Ai Weiwei: Capitalism and ‘Culturecide’ The idea of ‘cultural differences’ has been used as a justification for some of humanity’s worst crimes.

Well worth reading and reflecting upon the nexus between Western firms and Chinese repression:

Lu Xun, the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century, created a character named Ah Q who became both adored and feared among Chinese for his wicked display of flaws in China’s “national character.” When Ah Q grew scabies on his head, he forbade people in his presence from pronouncing the word “scabies” — or any other word that sounded like it might conjure it. Such words were taboo. “Verboten.”

A few weeks ago, here in Berlin, I received notice of a lawsuit that had been filed against me by a casino clerk. The complaint said I had called him a Nazi and a racist without any factual basis. I had two weeks to present a written response, failing which I would be subject to punishment. The notice came as I was about to set out for England. I passed the matter to a lawyer and departed.

But the complaint led me to prod my memory. Yes, about a year ago I had played cards at the Berlin Casino in Potsdamer Platz and at the end of play had put my chips on the counter of the cashier’s window for redemption. The clerk, who may have been in his 50s, was leaning back in his chair. He looked at me but made no move. Then, enunciating each word distinctly, he said in English, “You should say please.”

I was put off. “What happens if I don’t?”

“You’re in Europe, you know,” the clerk said. “You should learn some manners.”

I found the comment irritating but not wholly strange. Immigrants to Germany do hear such things.

I pressed on: “Fine, but you’re not a person who can teach me manners.”

That caused him to lean forward. He fixed me with a gaze and said, “Don’t forget that I’m feeding you!”

The ante was raised. Behind his almost comical facade, I sensed a truly powerful disdain and resentment.

“That’s a Nazi attitude,” I said, “and a racist comment.”

I gave up arguing and went to the casino manager. After a bit of investigating, the manager offered me a detailed apology, and that was that — or so I thought until the notice of the lawsuit arrived. I don’t know what will come of that complaint, but it is a small matter compared with the issue that I now want to raise.

The casino clerk had cloaked his ethnic prejudice as a question of culture: Immigrants (whom we Germans are “saving”) should be learning European civilization. This made me reflect on where else “cultural difference” has been a euphemism under which bias, slavery and genocide have all had their ways. Hitler’s Germany? Apartheid? Bosnia? The American South? Too often! But indeed these are cultural matters. Is Nazi thinking merely a tumor that can be cut from the body politic and discarded? I doubt it. For good or ill, cultures last for years.

In today’s world, authoritarian politics and predatory commerce cooperate to exploit “cultural differences.” Nowhere is this point clearer than in the symbiosis in recent decades between Western corporations and the Communist elite in China. The West offers capital and much-needed technology, while China’s rulers supply a vast, captive, hard-working, low-paid and unprotected labor force. Western politicians, as if trying to justify the unholy collusion, for years argued that rising living standards in China would produce a middle class who would demand freedom and democracy. It is clear by now that that has not happened. The Chinese elite, now far wealthier than before and as in control as ever, can laugh up its sleeve at the Westerners and their visions of inevitable democracy. Instead the West’s own hard-won democracy has become vulnerable.

But does the West know it? Look at Hong Kong. Courageous protesters have persisted for more than six months in confronting the world’s mightiest dictatorship, a regime with a record of ironclad rejection of both reason and compromise when it deals with protesters or rivals. Hong Kong’s young democrats have looked for support from the world’s democracies. They stand at today’s edge of what may well be the greatest confrontation of the 21st century. Can the Western world see that helping them is not charity but self-defense?

When protesters in Hong Kong look to the vast northwest area in China called Xinjiang, they can see what happens when Beijing-engineered change reaches full throttle. In recent years (at first barely noted in the West), an annihilation of the language, religion and culture of Muslim Uighurs has proceeded systematically. About a million people have been sent to “re-education camps,” where they have been forced to denounce their religion and to swear fealty to the Communist Party of China.

When The New York Times published 400 pages of internal government documents on the rationale and techniques of this culturecide, an irate Beijing flatly denied the existence of the camps. But it did not (it could not) claim that the documents were inauthentic. It announced that the “trainees” in its re-education centers had all “graduated.” But the following facts were not announced: the number of graduates, where they are now living and whether they have been reunited with family.

I feel a personal bond with that distant, rustic Xinjiang, because I lived there from the early 1960s until 1977 with my father, the poet Ai Qing, who was banished there for nearly 20 years. He had expressed himself too freely through his poetry.

Westerners may think of Xinjiang as a distant and mysterious place, but in some ways it is not very exotic. Multinational corporations including Volkswagen, Siemens, Unilever and Nestlé have factories there. Supply chains for Muji and Uniqlo depend on Xinjiang, and companies such as H & M, Esprit and Adidas use Xinjiang cotton. We might ask: What is it about this remote place, to which the emperors of old banished criminals in lieu of sending them to prison, that makes it so attractive?

Might a “culturally different” nonwhite labor force play a role? People in no need of control because a harsh Communist government is already doing that work? In Xinjiang, as elsewhere in China, bosses from East and West have exchanged benefits, formed common interests and have even come to share some values. The chief executive of Volkswagen, which leads China in car sales, was recently asked for the company’s comment on the concentration camps in Xinjiang. He answered that VW knew nothing of such things, but the recent Xinjiang papers show otherwise. VW not only knew of the camps but signaled its readiness to go along. International diplomacy has facilitated the partnering of foreign business and Chinese Communism, and the German government has done especially well in that role.

We need to remember that extraction of profit from slave labor is not new to Germany. The Nazis used corvée labor. The main difference today is that the extraction is happening in distant countries. The scale, if anything, is larger. VW builds its cars in China, including the Audi, SEAT, Skoda, Bentley and Lamborghini brands under its umbrella. It has shown that it sees the future of German industry to be in China. Piggybacking on “cultural difference” is still viable there.

China and Russia have shown how legacies of Communist authoritarianism can combine with predatory capitalism to build new political structures of daunting power. The world’s democracies have not figured out what to do about this even as they sense themselves falling behind or, worse, beginning to fit in. Traditional democratic values have begun to slip away. Economic and political trends reach beyond national borders, seem large and unstoppable, and are destroying values and ideals that human societies have evolved over centuries.

I am well aware that the word “Nazi” is taboo in Germany, but when I used it with the casino clerk, I meant it not as an expletive but as a general analytic term: A culture asserts its superiority, an ethnicity its purity, and the horde below is not only different but inferior, in need of being guided and, if necessary, ruled by force. Hence slavery is justified. Hence it is all right that hundreds of thousands of people are pulled from their homes. Rulers and slave masters get halos.

In the 1930s and 1940s this was called Nazism. Today in Germany, the taboo on the term is electric — stronger by far than Ah Q’s rejection of “scabies.” Could German supersensitivity be rooted in awareness, deep down, that the idea does remain alive?

The great challenge facing German and other Western governments is whether they can find a way to exit the carnival of profit making with their moral integrity intact. So far we have seen little on this score other than craven diffidence. The crux of the matter is not ignorance of the moral alternatives but a failure of will. Pursue greed? Do what is right? We shyly select the former. When Western governments come to realize that liberal democracy itself is at stake, this balance might tip the other way.

Translated from the Chinese by Perry Link.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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