mapping ignorance

Was conversing friends about political succession since Mao and how to interpret reports coming out of Beijing and Guangzhou with respect to Shenzhen’s political status and symbolic valence within the national imaginary. Their 15 year old daughter was at the table, politely ignoring us, when someone mentioned Hua Guofeng (华国锋). She lifted her eyes and asked, “Who?”

Her father explained Mao’s appointed heir had been at the center of a political struggle with Deng Xiaoping to decide if China would continue Maoist policies or pursue reform. This struggle ended with a coup d’etat and the Sino-Vietnamese War as Deng Xiaoping gained political control by securing support of military leaders and high-ranking Party commissars. We then mused about the relationship between violence and political succession, even if indirectly, because Jiang Zemin (江泽民) only became Deng’s appointed successor in the aftermath of Tian’anmen and Zhao Ziyang‘s (赵紫阳) fall.


All this to say, that dinner I experienced a We Didn’t Start the Fire moment with post Cold War Chinese characteristics — recent history actually is this easily forgotten. Or more to the point, I realized (again!) the extent that what we know of recent history comes only as events disrupt our daily lives. 

For me, the Bo Xilai-Wang Lijun fiasco has been such an event, reminding me that the Chongqing Experience (重庆经验 — singing red to implement neo-liberal reforms) is actually important both in Central China and Beijing’s higher circles. Certainly, before Wang Lijun bolted (with or without the help of Chongqing’s police force, as some now speculate) I would not have noticed that Bo Xilai made a public appearance to support educational reforms by commemorating Lei Feng Spirit on the same day that Tie Liu claimed that the Central government had relaxed restrictions on internet access in order to garner public support for prosecuting Wang Lijun, which in turn, has been interpreted as a signal that the next administration would bring Bo Xilai to justice.

In trying to make sense of my ignorance, I’ve realized that I don’t think the point is to become a more systematic news-junkie or to obsess over Zhongnanhai gossip with the same enthusiasm as a Beijing cabbie. Rather, I’m more confident that we need to pay careful attention to where we are, observing the shape of our ignorance, whenever we are fortunate enough to encounter it. That knowledge — of how tight and narrow our personal viewpoint might actually be — helps us to listen differently, not only as we notice what our interlocutors don’t know, but also and more importantly, when we realize that the shape of their ignorance reveals the contours of another world. After all, my friend’s daughter’s sense of history offers all sorts of interesting insights into and knowledge about what’s happening in contemporary Shenzhen, understanding that in thirty years may be more relevant than what Wang Lijun does or does not know and the color of Bo Xilai’s politics.

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