The Heart of the Dragon — Channel 4’s series on life in China, has attracted much attention. But, as one who has lived in the People’s Republic in close contact with ordinary Chinese, I feel qualified to say that the creators of this series have been taken for a ride.
I am sure the filmmakers are honest men; but I am equally sure that the China they are presenting is not the China I know. It is a Potemkin village, a stage set.
The fact is that the Chinese are the world’s greatest natural actors. It is not at all surprising that they should be, for they live in a society where lies and pretence are everything truth and reality nothing. All Chinese people know what is expected of them in front of a foreign camera crew. No Chinese person would be such a fool as to express himself honestly on any topic in such circumstances.
When you live among the Chinese you learn that they have two modes of speaking, what one might call the familiar and the formal. They use familiar mode among people they trust, switching to formal mode in the presence of officials, strangers or known informers. I have seen the switch done in mid-sentence, when an informer entered the room.
These two modes have different vocabularies, different intonation, and even slight differences in grammar. In The Heart of the Dragon, all the spoken Chinese is in formal mode — even the hysterical outbursts of the mistreated wife we saw. As I said, they’re great actors.
The Chinese authorities are getting much more sophisticated about PR. The word has got back to Peking that footage of smiling peasants in neatly-ironed tunics no longer goes down well with the Foreign Devils. They want to see flaws, they want to see conflict. All right, if the Red Bristles want conflict, we’ll give them some conflict. How about a prison? A mental hospital? A rocky marriage, how about that?
So we get scenes of a couple who are trying to get divorced. But just how were these scenes obtained? Did the camera crew have a Chinese-speaking member? Did he, while buying cabbage one day, overhear two old women gossiping about a divorce in the neighbourhood? Did he thereupon run back to his producer and say: “A couple in Jinshan Street are getting divorced. Let’s run over there this morning and get the story?” Was it like that? I find myself wondering whether it might perhaps have been more like this:
“Interpreter Wang, we’d like to see how Chinese people handle personal conflicts.”
“Yes. Er, divorce for example.”
“Ah. Divorce. All right, I’ll see what I can do.”
When I went to China, I was not a producer of TV docurnentaries; I was a mere teacher. Yet the authorities went to fantastic lengths to ensure that I was presented with what they thought of as the right images.
They threatened and intimidated everyone who came into contact with me. They told me outrageous lies (e.g. “There are no murders in China.”) In at least one case they diverted traffic to spare me the sight of a truckload of manacled prisoners.
Will future TV programmes show us some of the, shall we say, less photogenic aspects of Chinese life: the fatalism and cynicism of young Chinese; the true situation in Tibet, where one person in six is a Chinese soldier (in Afghanistan, by comparison, only one person in a hundred is a Russian soldier); the informers who throw a cloud of suspicion over all social contacts; the system of “back door” corruption, which has now poisoned all of Chinese life: the use of “administrative terror” to intimidate people into conformism (e.g. by threatening college graduates with lifetime assignment to remote areas); the brutality and greed which dominate Chinese family life; forcible abortions of pregnancies not authorised by the State; the stupendous levels of pollution, waste, and industrial injury …?
The producers of this series have set about showing us that the Chinese are different. They know — as all media people know — that nothing pulls in your upmarket viewer like a mystery. Show him something strange, something alien. Best of all, pick on a topic about which be knows nothing but feels he ought to know something. Then explain, and give him the thrill of thinking that he has understood.
I am sorry to tell the enthralled viewer that there is nothing at all mysterious about Chinese people. They may talk a bit funny, but in all important respects they are the same as you and me. Nor have they discovered some magic formula for holding society together; their society is held together as have been all despotic societies since Pharaonic Egypt — by brute force, masked with lies.
The viewer is meant to come away from The Heart of the Dragon thinking: “Well, what a strange way of organising one’s affairs. Wouldn’t work here, of course. But they’re Chinese and they don’t seem to mind all that snooping and preaching.” As it happens, large numbers of them mind very much. They complain constantly about their lack of freedom and about the intimidation, the spying, the corruption, the endless browbeating by self-righteous officials. Chinese society has a peculiar shape, to be sure, but it is held in that shape by the constant application of force at all points.
A film could be made about the Chinese showing them as they really are — as the terrorised slaves of a lawless despotism. However, even if one could make such a film, it would be immoral to show it in the West. For everv Chinese person who appeared in it would be hunted down and destroyed by the Chinese authorities.
The producers of this series have had the neat idea of presenting each episode under a gerund: Remembering, Eating, Meditating, etc. There is one common verb much more central to despotic culture than any of these: but I see there is to be no episode called Pretending.