Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Where the rhinos roam

Romanian émigré Eugène Ionesco wrote the wonderful allegorical French play Rhinocéros back in 1956. Over the course of three acts, the inhabitants of a small, provincial French town turn into rhinoceroses; ultimately the only human who does not succumb to this mass metamorphosis is the central character, the indifferent Bérenger. The play, very much part of the so called Theatre of the Absurd, essentially looks at how the French succumbed to extremism, especially fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.
Earlier this month that play reverberated around my head as I wandered through the heavily policed streets of Yining in the west of China’s Xinjiang province. As the crescendo of the Olympic opening ceremony hit an ecstasy of fireworks many of the locals were kowtowed. Squadrons of army and police sewed fear into the minds of the Uighurs. Worse still though were the people’s militia that roamed the streets. These state backed civilians, almost all Han Chinese, wear a red armband with yellow characters safety pinned on their sleeves stating that they are public security. Some stroll around with tazer batons, others drag baseball bats behind him. Many of these state backed vigilantes have taken to wearing all black too. We have been here before, some 70 years ago, haven’t we?
Beyond the alarming city of Yining though China and the Chinese as a whole are far more keen to exert their newly acquired power than before. As nationalism has replaced communism as the ties that bind (fasces: ties that bind bundles; Latin derivation for fascism) the Chinese together and to central government the winning of the rights to stage the Olympics in Beijing seven years ago set in motion the centerpiece around which the Chinese Communist Party could rally the nation.
The Beijing Olympics flag is everywhere alongside the five star China flag, just like the swastika became synonymous with the German flag. The swastika was an ancient Buddhist sign from thousands of years ago symbolizing represents Dharma, universal harmony, and the balance of opposites before Adolf Hitler defaced its meaning by attacking those he deemed opposites. It was Hitler who instigated the concept of the Olympic torch relay around the world, something the Chinese embraced to much fanfare and considerable controversy. Now the Olympic logo, tarnished with commercialism from the 1980s onwards, has been tainted with nationalism.

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