Shanghai: The facts may be murky, but the situation itself is riddled with hints that favour certain interpretations.
Seminarians in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, who were associated with the city’s notorious Red Mosque, site of a recent gun battles and a military siege, were scouring the town in search of redoubts of “loose morals”.
After weeks of free rein in the city attacking fellow Pakistanis, the squads of self-appointed enforcers of strict Shariah, consisting of armed male and female students, raised the stakes, and selected a foreign target.
On 23 June, the seminarians entered a Chinese-run health care centre, which is often a euphemism for sex parlour, and kidnapped seven Chinese people, including five females whom they believed to be prostitutes.
Within Pakistan, and indeed much more widely among people who have followed these events closely, this incident, along with the killing two weeks later of three Chinese people in the western Pakistani city of Peshawar, is believed by many South Asian diplomats to have precipitated the decision by President Pervez Musharraf to lay siege to the mosque, mounting a rare, direct confrontation with the forces of radical Islam in his country.
Alarmed by the attacks on their citizens, and on the sensitive question of public perception of these events, Chinese leaders are widely reported by these diplomats to have put strong pressure on Musharraf to take action. And China being an increasingly important ally, militarily and economically, for Pakistan, that is exactly what Musharraf did.
This understanding of events may be common elsewhere, but it has gone all but unheard of here in China. There has been scarcely any mention of a possible role of the anti-Chinese attacks in the Pakistani government’s decision to take on the radicals at the Red Mosque, and none at all in the Chinese media.
Moreover, almost no one in the press has printed, even speculatively, what many Chinese themselves presume to be the truth of this matter, that the women kidnapped and later released in Islamabad were sex workers.
After all, there are important myths to protect: One of them is the essential goodness of the Chinese people, and the other, that China does not interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.
Chinese citizens and Chinese interests are fanning out around the globe at a rate that is unequalled in this country’s long history. Wherever they land the Chinese are very often reproducing a Chinese way of life, as Americans did in the postwar era over half a century ago.
As with overseas Americans - the “Ugly American” became a cliché in Asia - among the Chinese, naturally enough, there is good and bad. Along with fresh injections of capital and ingenuity and China’s famous entrepreneurial bustle, the Chinese also often bring an insular clannishness, a driven style of management, an unblushing attitude toward corruption, and as the case in Pakistan suggests, an acceptance of things like brothels, which are common in China but in many other societies are seen as undesirable or are illegal.
Beyond the very real issue of the problems such things might cause abroad, there is an issue of growing importance in China itself, one of information and candour, and an ability to accept criticism, or more to the point where the events of Pakistan are concerned, to promote and accept self-criticism.
In online discussions of the massage parlour kidnappings, Chinese who mentioned the possibility that the abductees were prostitutes were quickly denounced. Others who had been fed sanitized accounts of the incident demanded military action.
”If you ask me, I’d say we stop protesting, and just go there and eliminate the problem,” wrote one man on a popular forum after the Peshawar killings. “How about it? We have over one billion people. We needn’t fear. If our country loves its people, it should stand up for them. If the Americans have a lot of excuses, we can find excuse too!”
Another person lamented that “the last page of an American passport says, the US stands behind you!, The last page of a Chinese passport says, ’When Chinese citizens encounter difficulties, please look for necessary assistance from the country or area you are in. ” Unfortunately, neither passport description was correct.
Why does any of this matter? Because as the Chinese presence in countries around the world grows and as the country’s overseas interests deepen, nationalistic reasoning like this, fed by skewed and censored news accounts - filled with conspiring foreigners and innocent Chinese - is likely to grow.
The Chinese government will, of course, have only itself to blame if a crisis like Peshawar passes the threshold of damage control and spirals altogether out of control.
Subtly belying the official line of noninterference, the newspaper The China Global Times spoke of the recent events in Pakistan, saying that top Chinese leaders had followed them closely, and had been giving direct instructions to the country’s diplomats in Islamabad. Presumably, this included marching orders to them to ratchet up pressure on Pakistan to protect Chinese nationals.
During the negotiations for the release of the “health centre” workers, the Red Mosque seminarians insisted at one point that the masseuses appear on television and make an apology. According to the newspaper, Chinese diplomats strongly rejected this, arguing that it would cause a “loss of face” for the country.
After the hostages’ release, Chinese diplomats insisted that the health centre was properly licensed but also issued a statement saying that care should be taken to respect local traditions and culture.
Why all the coyness?
Although they risked being heckled for saying so, Chinese voices on the web suggested that public opinion here is ready for something more sophisticated.
”Conservative local students had appealed to the government for years in vain,” about sex parlours, wrote one commentator. ”That’s why they went in to catch them. But domestic news is all sanitized, telling only half of the story.”
Another man wrote, ”Hell! Prostitution in an Islamic country. Isn’t that looking for trouble?”