Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Better late than never (for a principled stand)

Apparently I'm the last person in the world to discover Common Dreams.

I stumbled onto it following this link on why one of my favourite bloggers, L-girl of We Move to Canada (linked at right), won't be watching the Olympics this year. There's been a lot of discussion about the benefits, drawbacks, and justification (or lack thereof) for a boycott of the Games: does the West have a right to throw stones? is it a good thing that the world will be taking a good look at China at this crucial moment? will a boycott only, in the end, hurt our own athletes and China's poor? Of course in each conversation you get the inevitable mix of quackery, non-sequiturs, and concern trolling.

The title story on Common Dreams today, "China Using Olympics as 'Pretext' for Crackdown: Amnesty," corroborates the worst of our suspicions about what's going on over there, and provides as good an occasion as any to share one of my many Stories From When I Was In India to explain why I will be joining whole-heartedly in the boycott - and why you all should, too.

When I Was In India, I met lots of other people who were away on Big Trips - many of which were much bigger than mine. One of the most interesting people was a Canadian woman in her mid-20's who I met in Dharamsala. She was on her second year-long trip through Asia. On her first trip, she'd come through China, among other countries, and when I met her, she was still debating whether or not she was going to return on this trip.

Her family was Chinese by background, and she spoke a little bit of Cantonese. We talked a lot about where we'd been - and she'd been everywhere - but she had a bit of trouble speaking clearly about her time in China. All her sentences seemed to U-turn mid-way, veering from rants about the poverty to rhapsody about the quiet generosity of the people she met, and then from romantic descriptions of the coast to terse protests against the uselessness of the newspapers. She sounded like she was scanning her own comments, maybe her own feelings, for the exact wording that would leave me with an accurate impression of her time there without falling into any of the many pits that we all tend to fall into when talking and thinking about China.

The last story she told me was this one.

She was on a train somewhere in the interior - I forget which province. It was packed. About an hour before she was supposed to be getting off, she looked in her bag and noticed that her iPod was gone. She reported the loss to a railroad employee in the car, who told her to sit still for a moment and disappeared into the front of the train. The conducter stopped the train in the middle of nowhere. A few minutes later, the conducter and the man she's approached for help climbed into her car and began searching people. They were doing a sweep of the entire train, looking for her missing iPod. In the car behind her, they found it. The rail employee returned it to her and told her the situation was being taken care of. Out her window, she saw the conductor pulling a young man away from the train. He was bleeding heavily from his face but was still struggling. Two other men in rail uniforms followed. One of them pulled out a gun and shot the man point-blank in the head. They left his body there, and the train kept moving.

When she told me this story, I was so shocked that I didn't ask her any questions. She said she almost ended her trip after that, even though she was only a few months in. But she felt like she couldn't leave.

I have no framework for thinking about what it must be like to live in a place where the state has that kind of power, or where one word from a foreigner can (unintentionally) get a man killed. I don't ever want to need a framework for that.

I know this story is undocumented, and that anyone reading it is automatically hearing it at least two times removed from its original source. It's anecdotal and unverifiable. But I remember so clearly what she looked like while telling this story - this petite Canadian girl who had no reason to lie to me.

I do think that some folks are onto something when they point out that the attention China is getting over the Games has the potential to help the Chinese people. A huge part of that will be education (at least of the West, most of which hasn't been following China too closely until the last few years) about what's going on.

On the 8th, my TV gets turned off. I hope yours will, too.

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