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China, North Korea and hope

By Brian Hennessy - posted Tuesday, 6 July 2010


Despite their government's public expressions of fraternity towards the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea), these days Chinese people refuse to be taken in by crude propaganda. They are not fools.

Although they understand the geopolitical reasons why the DPRK should not be allowed to become a failed state, many informed Chinese laugh awkwardly, and not without a little embarrassment, at this paranoid Stalinist state and its insistence on living in the past. They know that the DPRK's refusal to accommodate itself to the reality of a modern world is a reminder of their own recent history: the Cultural Revolution, its mass distortion of reality, and the doctrinaire cruelties perpetrated in the name of spurious revolution.

(A note for westerners: beware of hubris: for example, the religious crimes, pogroms, and wars perpetrated on our own citizens; World Wars I and II, and the ethnic cleansing which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. We have nothing to be superior about).

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Ask an ageing red guard today (if you can find one willing to talk) about his involvement in this embarrassing episode in China’s history and you will learn how uncomfortable China today is with its past. Emotions of shame, regret, and a sense of having been betrayed by the big lie are buried in shallow graves. Age, the daily struggle to make one's way in this life, and the cruel realisation that they were manipulated by the Great Helmsman himself, have left their mark. They remember. They look at the DPRK today and remember.

Despite the efforts of the Chinese government to mask it's recent history, the DPRK today reminds Chinese people of what it was like not so long ago. A time when making revolution was more important than feeding a peasant's stomach. A time when the leader of the country held God-like status. A time of conformity, fear, and only one haranguing explanation for “life the universe and everything”. A time when Chairman Mao, Jiang Qing (his wife) and the gang of four ran revolutionary riot all over the country without regards for the basic needs of the people. A time before Deng Xiao Ping's breakthrough policy of Reform and Opening Up.

I've seen the bewilderment on the faces of Chinese people who visit Dandong, a Chinese city on the Yalu River opposite the DPRK border. Their disdain for Kim Jong-il and his paranoid state is palpable. They can't understand why the Dear Leader refuses to follow the Chinese path of opening up and reform. Materialism, money, and a full belly beats doctrinaire purity any day.

I look at the famous Yalu River bridge. General Peng De Huai led his troops across here on their way to giving the Yanks and the UN troops a big fright and a bloody nose during the Korean War. It was communism versus capitalism then. Yesterday the bridge was a link between brother communist countries. Today it is a divide separating capitalist China from communist Korea. Now China has her boats patrolling the river, day and night. Protecting the Chinese motherland from starving DPRK refugees.

Middle class Chinese people make their way towards vessels moored beside the bridge on their side of the river. They want to see this strange Stalinist state across the water. Although they know that these vessels are restricted to a distance of 50 metres from the DPRK shoreline, they hope for a closer look at this discredited modern anachronism so close to home. They are proud of their own progress over the past 30 years and want to compare.

Social progress can sometimes be measured in unlikely ways. At the present time, Asian nations (including the DPRK) are competing in the Soccer World Cup and their matches are televised around the world. Win or lose, Asian sports-fans are proud of their efforts against the more experienced European and South American teams. For example, last week, the DPRK team lost a match against one of the best teams in the world, Brazil. In the process, the DPRK team earned regional respect for their brave performance against a superior rival. They were not discredited. One proud member of their team however, was filmed fighting back tears of pride and disappointment after the match. A natural release of emotion one would have thought. Nothing worth writing home about.

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Oh yes it is! The Chinese were onto this display of emotion and its implications immediately. They knew what might happen next. With one eye looking back to their own recent past, Chinese people responded with a black humour honed through years of powerlessness against their own state. Online doctored photos showing the grieving footballer in hard hat and miners garb said it all: "The coal-mines for you now, comrade". In this part of the world sport and politics do mix.

And sure enough, within 24 hours all reference to the football game against Brazil was pulled from the DPRK media.

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for ten years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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