Playing victim

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 February, 2012, 12:00am


Now that we, the Chinese people - at least the ones on either side of the Shenzhen River - have resorted to calling each other animal names, it should be clear the s*** has, indeed, hit the fan. Yes, that's vulgar but it's not as vulgar as calling people 'dogs' or 'locusts', and it's not as vulgar as relieving oneself in public where toilets are abundant. And whenever that happens, all pleas for reason to prevail seem hopelessly futile.

The Chinese identity issue - whether for those on the mainland, in ex-colonies like Hong Kong, or outside China - is deeply emotional and complex.

Most of us aren't conscious of it but expert China observers and historians like Orville Schell have put their fingers somewhere near it. We have different identities because we live in different cultures in almost every part of the world, but all our identities have been built on a 'humiliation' narrative.

That modern Chinese narrative, or as Schell calls it, 'the legacy', began with the 150 years or so of humiliation at the hands of foreigners, from the opium wars and colonialism to the grotesque treatment of the Chinese diaspora around the world.

It's deeply entrenched. It's part of the Chinese people's psyche. It's an offshoot of our people's ability to delay gratification, an ability that has baffled, impressed or, at times, apparently threatened those in the West. This is what our parents have passed down from generation to generation - manifested in what others see, in peaceful times, as our good work ethic and in our hardworking students. Without trying to sound like an Amy Tan novel, we 'eat bitterness', endure pain, suffering and humiliation because we believe in the rewards that await us down the road.

Now take that and blow it up to epic proportions. The aggrieved people, who suffered horribly in the past centuries, have exploited the collective shame for strength so that, one day, they will rise again like the phoenix from the ashes. It sounds glorious, and the shame is almost heroic. The glory of the thousands of years when people in the rest of the world were mere 'barbarians', the evil of foreign aggressions of the last two centuries, the victimisation - all these are part of a narrative. Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong have all used this - the oppressed will rise again, and the world will know Chinese superiority once more.

If we understand and reflect on this part of our common psyche, we will see that the problem with what Professor Kong Qingdong said lies not only in its vulgarity and bad taste, but also that Kong himself is a product of that psyche gone haywire.

It's unfortunate that some have reacted to Kong by stooping to his level, proudly displaying their insecurities as well. The tragedy of Kong's - apparently 'infectious' - vulgar stupidity is that some of us have taken the bait to engage in a brawl in which no one will come out a better person.

What we need to do is rid ourselves not of our Chinese-ness, but of the added components of a sick inferiority complex. Embracing victimhood as an anchor for a misplaced sense of identity and chasing after a perceived sense of superiority will hinder every human effort to seek respect.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA