Can’t we be more helpful and appropriate?

This story; from China is predictably horrible:

Chinese authorities have sentenced two women in their 70s to a year’s “re-education through labour” following their application to hold a protest demonstration during the Beijing games, a relative said yesterday.

Officials said this week they had not approved a single permit for a demonstration, despite designating three parks as protest zones.

The International Olympic Committee’s communications director said she would look at the women’s case, but stressed the games were “not a panacea for all ills”.

Wu Dianyuan, 79, and her neighbour Wang Xiuying, 77, sought to protest about their forced eviction from their homes in 2001. They went to the Beijing Public Security Bureau (PSB) four times this month to request permission to demonstrate in the zones – created for the Olympics to counter criticism about restrictions on political expression in China…

But that isn’t my point. My point is that it’s all oddly familiar. For a start, they have been placed under an “order” which restricts their movements, subjects them to the scrutiny of a neighbourhood committee, and isn’t subject to a court hearing or to an appellant jurisdiction of any kind. Why not? Because, of course, it’s not actually punishment. Only breaking; the order would be a crime, and would result in your being sent to a labour camp.

Yes; they’ve reinvented the ASBO. Meanwhile, 77 applications to demonstrate have been made and absolutely none granted. 74, apparently, were “resolved through consultations”, another two turned down because the form wasn’t properly filled in, and another rejected on the grounds it involved a child. (Won’t somebody think of the children?) And I was fascinated by this quote from Sir Mucho Pomposo Wang Wei of the Organising Committee:

Wang Wei, vice-president of the Beijing organising committee, told reporters they should be “satisfied” with the protest zones. “The idea of demonstration is that you are hoping to resolve issues, not to demonstrate for the sake of demonstrating. We are pleased that issues have been resolved through dialogue and communication – this is how we do it in Chinese culture,” he told a press conference.

He added: “We want everyone to express their opinion. Everyone has the right to speak; this is not the same as demonstrating.

It’s so familiar; the insistence that anyone who disagrees is doing so out of spite, that only acquiescence is “serious” or “helpful”. I’m surprised he didn’t offer them a Big Conversation, but in fact, with the right mistranslation he might have done. Similarly, the re-education through labour order for disturbing the public is just a translator’s caprice away from an anti-social behaviour order.

Perhaps there’s a wider truth here; this sort of events/urban regeneration politics seems to follow the same grammar all over the world. It’s conceived of as a project; which implies there are only participants, or else obstructions. Despite the money and the bulldozers, it respects class boundaries; veering around the villas of the rich. It needs special security arrangements which always turn out to involve some sort of summary justice based on vague and unchallengeable notions of appropriateness, propriety, or order; similarly, these are always temporary but are never revoked. The state authorities and private interests involved are indistinguishable. (Interestingly, the legislative foundation tends to be very hard to get rid of; the Act on the Great Exhibition of 1851 is still in force and still a major headache for anyone planning to build on or near the original site.)

More deeply, it seems to include a sort of quasi-medical view of society, or more specifically of the city. It, and we, need to be made better. Not only the method of this treatment, but the definition of better, is reversed for the doctors; but we are responsible if it doesn’t work, because we didn’t comply sufficiently. The nudgers’ cognitive biases are not examined; it’s our fault if we don’t press the right coloured shape in response. Equally, no-one suggests subjecting the Home Office to compulsory psychotherapy in order to get rid of its hysterical anxiety, but it seems to want to make everyone happy.




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