Fri, Sep 14, 2012 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Symbols are China’s Achilles’ heel

There is something about art and symbols that really gets under the skin of Chinese Communist Party officials and makes them behave in ways that even they must know is against their self-interest.

This is exemplified by the deplorable decision made during the London Olympics this summer to take down the Republic of China flag from Regent Street after Chinese representatives in the UK pressured British officials to do so. Chinese officials apparently could not bear the idea that a symbol of Taiwanese nationhood, disagreeable though it may be to some Taiwanese, could flutter alongside the flags of other nations. However, rather than strengthen China’s interests, the move damaged its image while bringing into full contrast the reasons why Taiwan is not — and cannot be — part of China. The controversy received substantial coverage in the media, especially after hundreds of young people bearing flags gathered on Regent Street for various photo ops.

Over the years, Chinese officials, sports coaches and students have constantly lost their senses over art, images, films and other manifestations of freedom, ripping flags, boycotting festivals and sometimes resorting to physical violence. It is hard to tell whether this instinctive reaction to symbols stems from growing up in a society where propagandistic images played such a powerful role in cultivating nationalism, or from the realization that symbols can spark an emotional response in people.

The best example of this occurred earlier this month, when two officials from the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco attempted to intimidate David Lin (林銘新), a Taiwan-born American who erected a large mural depicting Chinese repression of Tibetans and Taiwanese, by writing letters to and then visiting the mayor of the town Lin lives in: Corvallis, Oregon.

Surely, as representatives to the US, Vice Consul Zhang Hao (張浩) and Deputy Consul-General Song Ruan (宋如安) should have known a thing or two about the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which among other provisions guarantees freedom of expression. Maybe poor training at China’s diplomacy school failed to inform them of this, though this would not explain why their political masters back in Beijing, whose permission they must have sought before launching their tirade, would agree to such a course of action.

Perhaps they thought they could get away with it, as governments sometimes do allow themselves to be bullied by China, and the Oregon town needs China more than China needs it. However, Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning defended the Constitution and appropriately lectured the two messengers on the virtues of the First Amendment, which enshrines rights and responsibilities.

Here again is a case of Chinese officials undermining their reputation and that of their country by attacking art and trying to impose the censorship regime that stifles freedom of expression in China (but does not censor jingoists like Sina Weibo microblogger @sunshineGaoyang, the purported editor-in-chief of the Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Weekly and self-styled “Taiwan expert,” from rejoicing at the “wonderful” news of the assassination of the US ambassador to Libya, or the Beijing Evening News’ calls for Japan to be “nuked”).

Whatever the cause, this trait among Chinese officials is a weakness that Taiwan’s supporters should exploit. Taiwanese have an uncanny ability to translate ideas through visual art and proliferate them via the Internet. If artistic expression forces Beijing to reveal its true colors, then more art, murals, films, banners and flags should be put out there to tell not only Taiwan’s story, but by its reaction, that of China as well.

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