In 2012, Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and was widely criticised by western writers who accused him of accepting and working within the bounds of China’s state censorship program. He had a duty, they argued, to speak out against the country’s authoritarianism. Pankaj Mishra was one of the few writers who defended Mo; it wasn’t, he wrote, that he agreed with the laureate’s politics or the decisions he’d made, but that he was being held to a different standard than western novelists.
‘His writing … has hardly been mentioned, let alone assessed, by his most severe western critics; it is his political choices for which he stands condemned,’ wrote Mishra. ‘They are indeed deplorable, but do we ever expose the political preferences of Mo Yan’s counterparts in the west to such harsh scrutiny?’
To deny Mo his work — to see him as nothing more than a vehicle through which certain political views should be expressed — is, in a sense, to strip him of his being. This flattening of personhood is a common feature of western representations of foreignness; individuals are denied agency and transformed into mere representations. Think, for instance, of the way western writers have long depicted Africa in clichéd, racist terms or how every Middle Eastern conflict is understood through the prism of sectarianism. None of this is new, of course; Edward Said wrote about it long ago.
While Said’s book makes only passing references to China, much of his analysis remains salient: in the past, western representation of Chinese people often lacked human agency, whether it be in depictions of queue-haired peasants or ‘brain-washed’ Maoist subjects. In China and Orientalism, Daniel Vukovich argues that this simplification continued into the post-Mao neoliberal era with China simply being understood as moving towards a liberal democratic ideal — a process he calls ‘becoming-the-same’.
But in recent years, as Xi Jinping has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim to ‘Hide your strength, bide your time’, the fallacy that China is ‘becoming-the-same’ is all but impossible to maintain. This has only led to another manifestation of the image of the Chinese person without human agency, though. Recently, Chinese people are increasingly depicted as potential fifth columnists. Take, as a case in point, Clive Hamilton’s recent commentary, published in the New York Times, on the controversy involving Gladys Liu and Chinese influence in Australian politics:
‘Almost all Chinese organisations and Chinese media are now dominated by people sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party … That means that the candidates of Chinese ethnicity who are put forward in the political process and work their way up through the system are likely to be those trusted by Beijing.’
It goes without saying that Chinese interference in Australian politics is an issue of genuine concern. But why is the hysteria exclusive to China? Like the outrage surrounding Mo Yan, why don’t we hold our own government or other western nations to the same level of scrutiny?
The Australia-East Timor spying scandal, in which the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) bugged the offices of the East Timorese government to gain an advantage in the negotiations over the Timor Sea Treaty, and the subsequent prosecution of Witness K and his lawyer, ‘failed to shame Australia’, in the words of the Guardian.
Furthermore, there is little concern about American influence, despite the fact that the United States’ ‘deputy sheriff’ in the Asia-Pacific continues to show an unquestioning willingness to follow its master into tragic and destructive wars. Only a few weeks ago, Scott Morrison was on a sycophantic tour of the States, praising Trump and celebrating the two countries’ great mateship, all while the United Nations Climate Summit was going on in the prime minister’s absence.
The recent shift in the discourse about Chinese-Australians and representations of them as Communist Party stooges is potentially more dangerous than previous orientalist caricatures. There is a McCarthyite tenor to the warnings of Hamilton et al. If all Chinese-Australians pose a threat the Australia’s national security, which seems to be what he’s suggesting, then the scope for what’s permissible to contain such a threat will be exponentially expanded and any calls for transparency will be denied.
There is the potential that it will be used against political opponents or, more broadly, in all walks of life. Indeed, it is already happening. In a recent attempt to thwart the election of a group of Chinese international students, the Monash Student Association Caulfield’s student council passed a rule that students wishing to run in campus elections must be eligible to work 22 hours per week, meaning that foreigners on student visas — who are not allowed to work more than 20 hours per week — would be barred from running. The move was opportune and racist, but was it not also an inevitable consequence of the hysteria that’s been drummed up?
In many ways, universities are at the forefront of this issue: Australian university fees are expensive by global standards, so most of the Chinese students who can afford to study here come from the country’s elite, which, in the eyes of many, is enough to casts suspicion over their activities. The Monash University affair is reflective of how the government and parts of society see Chinese people: they’re cash-cows helping to keep the economy afloat, but any attempts to be more socially or democratically engaged participants should be treated with suspicion and, where possible, curtailed.
The likes of Hamilton claim that those who are suspicious of his thesis are naïve and don’t properly understand the reach of the Communist Party. He is right in that the party’s influence over the everyday lives of Chinese people is far greater than any Australian equivalent. But his conclusion about how this informs the behaviour of all Chinese people and his opinions on how the Australian government should combat this apparent threat are misguided and rehash previous orientalist thinking.
Many of the characters in Mo Yan’s novels have rich inner lives; they experience the same inner conflict as many of the characters in the novels of the western writers who criticise him. I’m suspicious of claims that reading fiction makes us more empathetic, but in an era when more Chinese literature is available to western readers than ever before it seems like a worthwhile endeavour to engage with it as a first step in moving past orientalist stereotypes.
(This was originally published in Eureka Street on 16th October, 2019.)