In one hand, he held a machine gun which blazed at an American Blackhawk helicopter overhead. With the other, he reached for a grenade at his waist. His eyes were piercing, and there was a cigar clutched coolly in his lips. Despite the fact that his head was about two sizes too big for his body, Saddam Hussein had never looked as good as he did painted on the front of that bar in the southern Chinese town of Yangshuo.
I gaped in disbelief and shot photo after photo. As opposed as I was to the invasion of Iraq, I couldn't begin to comprehend the near deification of the man that I was seeing here. It was a moment in late 2003 when anger over the invasion was still fresh. I sensed there was also anger and fear among the Chinese populace at how easily the man seemed to have been deposed and the U.S. victorious...as I said, that was 2003...
But anger or none, how could you admire the man? At that time, I'd only been in China about four months. Now I understand much better the way of thinking here, and it doesn't seem...well...so...foreign to me: not that I approve, just that I really feel I understand why many Chinese admired Hussein.
To digress and hopefully return and reconnect to the main point, let me say this: As a foreigner living in China, you get treated really well. Despite the extent to which foreigners complain – myself included – in reality, there is a certain status that comes with being a foreigner here that still mystifies me. People are curious and want to know about you. For the most part, they are courteous and kind. They tend to be interested in your perceptions of their country. I never feel quite at home here, but there’s a lot about China that makes expatriate life fairly comfortable.
One place, however, that I've noticed that the historic...enmity? No, that's too strong a word...but something close to enmity... Anyway, one place where the differences between East and West, between China and the U.S. come uncomfortably to light is in discussions of foreign policy. In these discussions, it's always clear to me the downright hostility many people have to the U.S. It's weird, because I'm also hostile to the current U.S. foreign policy, and yet I always find myself on the defensive, and trying to explain it. Perhaps it's because I feel most people here fail to understand the ideas that motivate the U.S. And the ideas are important; they’re the core of what the United States is, even the bad ones...
I teach a class for professional Chinese journalists and business people. It meets at the offices of Xin Zhou Kan, New Weekly Magazine. The office is on the 39th floor, a great loft-style open space with couches. Every week, we sit against the backdrop of a giant window, where we look out on the construction cranes, Beijing's unofficial city emblem, and discuss the issues of the day.
The week after the execution of Hussein, Sandy, our bright young news editor, gave a presentation on his death, and the larger issue of Iraq. It was a tough presentation to give, involving a lot of vocabulary that wasn't even English: “Sunni” and “Shiite” and so on. Sandy was extremely knowledgeable about the issue; part of her job at the paper was to scan the foreign wires and translate news into Chinese.
In general among the class there was great sympathy for Hussein. The manner and recording of his execution was abhorrent, they said, which I agreed with. When I mentioned that there was evidence that the American government had petitioned the Iraqi to not execute Hussein, no one believed me.
“I think the trial was a farce from the United States,” Sandy said, and once the word “farce" was explained, the rest of the students nodded in agreement. “And they could stop the execution if they wanted to.”
One of the more interesting moments in the presentation came when Sandy arrived at the fact that Hussein was on trial for reprisals against separatist Kurds and Shiites.
“But if Tibet or Taiwan tried to declare independence, what would China do?” she asked. The implication, later said openly in the discussion, was that Hussein was only doing what a leader trying to maintain his country's integrity had to do. To many Chinese, Hussein's iron-fisted rule prevented chaos, fractiousness, sectarianism and civil war, and therefore was a good thing. China, from the Opium Wars until the moment Mao stood up on the ramparts of the Forbidden City and declared the People's Republic, had been exactly in that situation of utter chaos and infighting. Anything that unified was preferable.
We went from there to a discussion of Taiwan, back to Iraq, and the horrifically growing number of dead Iraqis. Sandy ended her presentation with her view that Hussein had done good things for Iraq - building up infrastructure, creating education and health care systems. At a certain point, we all just looked down at our tea cups and fiddled with the handles. There wasn't a lot left to say.
“I understand what you're saying Sandy,” I said. “I agree with some of it, and disagree with some of it. But one important thing to realize is: A Western person, I think, could never look at it like that. To Americans, to Westerners, a leader can't be someone who builds roads and schools, and gasses and executes whole villages and towns of people. The Western mind just can't accept that.”
The students looked at me and nodded, but it was a look I knew well; it meant I understand your words, but not what you mean. And there we were, back at the place where East and West would never meet.