February 22, 2003

A Curious Absence

There are a great many constants in China, especially concerning contact with foreigners – one of them being the 20 questions and the 20 answers to those questions. I have learned the questions as well as the answers by heart. Every so often a new question is added and all Chinese are notified through some unknown hotline that I am dedicated to uncovering.

After 9/11 the question was:

"You guys are going to attack Iraq, right?"

There are two ways of answering this question and depending on my mood, I can use either one. Answer one involves a glowering look that indicates the impoliteness of such a question and the fact that everyone within 10 meters will lose face by me having to answer it. Answer two involves me holding forth on the inequities of the miserable Bush Administration, the sinister motives of the oil companies, that, yes of course, China is the safest place on Earth and that no, never will the US attack China, and if they ever did, regardless of the millions of Chinese who would die, China will forever remain unconquered. Answer two is invariably greeted with free liquor, free food and jolly laughter.

Curiously, if I discuss the flip side of the coin, North Korea, I am greeted with the Chinese impersonation of my glowering look often quite blank and I find myself analyzing the situation with my bowl of rice and a nearby cup of tea. The subject is quickly changed and I shake my head in puzzlement. Wouldn't war on your doorstep worry you more than the machinations of the Empire, even if it did threaten to cut off supplies of a resource you have very little of?

But Chinese get a perverse pleasure out of the Empire's warmongering. Perhaps they smell downfall and see the rising dragon amidst the ashes. This may interest them more than goings-on next door.

Other possible reasons why Iraq is discussed more than N. Korea include:

  • China's fervent hope that the US Government's fear of American deaths and the lack of, say, oil will keep them from fighting in N. Korea.
  • China's fervent hope that the Iraq war will keep the US busy and the Second Korean War will be held up indefinitely, or just long enough for a solution to present itself. Miraculously.
  • China's deathly fear of an oil cut-off which would cripple industry in a matter of months and burst the "7-8 percent growth" balloon of the last 15 years.
  • China's firm belief that the US needs China's economic and political goodwill so much that attacking its neighbor is out of the question.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell's upcoming visit seems to substantiate the last reason.

France seems determined to uphold the law (those bastards!) and may even use their veto power to ensure the US doesn't freeze them out of Iraq's oil. China's unequivocal support may derail France's plans, but unequivocal is not in the Chinese vocabulary. The visit also implies that the US would rather have China do the talking and negotiating in Korea, as Asians might be able to understand each other better than Westerners and Asians can. Of course this would require China to actually do something, which is very unlikely.

All of this may point toward high-level inaction, but it still does not answer the question, why is Iraq on the 20 question list and not North Korea?

The media is not to blame. All the major Dailys have carried stories and have special web-based columns devoted to the N. Korean crisis and The People's Daily has had several articles outlining the Chinese government's stance.

The prevalent opinion seems to be that the US does not want to (or cannot) and therefore will not bomb the hell out of Korea, making the situation less exciting and also less destructive than the very imminent war in Iraq promises to be. The Chinese guy on the street, although respectful of American power and even supportive of wars against militant Islam and Saddam Hussein, might already be discerning bits of paper in the US tiger's hide.

Chinese remember the Korean War as a victory and are convinced that Westerners fear a war in East Asia a region whose people have and will die in mass numbers to prevent an outsider from ruling. The Japanese, Vietnamese and Koreans all fought like hell. To fight two wars, one against suicide bombing Arabs and the other against fearless Koreans, is impossible, no matter what Rumsfeld, Wolf-o-witz and those other cowardly warmongers might blather on about.

The Chinese seem to believe that the impossible will deter even the likes of Little Bush and diplomacy will be the tool on the peninsula. Even so, hours of discussion with rice bowls and tea cups has given me a decent speech to whip out in the event of an escalation of tension. I just wonder what the Chinese and their government will do if the US Army attempts the impossible.

–Sascha Matuszak
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Sascha Matuszak is a teacher living and working in China. His articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Minnesota Daily, and elsewhere. His exclusive Antiwar.com column (usually) appears Fridays.

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