Friday, June 18, 2010

Wen and Wenceslas

Here's the title of a recent article I saw on, “We have to show care and concern for the new generation of peasant [migrant] workers just like we would for our own children.”

“On June 14th, on the approach of the Chinese people's joyful celebration of the Dragon Boat Festival [Duan Wu Jie], Premier Wen Jia Bao successively visited a number of child welfare institutions, the 'Modernize/Enrich One's Country' Community, and the construction site at the Line Six 'Peace' subway stop; [he went] to call on orphaned and disabled children and those receiving little social aid, to understand the current vegetable supply and price situations at the farmers' market, and to convene a 'new generation of migrant workers' symposium.”

I have great respect for Premier Wen Jia Bao (see my earlier posts on his “dignity” comments), and it was with equally great interest that I opened the link to this article about Wen's recent day with the people. As I've mentioned earlier, “Grandpa Wen” is the human side of the central government, a side that has been increasingly shown in the news media. Proving again that no one can compete with China in either photo op quality or quantity, Wen managed to visit poor and disabled children, poor pensioners, the poor pensioners' market, and the new generation of poor migrant workers all in one morning. (Showing care and concern for one dispossessed group is good. Showing care and concern for every dispossessed group is better.)

Regardless of the amount of irony you perceive or do not perceive in the preceding paragraph (I myself don't know how much to perceive, which is why I'm writing), it was a meaningful gesture. More than that, it was an astounding gesture. It's rare that you see any politician, anywhere, near his country's poorest citizens – I have a hard time picturing Obama holding a press conference with a homeless community.

The Migrant Worker Conference was highlighted by Wen's remark that “We have to show care and concern for workers just like we would for our own children.” Again, it is because I respect the man so much, and because I believe that he has genuine intentions, that I regret my first response to this was a warm fuzziness...and an awkward feeling I get whenever confronted with excessive patronization, similar to the feeling I get at Christmas when forced to sing the horribly-pleasant peasant-loving “Good King Wenscelas.”

Premier Wen Jia Bao stepped out,
'Fore the Duan Wu season
Vegetables lay piled about,
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the camera lights,
Made the scene surreal
Wen asked poor men of their plight,
Food and health and fuel.

But lots of things in China can be uncomfortable, particularly anything involving the government, the media, and regular people.  This isn't just China, in any country, how one interacts with the needy/poorest/dispossessed/disenfranchised is tricky business – even choosing the proper nomenclature is difficult. Everyone struggles with it. I like to think of it as the Patronization-Guilt Spectrum.

On one side is patronization, this is Good King Wenceslas: Therefore, Christian men, be sure, Wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, Shall yourselves find blessing.” One who resides solely on this side of the spectrum will think of herself as generous, magnanimous, filled with religious or civic duty. She may think of the recipients of her “charity” as helpless, pitiful, and lacking drive or education.

The other side of spectrum is guilt. The most talked-about type in American public service circles is White Guilt (a certain degree of which is a necessity to engage in polite, modern society), but there are many other kinds. Guilt as motivator brings people to the inner city because they can't reconcile the gap in wealth, success, or status between themselves and others who have very little. While patronizing feelings may attribute that gap to difference in personal integrity, effort, or choices, guilt doesn't see that gap as attributable to anything other than an accident of birth, or worse, a history of discrimination and oppression. 

Over the past few weeks, I've read a number of books about the founding of the Communist Party in China, and one thing I found quite interesting was the success to which the founders used “Bourgeois Guilt” to train and educate their elite members. “Your wife wants to stop going on food raids just because she's eight months' pregnant? Peasant workers work in the fields until they have their child. Then they just cut the umbilical cord with a sickle right in the field and keep on threshing.” A powerful image, necessary perhaps to break down residual, and equally powerful conceptions of class and rank left over from dynastic Chinese society.

