Deciphering the Chinese Smile

On the anniversary of 9/11, newspapers throughout China ran front page photos of the burning Towers – many with an inset depicting mourning Americans. Articles focused on America’s War on Terrorism, the anguish of the victims’ familis and the few Chinese nationals that died in the attack.

The newspapers tended to be very sympathetic toward the victims and their families and condemned terrorism and terrorist attacks in general, while mentioning China’s own "struggle" with the "determined and dangerous" East Turkestan Islamic Movement and their ilk in Xinjiang, far to the West. The People’s Daily ran a series of articles analysing the current political situation between the "Alliance against Terrorism,"the social and political changes in America since the attack and the economic depression that makes it so hard to find a job in the States these days. The series also spoke in length on the effects of US unilateralism – which arose out of America’s "anger and sense of moral purpose" – and which also threatens to tear apart the fragile alliance. Specifically, the relationship between Russia and the EU, the rematch of the Great Game in the former CIS and of course the increasingly unbridgable gap between the Middle East and the West (more specifically, the US.)

China’s role in the New War was downplayed – except for the political victory in Xinjiang, which is a major coup for the government – and stories concerning Chinese dealt mostly with shows of condolence and solidarity with the victims. On the street, the attitudes toward the US, 9/11 and the New War are complex and, to many foreigners in China, just short of infuriating.

The less educated seem to have no qualms mentioning "Xiao Bush, Iraq and 9/11" to the first foreigner they meet. To someone who has not heard of the various "smiles" (embarrassment and mirth, to name two) in China, a shirtless worker giggling as he screams out jiu yao yao! (9/11) or Bin Laden! can be very provocative and hard to comprehend. But when I take the time and effort to respond, the smiling bellows turn out to be as much a way of communicating with a foreigner as an actual attempt to goad an angry reaction. It isn’t very "chinese" to provoke someone into anger – so these comments I take in stride, as I take every "hello" and "laowai!" (foreigner!) that comes my way.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder what they would say if I wasn’t able to speak Chinese: an attitude of "deserved retribution" does exist and no matter how much I despise governments and their deadly policies, I can’t help but feel a nationalistic surge of rage when I someone asks me about 9/11 with a smile on their lips.

The past couple of days in class, the kids brought cut-out photos of the Twin Towers in flames and begged me to discuss the incident with them. They too yell out jiu yao yao and Bin Laden and wait eagerly for me to respond in some way. Unfortunately, these kids laugh hard at pretty much any response and they do seem to want to see my anger. But before I get frustrated, I think about the way I reacted to Reagan’s bombing of Libya back in the day: I drew a blob on a piece of paper which was supposed to be Libya and repeatedly destroyed it with pencil bombs. Laughing all the time. And again, for most of these kids, just having a foreign teacher is a riot and to be able to have something in common, even something like death in destruction, is great fun.

The somewhat educated follow "typical" lines of decorum and respect and mention the attack only if I have mentioned it first. And if we do begin to discuss it, nobody is smiling until I start making fun of Bush and his Band of Puppeteers, which I do quite often. These discussions often turn to the seemingly inevitable strike on Iraq and US unilateralism. I take this line of thinking as a sly man’s way of expressing the attitude of "deserved retribution."

It helps to remember that US-China relations up to the attack were at an all-time low after weapons deals to Taiwan, the visit of a high-ranking Taiwanese official, various Falun Gong demonstrations involving foreigners, US anger over China-Everybody arms deals and of course the Hainan Incident. The death of several thousand people is nothing to the Chinese – several of my friends have pointed out how much the Americans value American life – and sympathy for a rival only goes so far, especially since the Bush Administration has reversed the Clinton Era rhetoric toward China from partner to competitior.

The People’s Daily also reproted on Chinese visiting the US embassy in Beijing and laying wreaths, expressing condolences. This attitude is also very palpable on the street: a very genuine regret for the loss of life and the abhorrence of terrorist attacks. Last year, many friends called up and told me they didn’t like Bush but they hated Bin Laden and what he stands for. This year I haven’t heard it yet.

Which brings me to the vast majority of Chinese: those who are happy to be in China, away from the New War and out of the "with us or against us" spotlight. This may be the new middle-class in China which is busy enjoying life and waiting for their children outside of the expensive private school. The class of people who have a nice two bedroom apartment with a DVD player and perhaps even a car; they eat good and save money, go on vacations and their kids have a chance to go to Shanghai or Beijing to work, perhaps even abroad. The middle class in China is growing and they are taking on the same characteristics of middle class people all over the world: they take an interest in politics because they are educated enough to understand and analyse, but the less it affects their own lives and new found prosperity, the better. These people know the right things to say, but after they say them, they forget about it and head back home to the air conditioner and western toilet.

Throughout the western world, from New Zealand to Spain, people and officials turned out and expressed their sympathy for New York with songs, banners and speeches. The Not-So-Western World had no such parades. The reason probably lies in a (not-so) secret satisfaction that the West "got theirs" for once.

The scope of this sentiment is difficult to assess: widespread or isolated? serious or joking? malicious or mischievious? But to deny that a great number of people in this world felt no sadness whatsoever yesterday is to deny the great and deep underlying problems in our "New World Order" that caused the attack in the first place and will probably precipitate others in the future.