|"The Most Helpful Book about China" by Lee Beul-chan and Oh Ro-ra / Courtesy of Miraebook Publishing Co.|
By Park Han-sol
With its characteristic one-party system, socialist market economy and rigid state censorship, China has long remained a perplexing enigma to Korea, despite the country's geographical proximity and some shared cultural traits. However, China has become more relevant than ever amid the escalating U.S.-China conflict as it is Korea's largest trading partner.
From China's COVID-19 response to some of its internet users' angry reactions to South Korean singer Lee Hyo-ri's casual "Mao" comment, the recently published book "The Most Helpful Book about China" delves into the country and its particular mindset.
Its authors Lee Beul-chan and Oh Ro-ra, who are journalists covering Chinese affairs, allow the readers to casually approach the otherwise heavy topics of China's political structure, foreign affairs and digital revolution through a total of 62 attention-grabbing stories, with each seeking to answer the question "Why is China the way it is?"
Based on their respective 17 and 13 years' experience living in the country, Lee and Oh explore a multitude of historical and recent events that have shaped China as it stands today ― the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square massacre, "One-China principle," its conflict with the U.S. in the context of Huawei and TikTok, as well as the boom in autonomous technology and 5G.
|Singer Lee Hyo-ri's remark "How about 'Mao'?" met criticism from Chinese internet users in August. / Captured from MBC|
In order to understand the rationale behind the furious reaction of Chinese viewers over Lee Hyo-ri's innocent comment "How about 'Mao'?" the book stresses it is important to note how the founder and first chairman of communist China, Mao Zedong (1893-1976) is highly regarded in the country to this day.
"It is because the party leadership has for a long time presented to the people the image of Mao Zedong as a holy and sacred figure. Under the one-party system, in order for the Communist Party to gain legitimacy, it becomes necessary to deify Mao, the founder of the party," the book explains. "As a result, China still remains a Maoist country."
Lee and Oh added that since President Xi Jinping took office, the founder's popularity rose even further as Xi actively adopted Mao's political legacy in his own rule.
Another event that served as a critical stage to reflect on the Chinese mindset amid censorship is the country's initial response to the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, ground zero of the COVID-19 pandemic. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who made the information about the deadly virus public in December 2019, was summoned soon after by the police and admonished for spreading "false information about the outbreak."
When Li contracted the disease and died in February, the book explains that the party faced public backlash, with many pointing out the damage caused by COVID-19 could have been diminished if the doctor's first public disclosure of the virus had gone unpunished. This ultimately led the leadership making quick and calculated pivot to paint Li as a righteous hero, with state media outlets shifting to praising his achievement and presenting his life story in detail.
Lee and Oh go on to describe two other notable cases of political attempts to use censorship to put a stop to possible social disorder: The banning of "Wuhan Diary" written by Fang Fang who chronicled the two-months-long city lockdown filled with tragic death and agony, as well as the use of house arrests and interview restrictions to gag of the first whistleblower of the SARS crisis back in 2003.
"We hope the readers come to understand the background of how this kind of society was formed and ponder the strengths and weaknesses of such a system," the authors urge in the book's preface.
"We should not stop our efforts to understand China. It is important to examine at least why the country repeatedly claims to 'have its own way and reasoning' instead of simply dismissing or avoiding it altogether," Lee and Oh said.