Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Dignity, Always Dignity?" -- Wen Jia Bao Does His Own Singing in the Reign

"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, meet Wen Jia Bao, “Everything we do we do to ensure that the people live a happier life with more dignity.”


"Grandpa Wen," as he is (mostly) affectionately named, said this in his "state of the nation" address at the opening session of the National People's Congress, a three thousand member assembly which has no problems with super-majorities.  That little word, "dignity," piqued quite a bit of interest. 

My girlfriend mentioned his dignity-dropping immediately, claiming that his use of "that word, in this situation," was something big.  At first, I thought she'd just mentioned it since it's been a recurring theme of mine over the past year.  I feel strongly that China's going to have to produce a robust theory of an "Eastern" conception of dignity if it wants to continue claiming that many of the rights mentioned in the above-cited UDHR are really just Western cultural norms masquerading as universal rights. But she could've cared less about what I said.  She meant that this was actually important.

Later that week, Wen, doing his best Obama impersonation, engaged Chinese netizens in an internet chat, and answered one blogger's question, "...[W]hat does it mean that people need to live with more dignity?"  

[Side note: I really do feel that he is impersonating Obama.  As hard as the Western press was on Obama for not taking a tougher stance with China in his last visit, Obama's internet town hall meeting in Shanghai had a dramatic effect on many of the people here.  Chinese leaders are rarely willing to engage private citizens directly, especially broadcast in real time.  Since Obama's speech, I don't think I'm wrong in noticing an uptick in Wen's "regular guy" appearances, this internet chat being just one example.]

Back to the question. Here's Wen's response. 

"...My speech was only 800 characters, but those two words ["dig" "nity"] have elicited the attention of the whole country.  I've seen quite a lot of opinions on it.  When I said I 'want all people to live with more dignity,' I meant mainly three aspects: first, every citizen should enjoy the freedom and rights they are entitled to under the constitution and the law. Regardless of who it is, in the eyes of the law, everyone should enjoy equality. Second, the ultimate goal of Chinese development is to satisfy the increasing material demands of the people, there is no [goal] other than this. Third, society’s complete development must be based on people’s individual development. We want to give people freedom and complete development to create profitable conditions, let their wisdom and skills compete to burst forth. That was what I meant by dignity."  

If you haven't lived over here, it's hard to exaggerate the amount of scrutiny the words of high-ranking officials undergo, especially those made in formal situations.  More than that, it's even harder to exaggerate the social, political, even legal effects that can spring from such statements.  Of course, since I have to play my own devil's advocate here, it's also difficult to exaggerate the amount of beautiful, idealistic language that fills the Chinese constitution.  (Or, I should say,"has filled, fills, was redacted and refilled, and will fill.")

It's been a tough last year: tough for US-China relations, labor relations, China-Google-internet-at-large relations, minority relations, etc.  I was just reflecting on my last few entries, and I realized that they've all smacked of a growing pessimism, or at least frustration, with things here in China.  There's a reason for that, I have become a bit more pessimistic in this past year.  But it's not just me, I'd like to believe that I'm channeling a collective consciousness of my Chinese friends and colleagues, many of whom go to sleep with these troubled relations on their minds. 

I think that's why Wen's words "elicited the attention of the whole country."  While a lot of this "attention" was sarcastic, disillusioned, and even downright mean, I still saw something in my girlfriend's eyes that I haven't seen for a while: hope.  You don't forget hope when you see it in someone's eyes.  You might mistake it for love, but then you realize that you haven't done anything to deserve it that day.  

Thanks Wen. 

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