The fact that political ideologies are tangible realities is not a proof of their vitally necessary character. The bubonic plague was an extraordinarily powerful social reality, but no one would have regarded it as vitally necessary.
– Wilhelm Reich
Here is a girl, standing at the end of an alleyway in Chengdu, in the Sichuan province in southwestern China, in the early days of the Gregorian year 2010. The longer I reflect on these photos the more love I feel for her.
What will she become, and what will life in the place and time she was born into allow her?
When we first made eye contact, she made a grim face, turned abruptly, and marched with purpose the other way. Then she stopped, executed a surprisingly martial turn, and stood surveying me for a pregnant moment. I waved, and she seemed not to respond at all; just stood there stone-faced, or so I thought at the time. After a moment of standing there like an absurd soldier, she vanished into the doorway of what I assume was her home.
In this moment, so many things went through my mind: My god the Chinese are rigid; even this little girl in pink and turquoise walks like an expressionless soldier! What a dirty alleyway; aren’t they loathe to hang their clothes outside in this grime after they just washed them? What is she thinking about me?
When I got the chance to look at these pictures in more detail, I saw that there was a glimmer of a smile on her face, mostly around her eyes. I have very poor vision, and my camera, with its optical zoom, sees far better than I do.
Yes, the Chinese are, for the most part, quite rigid. But you would be too if you lived in an authoritarian state (it’s not communism, it’s a dictatorial form of coordinatorism) where creativity and dissent are often punished, and you knew almost from the start that you were going to have to compete against billions of other people if you hope for any control over the terms of your life. Authoritarianism and a crushing of people’s ability to dream and define the terms of their own lives is mutilation and psychic murder. The Chinese people make the best of the lives their government allows them, and this little girl is a great example of why it’s important to oppose governments and corporations, not peoples. The Chinese people are not to be feared or damned for the vehicle they’ve been shoved into. Their spirit in trying to advance and overcome is to be respected and admired.
This little girl’s alleyway holds several things of interest and relevance. To touch on the simplest one first, the grime is a byproduct of industry and sheer population density, and industry is, in our globally metasticized consumer culture, how people raise their standards of living. And maybe the U.S. didn’t invent it, but we sure did refine it, give it some steroids, and begin exporting it to the world on a massive scale. There are great and obvious distinctions to be made between the U.S. And China of course, but perhaps the largest and most important, as cartoonist, author and occasional New York Times essayist Timothy Kreider observed recently, is that in China, the government owns its corporations, while American corporations own our government.