Cultural Revolution? Yan’an Purge?
It’s an ugly campaign season, a mix of talent show, debate, old-fashioned politicking and dirty tricks. It’s part “American Idol,” part “Survivor.” Cheng Cheng urges his supporters to mock Xiaofei so unmercifully she can hardly make it through her first speech. Then, in an appalling act of hypocrisy, he denounces his own thugs, who are brought weeping to justice. The battle is quickly reduced to a contest between the boys, Luo Lei and Cheng Cheng, whose debate is an eerily scripted exchange of Orwellian platitudes. Luo Lei must resort to graft …
No, it’s a new documentary about a third-grade class election. Post writer Kennicott goes on to point out that
A cynical reading of this film, and the reading that director Weijun Chen clearly invites, would see dark days ahead for any kind of nascent democracy in China. It is not about empowerment or meritocracy but a contest between the old communist elites and the new capitalist managerial class. The children are drawn to power and privilege, not to reform or the exchange of ideas. Democracy emerges merely as a tool for choosing new autocratic leaders. The entire function of the class monitor, we learn at the end of the film, is to ensure conformity. The teachers and parents who manipulate this supposedly pedagogical lesson in democracy are simply underscoring the age-old attractions of realpolitik.
But hey, these are third-graders. Kids can be ugly, vicious little beasts, which is why adults are needed to teach and constrain them. There’s a good reason we don’t set the age of majority at 9 or 10. Would third-graders in this country behave any differently?
And would parents in this country, parents intent on getting their little ones into the best pre-kindergarten program as the first step on a relentless march to Harvard, behave much differently from the cynical schemers of “Please Vote for Me”?
Finally the reviewer reaches a shockingly supportable conclusion
But this film has the strength and weakness of so much narrative journalism: A good story, richly detailed, doesn’t necessarily yield objective or even representative data, just as a documentarian’s “experiment” in democracy shouldn’t be confused with a sociologist’s. The conclusions drawn should be modest and provisional.
I suppose I wouldn’t have been so pleasantly surprised by that if I hadn’t just seen this NPR report:
Philanthropy in China is still in its infancy.
Take the case of Nanjing-based philanthropist Shao Jianbo. He has used his profits from his business to help other Chinese start their own businesses, giving them both start-up money and training.
But many locals who did not share his work ethic started harassing Shao for handouts. His experience demonstrates why Chinese have traditionally been careful to conceal their wealth.
Are there philanthropists anywhere — anyone with wealth, philanthropic or not — who don’t have to deal with unworthy applicants, people trying to get support for harebrained schemes or to support their bad habits based on a familial or personal connection? My understanding of Chinese “tradition” is that wealthy members of the community were supposed to be philanthropists, that everyone knew who was wealthy and who wasn’t, and a certain amount of pointless local and family charity was the price of being wealthy.
How many “traditions” are there in China these days?