Perry Link is a China specialist and Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California at Riverside.
During the campaign season that just concluded, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachman kicked up a storm with a comment that Barack Obama "may have anti-American views"--causing such a backlash that she won her previously safe seat by only a few points. The popular outcry against her made good sense: Half a century ago, our country had a House Committee on Un-American Activities and an outrageous bully in the Senate who was hunting for un-Americans. Citizens remember, and the fact that "anti-American" has now become an offensive word in our political debate is progress.
I fear, though, that Americans remain insufficiently aware of how privileged they are to live in a society where such progress can be made. In China, the term "anti-China" is far more common than "anti-American" is in the U.S., and no one is criticized for using it. Quite the opposite: The press is ordered to use it, school textbooks use it, and the populace is encouraged to follow suit. It is a term of abuse, and it applies to anyone whom the government takes to be an adversary. The Dalai Lama is "anti-China;" courageous Chinese dissidents are "anti-China;" the European Parliament, when it gives its Sakharov Prize to the "anti-China" activist Hu Jia, is also "anti-China." Far from embarrassing, all of these usages are "correct"--"anti-China" is a term that Chinese patriots are supposed to use with confidence and pride. It issues not from the speeches of middling figures like Michele Bachman, who are up for re-election, but from the highest rulers in the land, who are not replaceable. And it is expressed without Bachman's cushion words such as "Obama ‘may' have anti-American ‘views'," but with iron-wrought phrases like "unrepentant anti-China elements."
Chris Matthews was able to skewer Bachman on national TV and contribute to the price that she had to pay for her offensive comment. If a Chinese journalist were to try to challenge the "anti-China" term in a similar way, it would be the journalist, not the interviewee, who would suffer punishment. And that punishment, should the journalist remain "unrepentant," would be much heavier than something like losing votes in an election.
How, one might ask, can a Chinese person himself or herself be "anti-China"? This is possible because "anti-China" does not mean opposition to the language, culture, history, or traditions of the nation. It simply means "anti-Communist Party"--and not even "anti" the whole party, but just "enemy of the ruling elite."
People inside China have no choice but to accept this distortion of language. People outside do have a choice, but we often fail to exercise it. For example, our country's small contingent of "China policy managers" (officials and academics who have kept relations with China's rulers "on track" ever since Jimmy Carter) routinely use the word "China" to refer only to the views, attitudes, and "sensitivities" of the Chinese political-economic super-elite with whom they directly deal. The policy managers speak of "Chinese" sensitivities toward Falungong as if Falungong believers were not themselves Chinese; of "Chinese" views on Tibet, as if forgetting that the Chinese government itself claims that Tibetans, too, are Chinese; and of U.S. congressional critics of the Chinese government not as bashers of authoritarianism but as "China" bashers.
This verbal erasure of the vast and varied populace that rests beneath China's elite is--and let me be careful with my words here--not un-American or anti-American, but certainly out of step with some of the best and deepest American values, like empathy for the common man, rooting for the underdog, and calling a spade a spade.