In my own experience, I feel that I'm all over the spectrum, and believe most others are as well, which I think (hope) is normal. At the end of the day, the only way to get out of this angst-filled dilemma is to just stop thinking about it and start actually interacting with those whom you've put on this abstract pedestal/anti-pedestal. This is why I admire what Wen's doing. No matter how much I cringe at some of his responses and at the excessive, manicured press it receives. He's the only one actually out there talking to people on a consistent basis. That said, let's look at what he's saying.

He said a lot, and, as one would expect, everything he said was the right thing to say. He thanked the workers profusely, claiming that their work building the towering skylines across the country makes them the “glory of China,” he stressed that they needed comprehensive support and improvement across every life indicator: wages and benefits, medical insurance, housing help. He admonished them to be morally good, to pursue the good and to pursue success when it was time, but to go against the grain when it was time to do that as well [Did he mean when other workers want to strike?].

He took ten questions from the workers. One of which came from Wu Chang Wei.

'Premier, I have something to say.' Wu Chang Wei, who was sitting in the back row, stood up, raised his hand, and spoke. This 28-year-old Central Iron worker told the Premier that, although company living conditions (room and board, etc.) are all good, my work is intense and my life is boring. Therefore, I really envy the relaxed, carefree lives and neat and tidy clothes of the city residents.'

'I really understand where you're coming from. You've raised a huge question on how to make the lives of this next generation of migrant workers more substantial, more rich and diverse.' Wen said, 'At 28, outside of work, it's natural to think about [one's] life. The first thing is that companies need to give workers a more rich and diverse life, for example, instituting sports and athletics activities, singing activities. The second is that individuals need to have long-term ambitions, make full use of their youth to read more books, develop skills. A person needs to have a love [hobby], have things s/he pursues. If you live that way you'll feel that there's never enough time, life won't be dull.' Premier Wen then heard that the day before had been Wu Chang Wei's birthday, and he wished him a happy birthday...I also want to give you my hope [for you], I hope that while you're young you have ideals and ambition, that you do your work and duty well, and use your work, your ingenuity, and contributions to win dignity...”

You may have guessed that I originally wanted to say that Wen was Wenceslas and leave it at that. Well, close. What I had originally wanted to say was that much of the Chinese conception of dignity remains in the Victorian Age. That in that conception, treating 28-year-old migrant workers as you would your children is not only not wrong but to be encouraged (after all, while I might take offense to being treated like a child, they are the age of Wen's children, probably younger).  And yet, I found myself moved by Wen's (no-doubt-prepared) answers, even wishing that I could have the chance to ask his advice, too. It's not just iron workers who are lost and need grandfatherly wisdom.

I also wanted to analyze "treating workers like we'd treat our children" using Jeremy Waldron's conception of dignity as “change in status.” Waldron claims that 

'Dignity' is a term used to indicate a high-ranking legal, political, and social status, and ...the idea of human dignity is the idea of the assignment of such a high-ranking status to everyone....the idea of human dignity keeps faith with the old hierarchical system of dignity as noble or official rank, and we should view it in its modern form as an equalization of high status rather than as something that eschews talk of status altogether.”

I wanted to say, that for all the change over the past 100 years in China, for all the bourgeois guilt, there still hasn't been an equalization of status here. In fact, in the past thirty years, I fear there's been somewhat of a retrenchment of older ways of viewing status as tied to position or power, and rights, respect and one's due dignity have been re-attached. I want to say, that for many Chinese, the status of peasants and peasant workers is not too far from the status their peasant ancestors had (or didn't have) in "feudal" China.

I think it's true that dignity has to be “won” in China (and elsewhere), but I don't want to say the rest of the above about Wen (which is why I haven't included the other four verses of my adapted Christmas carol). Considering what he has to fight against on a daily basis, and what he's been through, I doubt few could do a better job of expressing humanity to people who society sees, and who most likely see themselves, as far less dignified. If he is Wenceslas, or even part-Wenceslas,  he is only because his castle is far more prison than abode.

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