korea may result in news of the transition of power there distracting some attention away from proper remembrance of the much-worthier-of-notice Václav Havel.

I'm not without a certain grudging respect for Kim Jong-il. He appears to have been an intelligent and cultured man, and a dauntingly shrewd political operator. But he was also a dictator, a murderer, and a self-indulgent bon viveur who gorged himself on the finest food and drink - even while tens of thousands of his people starved to death.

Havel was an inspiration for the ages, rather than an object of fear and ridicule for a few decades. He's been a hero of mine since my schooldays. President Obama noted in his initial tribute on Sunday: 
"His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon."

He was, by all accounts, an exceptionally warm and generous human being as well. And a pretty funny writer. There's a good obituary on Bloomberg's Businessweek.

I rather fear KJ's funeral arrangements will be getting more coverage here in China, where there's an odd sentimental reverence for a country that is a cherished 'ally' and is perceived as a heroic last outpost of full-on Communism and Cold War ideological simplicity. In fact, Communism doesn't really have that much to do with it any more, and possibly never has had; in practice, it's just a gangster state, much like China is. Senior party officials sell their influence, or directly grasp the reins of the country's most profitable trading and industrial sectors - creaming off money to make themselves obscenely wealthy, while the majority of the population is kept artificially impoverished.

Chinese tourists love to visit the DPRK, treating it as a sort of Cultural Revolution theme-park, to remind themselves how far they've come in the last 40 or 50 years. If they looked a bit closer, they'd realise they haven't come all that far after all: the political cultures of the two countries are depressingly similar.

The Chinese are still waiting for their Havel. So are the North Koreans.


John said...

Thankfully Havel's passing has been covered well on the BBC, Radio 4 in particular although while his death marks the passing of a good era, Kim's signifies something a lot more worrying which will naturally get more press coverage as time goes on, I'm sure of it.

It must be really strange being Chinese, to think as they do. I've always wanted to become knowledgeable on the Mao years in China but the task is monumental. It's like a historical black hole almost. When you're going up against Chinese social culture (lies and cover-ups to save face) and the simple fact that those who lived though it are not going to living for much longer it's like the world will never know the truth. I think it must be worse though to live in the place where it happened, to naturally believe that your country holds all the (true) answers and that what you were brought up to believe holds water when in fact it's a leaky bucket you're carrying at best. You start investigating the subject and you can read as much as you like in English but then you come across great Chinese works such as TV documentaries for example and not only do you have no idea what's going on but you have no idea whether you can even trust it or not.
No wonder NK only has a single friend in its lonely existence.

Froog said...

There was a bit of a phenomenon, it seemed to me, when I first visited back in the '90s (it certainly happened to me a lot; but a few other foreigners who were here then have made similar observations to me), that the Red Guard generation were then in their forties, and many of them - whether they'd been persecutor, victim, or both - really seemed to want to unburden themselves of some of the stories at any opportunity. Perhaps foreigners - very rare back then - seemed to present themselves as a 'safe' outlet; or maybe we were just eager listeners. That was a particular moment of catharsis that seems to have passed; people have mostly clammed up again now.

A translator friend of mine has worked on and off for some years with a Chinese documentary film-maker who's been working underground on an oral history of the '50s and '60s. I'm not sure if that will ever see the light of day, but we must hope.

Chang Jung's autobiographical memoir Wild Swans is the most readable book about that era that I've come across in English. Her follow-up biography of Mao has been criticized as excessively hostile, but it's exhaustively researched and has a lot of fascinating stuff in it.

A few years ago, a Chinese journalist called Yang Jisheng produced a monumental work on the famine years called Tombstone (officially banned here, of course, but probably widely distributed in black market editions). I've been told that is the definitive study to date, and quite devastating; but I don't know that it's been translated into English yet.

JES said...

I found a link which mentions that a Chinese professor at a US college has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to produce a "timely" English translation of Tombstone. So, maybe that wait will be soon over.

An interesting look back (from mid-summer) on the 90-year history of the CCP, here. Which, in turn, links to a post elsewhere examining those 90 years through the lens of the HBO TV series, Mad Men. Ha!

Froog said...

Have you been secretly following China blogs for a while, JES, or did you just go searching for stuff about the CCP or the Great Leap Forward after reading this?

I believe Sam of The Useless Tree is based Stateside, but the Granite Studio guy is an occasional drinking buddy and a - very occasional - commenter on here.

JES said...

No, I haven't been following any China blogs. Except Froogville, heh. Every now and then something you write about sends me off on a Google-driven excursion (this will surprise you, no doubt); this post was just the most recent instance.