Back when I was studying Chinese philosophy -- sort of Mencius to Mao in 20 easy lessons -- I also became fascinated by the arcane nature of Chinese politics. I would frequently try to engage my lecturer on how he understood the inner workings of the Party, and matters like Taiwan and Tibet.
Over the years since I have attended lectures by some of the most knowledgeable Sino-watchers around and have avidly read books such as The Writing on the Wall by Will Hutton (who spoke with density, speed and urgency at last year’s Writers and Readers Festival) and even bought the six hour China: A Century of Revolution on DVD for those times when I just want to kick back and watch mass hysteria and genocide in action.
If I am no wiser for all this I put it down to what that lecturer said to me once when I was earnestly offering my view of how things might pan out in 21st century China. He looked at me balefully and said, “When you think you know something about China and its politics you should be aware it will be exactly the opposite. And when you recognise that, it won’t even be that at all.”
Or bewildering and humbling words to that effect.
China is in the news for all kinds of reasons right now, and much as I have read and watched and thought about things I am still no wiser.
Although I am not a supporter or practitioner of Falun Gong I am always surprised by the sledgehammer approach the Chinese government has taken to the movement which, on the face of it, sells itself as a peace-loving code of spiritual and physical practice. Of course it is, being Chinese, much more complex that that -- as I wrote about for the Listener in 2006
Last night we went to see the Divine Performing Arts Chinese Spectacular at the Aotea Centre, the show which is either a Falun Gong “rally” or simply a showcase of traditional Chinese culture depending on who your read. It is actually neither and both, is my assessment.
Some comments first: although I had heard that there could be quiet protest by local Chinese students who were going to hand out anti-FG pamphlets I didn’t see any. And this year I got the impression there were many more Europeans in the audience than I saw at last year‘s performance.
I’m not good at spotting celebs or stars or politicos -- I once had a few drinks with a famous actor before I realised it was him I was supposed to be interviewing in half an hour -- so I can’t tell you whether any local mayors of city councillors or whatever turned up this time. I know they were conspicuous by their absence last year.
I do know however there was subtle if polite pressure on many not to attend. The copy of a letter I have seen apparently sent to North Shore mayor Andrew Williams* appears to be under the letterhead of the Consulate General’s office and reads in part, “the hidden purpose of the so-called Divine Performing Arts is to smear [the] Chinese government under the pretext of showing the ancient Chinese culture.”
The letter goes on to say that the consulate general’s office has been working hard to promote the spread of authentic and constructive Chinese culture and that “it looks forward to working with you to build a global harmonious society” etc etc
It ends, “Thank you very much for taking time to read this letter. We sincerely hope it will help you have a better understanding of the background. Your understanding and friendship will be highly appreciated.”
There isn’t a lot in that anyone could take offence at you might think, but of course Falun Gong and China-watchers are astute and reading what isn’t said, and what is implied. Words can be highly loaded.
Falun Gong seems a lightning rod.
For a few days about a fortnight ago there was a he said-she said running the Herald’s letters column about the merits or otherwise of the production and the idea that it was a Falun Going “rally” was quickly dismissed. One letter writer said they had seen it and it was a great production, very entertaining and so forth.
That was written by someone with perhaps a less than objective view, human rights lawyer Kerry Gore who acts for Falun Gong and whom I interviewed on Public Address Radio some weeks back. Kerry, a very nice man, was also the fellow who put me in touch with the subject of that Listener story I wrote in 2006, and who provided me with tickets to last night’s show.
We now enter that world of, “No one is innocent”, huh?
As to the show. Well, it might not be a “rally” but you can’t mistake it for anything other than being pro-Falun Gong and anti-The Party. To suggest it is simply a cultural show is being disingenuous and does Falun Going no credit. On those levels, the Consulate General’s office had a valid point.
From the first song May You Understand (“pull yourself from the whirlpool of lies”) through Truth Alone Sets You Free and on to The Power of Awareness in which a Falun Gong mother and daughter are set upon by goons in uniform (with the hammer and sickle on them) this one wears its heart on its highly decorated sleeve.
The show aims to appeal to the Chinese audience’s sense of cultural pride in the 5000 year history and suggests that the current regime is an aberration in the grand scheme of things. Which it may well be. After all wasn’t it premier Zhou Enlai who, when asked what he thought of the 1789 French Revolution replied, “It’s too early to tell”?
Some might say the same of Communism, no?
The programme also conjures up a pastoral idyll in many places and as to how authentic some of the songs are . . . Well, I’m no expert, but I doubt it.
But there is a lot to enjoy at the show outside of the dogma and many of the Chinese in the audience often clapped very loudly when political points were scored. But subtle this was not -- and it occurred to me Falun Gong adopts exactly the same bludgeoning iconography, didacticism and rhetoric as the Maoists of old.
There were times when this looked and sounded like something from a Technicolour revision of some People’s Army Ensemble: the heroic poses, the call to emotion and solidarity in the face of oppression or coercion from the opposition . . .
Nuance is ironed out in matters of Chinese propaganda, on all sides it seems. But the smallest of words and gestures can take on great meaning.
And that is what alienates Falun Gong from gaining more support in the wider New Zealand community I think: it is seen by Europeans as flaky, clumsy and dishonest about its political agenda, it is increasingly perceived as trying to impose itself in any public occasion which may get them some profile for The Epoch Times or New Tang Dynasty Television, and it is overly anxious to elicit favourable comment to put into the wider world. Last night I was asked three times if I would be interviewed, I declined each time saying I had said my piece last year -- but the people smiled and thanked me and walked away to find another European in the crowd.
I didn’t feel threatened, just slightly embarrassed for the anxious young people with tape recorders and cameras.
Of course the FG spiritual leader is down on homosexuality, and the whole “moral improvement” thing rings hollow to many people in Western society. Despite the colourful costumes, dancing and songs (and once again a wonderful erhu piece), the blunt didacticism of this show would put many people off.
But of course that is their choice and no one with a gun is forcing you to go -- although FG would be wise not to think that just because people might attend they are offering tacit support for their position or beliefs.
But what I have found interesting in talking with people about Falun Gong -- which I reiterate I neither support nor practice, just defend its right to exist -- is how many dump it in with other beliefs like Scientology for which they have little patience. People who would defend Tibetan freedom go a bit ho-hum on Falun Gong -- although no one seems to deny that they are being persecuted in China.
I find that interesting. And just another thing I don’t understand when “China” enters the discussion.
Footnote: Another Conchords track is posted at Elsewhere
* According to the North Shore mayor's office he didn't attend the show last night as he had a long-standing engagement at Massey graduation where he spent most of the day and delivered a speech last night.